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Why Your ‘True Self’ Is An Illusion

Most people believe they have a "true self" deep down that is fundamentally morally good. They don't, but the belief affects the way everyone behaves and sees the world.
March 19, 2021, 1:00pm

In the first season of The X-Files, Dana Scully accompanies her former FBI Academy teacher, Jack Willis, to an attempted bank robbery. One of the robbers shoots Willis and Scully shoots the robber, who dies. After a near-death experience in the hospital, Willis wakes up, but he has changed. He's dark, evil. His body has been possessed by the bank robber, who will try to reunite with his lover and seek revenge on whoever tipped off the FBI.

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As a graduate student, Nina Strohminger binge-watched The X-Files ("as one does", she said), and throughout all the episodes of aliens and monsters, this supernatural trope caught her attention: the "soul switch." (It happens again later in the series when Fox Mulder swaps bodies with an Area 51 operative.)

Strohminger, now an assistant professor at the Wharton School, found the premise fascinating because if a bank robber could leave his body and end up in Willis', it implied that he wasn't fused to his body in the first place. There was some separate essence of him that was picked up and transported. Further, she noticed that in soul switches, people “would only bring over some of their traits," she said. "It seemed selective. I wondered if there was any pattern there.”

Her curiosity ultimately led her to an experiment. She and her colleague, Shaun Nichols, asked people a question: If you went into another body, which of your traits would most likely come with you? Above other personality quirks, memories, and preferences, people consistently said that they would retain traits related to their morality.

This work is just one of many demonstrations over the years of a psychological notion called the “true self.” The true self is different from the self, which is made up of a blurry combination of your physical appearance, your intelligence, your memories, and your habits, all which change through time. The true self is what people believe is their essence. It's the core of what makes you you; if it was taken away, you would no longer be you anymore. 

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What parts of yourself do you consider to be your “true self”? When you act in certain ways, which actions are in alignment with your true self, and which contradict your true self? Remarkably, not only do most people believe in a true self, they answer these questions in the same way. They consistently say that their true self is the parts of them that are fundamentally morally good

But though this finding has been repeated many times, the true self is an example of a “folk intuition." It almost certainly doesn't exist. What we know from neuroscience and psychology doesn't provide evidence for a separate and persisting morally good true self buried deep within. Yet that makes the true self, and the fact that so many of us have this belief or bias, all the more intriguing, Strohminger said. 

Even though this feeling of a morally good true self is most likely a commonly shared bias, it still plays an important role, from how we understand others' behaviors to how we assess our own lives. A recent paper, out this month, asked whether this belief in our righteous true selves meant that we were motivated to act ethically day-to-day —or if we instead used this gut feeling as a way to pardon bad behavior. 

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Whether the true self exists or not is a moot point, since it seems it might influence how we act. “If you’re doing this type of research it’s constantly hanging over everything you do," said Rebecca Schlegel, a social personality psychologist at Texas A&M University, who calls herself a “true-self agnostic, leaning towards deep skeptic."

“It's what everybody really wants to know. Is it true—do we really have true self?" She said. "It’s a philosophical question that there might not be a satisfying answer to. But functionally, in some ways it doesn't matter because it's having such an impact on the way that we think about our lives.”

We're bombarded with the adage to “be yourself.” Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times that “we are in the Age of Authenticity, where ‘be yourself’ is the defining advice in life, love and career.” A study from 2011 found that in college commencement speeches, one of the most common messages was “Be True to Yourself.” 

John Locke, the English philosopher, thought that the most important component to our identities were our memories. Who we are is what we remember. But true self research suggests this is not how people think about their true selves. 

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Over and over, moral traits have been shown to be the deep-down core of what makes a person specifically them. This is true whether you ask people to assess situations where someone had a brain trauma, took psychoactive drugs, swapped bodies, or was reincarnated. If their moral traits were retained, they’re still “themselves”—if not, they're changed in a more fundamental way. 


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Participants who read about a patient who had severe memory loss from Alzheimer's reported that the man was more himself compared to another who lost his “moral faculty,” from frontotemporal dementia. In 2008, researchers found that people were more unwilling to take pharmaceutical drugs that could change their moral traits, like kindness or empathy, but weren’t as worried about drugs that would alter their alertness levels or memory.

When people make positive changes in their life, they are more likely to be viewed as revealing what was always deep inside of them. When they make negative changes, they are moving away from their true selves. When subjects were asked what parts of the self were to blame for a person becoming “bad,” like being a “deadbeat dad,” as one study asked, participants said that those changes were attributable to the surface self. But if someone becomes a better person, a loving father, that was an expression of the true self. 

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This conception of a morally good true self is stable in ways that other psychological constructs are not, Schlegel said. Studies with people from Colombia, Singapore, and Russia had similar findings, even though those cultures can have very different ideas about the self and nature of the individual. “Hindu Indians and Buddhist Tibetans see moral aspects of a person as especially central to their identity, even though the latter group deny that there is such a thing as the self,” Christian Jarrett wrote in The British Psychological Society Research Digest

And while we usually think about ourselves differently than others (called the self-other bias), we think that other people’s true selves are morally good too. Even people who identify as misanthropes, who say that they think people are bad, show the same true self bias in experiments, attributing positive traits to the true self, and negative traits to something else. 

“That's one of the things I find so fascinating, is it can even go against what we think are our explicit beliefs about how people work and what true selves are,” Schlegel said. 

Why do we see ourselves as morally good, deep down? It might be that we have ample motivation to do so—it’s beneficial for well-being and helps us to cooperate with and trust others. But another explanation is that it's just how we think about everything.

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When you boil down the essence of anything, we have a tendency to reflect on its positive traits; this is called psychological essentialism. When we’re asked to describe the essence of something, whether it’s a person, a band, a country, or even a piece of furniture, we tend to say that the essence of all of these entities are good. When describing the essence of a table, we say it has four legs, and a surface to eat on—the traits of a good table. We don’t describe a broken table. Our notion of the true self may be in line with this essentialist thinking.

Yet our modern world can seem to offer a contradiction to the belief in the morally good true self. If we believe that about ourselves, and others, why is there so much political strife, hate crimes, and nasty bickering online? 

Josh Knobe, an experimental philosopher at Yale University, has one potential explanation. Though we all believe in a morally good true self, our definition of what's moral varies—and we define the “morally good” part of our true selves based on our own values. 

In one experiment, Knobe and his colleagues asked people to respond to the story of a man named "Mark" who was Christian and attracted to men. Conservatives responded that Mark’s true self was someone who wanted to uphold his religious beliefs, and acting on his attraction would be a deviation from the true self. Liberals responded that his sexuality was his true self, and that denying that for the sake of his religious beliefs would be an affront to his true self. Values dictated what the moral building blocks of the true self were—and this can lead to clashes in the real world of people who are holding different true selves to be true. 

Even when we strongly disagree with someone, it doesn't necessarily conflict with a belief in the true self, since the true self is not married to a person's actions. “When you have close friends or family with very different world views, there's a knee-jerk reaction to feel like, ‘Well, that's that's not really them,'" Schlegel said. "'They got sucked into this thing on Facebook, or they’ve been duped. But I know that below that is who they really are—which is how I see the world.'" 

Meanwhile, the other person is having the same thoughts: that you’ve been indoctrinated, and deep down, you hold the same values that they do. Understanding these thought patterns can help us to see clearly what assumptions we're making about others, and ourselves. 

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There are situations when the true self may break down, and psychologists are still learning what those are. It could be that people with high levels of depression could view the true self differently, though Schlegel said there’s not a lot of research yet to answer that question. 

Thinking that others have a moral good true self doesn’t seem to line up with our criminal justice system, which is predicated on punishment and retribution, said Matthew Vess, an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M University. “It seems like that would compete with this notion that everyone is good at the core,” he said. In forthcoming work that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, Vess and his colleagues, including Schlegel, found that when subjects were asked to think about criminal offenders, people were more willing to say that a person’s true self is morally bad. 

“The more people think that a person’s true self is morally bad, the more they support retributive punishment,” Vess said. “I think the idea that the true self is just inherently, morally good is a bias that we have. But there is probably a great deal of flexibility in how we use those beliefs. And we might apply them in some situations and not others.”

If we believe that deep down, we're morally good, does it push us to act accordingly? In a paper published in this month, Matt Stichter, a moral philosopher at Washington State University, brought up some potential ethical downsides of people walking around with the belief that they have a morally good true self.

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“Initially my reaction was, ‘Oh wow, this is great. People inherently care about morality as core to their identity,’” Stitcher said.”But the more I started to think about it, the more it started to worry me.” 

This is because the goodness of the true self seems to be assumed, rather than earned, he said. Having a morally good true self isn’t dependent on how you act. If you behave immorally, you’re deviating from your good true self, which remains unchanged despite those actions. 

And if having a morally good true self is core to our identity, then acting immorally isn’t just doing the wrong thing—it threatens our sense of identity. “That’s going to produce a lot of distress,” Stichter said. “So how are we going to manage that?" 

Some people might respond to the distress by denying that they're acting immorally and getting defensive. Others might rush out to do a good deed to reestablish their goodness.

These two responses are called moral credentialing and moral cleansing. Stichter said that these actions aren’t the same as engaging in actual moral development—they’re quick fixes that make a person feel better, possibly because they bring a person back into alignment with their ideas about their true selves, rather than establishing a continual practice of trying to live ethically. 

“Part of my worry is that people go on autopilot just assuming their moral goodness, and thinking they’ve just got it, they don’t need to do anything about it,” Stichter said. “And it’s only when a moral failure rears its head that suddenly you get a red flag and then you’re motivated just to do something in the short term to try to reestablish your certainty that you're good.”

A solution to this potential moral quandary isn’t to try and convince people that they don’t have a morally good true self. It seems to be such a widespread cognitive tendency that it would be difficult to dissuade people from; also, telling people they’re not actually morally good won’t entice a very captive audience. Instead, Stichter said, we can start with the idea that people “have some essential drive to be morally good, while emphasizing that work needs to be done to realize that with some reliability in practice.” Stichter thinks that acknowledging our belief in a good true self can be a way to appreciate our capacity for goodness. Then, we can focus on “"exercising it on a regular basis,” he said.

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This is why it's important to study the nuances of how people use their notions of the true self, Vess said, now that it's established many people feel they have one. Do we reflect on the morally good true self and think, “It doesn’t matter what I do, I’m good at the core?" Or does our true self become a standard motivating good behavior?

A belief in the morally good self can give a person hope to keep trying. It is a powerful idea that even if your actions or your life circumstances aren't ideal, that deep down, at your core, is something intrinsically good that you might be able to express one day. 

Alternatively, though, it could be fuel for a kind of existential crisis if your life doesn’t match up to your “true self.” Everyone can relate to those moments of doubt if you’re on the right path or living a life that matches who you “really” are. 

Take this example from one of Strohminger's reviews: “Suppose that a person has a desire to make a lot of money and also a desire to create a beautiful work of art. This person may see both desires as aspects of her self, but to the extent that she sees only the latter as falling within her true self, the satisfaction of this latter desire will contribute to her sense of meaning in life in a way that the satisfaction of the former will not.”

More pressure to "be yourself" or "find yourself" can add to that stress—especially in the self-help realm, where the existence of a “true self,” is a given, not regarded as a cognitive tendency or bias. 

The idea that, “Of course there is a true self to be found deep down if you search in the right way, and, you know, do self-care,” Strohminger said. “And that self-actualization is taken quite literally to mean there is a real you to be found and discovered and there is happiness and fulfillment in so doing.” Instead, Schlegel recommends holding onto a more flexible notion of the true self. As Strohminger wrote, “The true self is posited rather than observed. It is a hopeful phantasm."

That doesn’t mean believing in your morally good true self is good or bad in itself—especially not if it gives you meaning and helps align you to living a life you’re proud of and fulfilled by. But it’s good to be aware of it as a bias, in case the hopeful phantasm morphs into more of a poltergeist. 

Follow Shayla Love on Twitter.