Know Thy Self

Extract from ‘The Self Illusion’ By Bruce Hood

Psychologist Dan McAdams proposes that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we create narrative or personal myths to explain where we have come from, what we do, and where we are going.

16 This is the narrative arc of our lives—the background, the struggle, the climax, and resolution that people readily attribute to the story of their lives. For example, some may see themselves as victims of circumstances beyond their control, reinterpreting events to fit with this perspective. Another could take the same set of circumstances and cast herself as the resilient heroine, triumphing over adversity to get where she is today. Presumably, these myths reflect the influences of culture and those close to us when it comes to providing a meaning to our lives. These accounts are myths because they are not grounded in reality but rather follow a well-worn narrative path of a protagonist character (our self) and what the world throws at them. In some individuals, the reality is complete fantasy, as in the case of Tania Head.

Our self-centered way of constructing the story means that we only pay attention to those events as we see them being related to us. This personal myth is constantly being revised and updated throughout our life by both conscious and unconscious processes, and it reemerges at times either through deliberate retelling to others to explain who we are, or at times of insight, when something from our past seems to become surprisingly poignant or relevant. Even cultures continually recycle the same old stories in the form of myths.

17 For example, Star Wars may have been set in the future but it is just as much a Greek myth as Homer and The Iliad. We like stories that are about journeys and conflicts, with goodies and baddies. The same is true for our own personal stories.

The problem with self-narratives is that we are the ones writing the story, which means our myths are open to all manner of distortions of what we think we should be like. This has been called the “totalitarian ego,” in which we repress, distort, and ignore negative aspects of our lives that do not fit with our idealized self-narrative.

18 For example, we tend to remember information that fits with our idealized self and conveniently ignore that which does not. If we believe that we have a particular trait of personality, then we selectively interpret events that are consistent with that belief. In fact, we can easily interpret general statements to make them seem particularly relevant to us. For example, how accurate is this description of your personality?

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

Spookily accurate isn’t it? In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer gave a personality test to his students and then provided them with an individual analysis based on their performance.

19 In fact, every student got the description above as their “unique” analysis. Just about everyone thought the analysis was an accurate description but Forer had, in fact, assembled the analysis from various different horoscopes to prove that the descriptions were sufficiently general as to apply to most people. This effect, known as the “Barnum effect” after the showman who famously quipped, “We’ve got something for everyone,” shows that our self-stories are probably more similar than we imagine. Also the Barnum effect is particularly strong when the analysis contains many positive traits that support the inherent bias most of us hold.

20 Most of us think that we are funnier, smarter, better looking, and kinder than the average person, which, of course, is statistically impossible. Some of us have to be less funny, less clever, less beautiful, and crueller to balance up the sums.

The Barnum effect reveals that we all entertain illusions of a unique self, which turns out to be remarkably consistent and familiar between different people. Our uniqueness is closer to the average than we think. Also, if you look at the sort of generic statements in Forer’s description, most are all to do with how we think others perceive us, social anxieties, and concerns that we are more complicated than others realize. Again, this is more damning evidence that most of us are preoccupied with what others think and less independent than we imagine!

Hood, Bruce (2012-04-25). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (pp. 234-237). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.