In the first season of The X-Files, Dana Scully, along with her former instructor from the FBI Academy, Jack Willis, goes to the signal of a bank robbery. During the arrest, one of the criminals severely injures Willis. Scully shoots back at the mugger, who dies.
Some time later, Willis wakes up in the hospital. But he changed, became evil. The soul of a robber has entered his body, who now seeks to reunite with his beloved and take revenge on those who handed him over to the FBI.
As a graduate student, Nina Strominger, a PhD in psychology and an assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, watched The X-Files. Among all the episodes with monsters and aliens, it was the story of the transmigration of souls that attracted her (by the way, this happened again in the series when Fox Mulder and the Area 51 operative exchanged bodies).
Strominger was interested in this idea. After all, if the robber was able to leave his own body and end up in Willis, then he was not one with his physical shell. There was some kind of separate entity that could move from one person to another.
Ströminger noticed another curious moment. During the transmigration of souls, the heroes do not transfer everything to a new body, but only some of their traits. And she wanted to know if there was any pattern in this selectivity.
This prompted Nina to do a little experiment. Together with Wharton School colleague Sean Nichols, the researcher asked people a simple question: “If you had to move into another body, which of the key features of your personality would you take with you?”
There were some commonalities in the responses. People have always said that in addition to personal memories and preferences, they would have transferred traits associated with morality, conscience. Some good, highly moral part of his personality. It was she who was associated in all respondents with their own “I”.
But Strominger’s study is just one of many. All these works unambiguously prove that people have a stable idea of a certain deep “true self”. And this “true me” is necessarily good.
Does the “true me” really exist?
But this is an interesting question. From a scientific point of view, the inner conscientious self almost certainly does not exist. All that is known from neuroscience and psychology does not support the theory of some separate good entity hidden somewhere in the depths of the soul.
Most likely, the “true me” is just an illusion. Just a widespread habit of seeing in yourself a kind, high-moral soul.
But it doesn’t matter at all. “Functionally, in some ways, it doesn’t matter, because the idea of a “true self” affects our behavior and view of the world just as much as if this “true self” actually existed,” says Rebecca Schlegel, a social psychologist from the Texas A&M University.
How the “true self” affects the worldview
Recommendations are heard from all sides: “Be yourself!” It is this advice that is perceived as defining in life, love, career. If you are yourself, that is, if you act in accordance with who you are deep down inside, you will achieve success and happiness.
But what do we mean by “being ourselves”? Scientists have received a very unambiguous answer to this.
In various experiments, they asked volunteers to evaluate the personality changes that people experienced after traumatic brain injuries, taking psychoactive drugs, imaginary body swap. The ratings are similar. If a person changed, but at the same time retained moral qualities – kindness, sympathy, honesty, the participants said that he “remained himself.” If these qualities suffered, it sounded: “He became a different person.”
indicative experimentin which volunteers were asked to read about two patients with dementia. The first, with severe memory loss as a result of Alzheimer’s disease, was considered by the participants to have retained his own personality. In contrast to the second, in which everything was in order with memory and memories, but the “moral abilities” were significantly reduced due to frontotemporal dementia. He, according to the respondents, ceased to be himself.
Besides, in research In 2008, scientists found that people are reluctant to take drugs that can affect moral qualities: kindness, the ability to feel empathy. And much less worried about drugs that sometimes reduce alertness or impair memory.
Summary: “to be yourself” in the mass consciousness means to behave in accordance with moral principles. Departure from them is perceived as a loss of oneself.
Curiously, this concept of a morally good “true self” is universal. Research involving volunteers from Colombia, Singapore, Russia gave similar results, although the cultures of these countries have very different ideas about human nature. “Hindu Hindus and Buddhists from Tibet believe that the moral aspects of the personality play a key role in their self-identification, although the latter generally deny the existence of such a thing as a personality.” informs psychologist Christian Jarrett in the British Psychological Society Research Digest.
Why do we feel like everyone is good at heart
We tend to think better of ourselves than others, which is one of the most common cognitive biases. But when it comes to the “true self”, we assume that in other people it is also highly moral. Such bias demonstrate even misanthropes, that is, those who initially treat people badly.
Perhaps this is a manifestation of our sociality as a species. Thinking that there are not villains around is good for a sense of well-being, helps us cooperate and trust each other.
Another explanation may be that people in general inclined focus on the positives. it called “psychological essentialism”.
For example, in response to a request to describe a table, we say that it has four legs for stability and a surface on which to eat or work. That is, we list the features of a “good” table. It would never occur to anyone to describe a broken, “bad” model.
Our idea of the “true self”, the desire to fit it to positive characteristics, may be the result of the same essentialist thinking.
Why then are so many hostile to other people?
Indeed, this raises a question. If we think so well of ourselves and others, why are there so many disgusting disputes, swearing and insults on the same Internet? Doesn’t this conflict with the mass belief in a good “true self”?
Yale experimental philosopher Josh Knobe has a possible explanation: while we all believe in a morally good inner being, our definition of morality varies according to beliefs and inner values.
In one experiment Knobe and his colleagues asked people to describe how they felt about a fictitious man named Mark. He allegedly was a Christian and at the same time was attracted to men. Opinions were divided. Conservative participants in the experiment confidently stated that Mark’s “true self” lies in faith, and to succumb to feelings for him would be a retreat from himself. Liberals, on the other hand, reported that Mark’s sexuality was his “true self”. From the point of view of the latter, to abandon oneself and one’s impulses for the sake of some abstract faith – that would be a betrayal of the real essence of Mark.
Further, everything is simple. Whatever path the conditional Mark takes, there will always be people who consider this choice an outrage on the true essence of the hero. And this abuse causes irritation and aggression.
Why Believing You’re a Good Person Deep Down Is Harmful
The answer is simple: it discourages. If the morality of the inner self is taken for granted and not deserved, there is a temptation to start making excuses for bad deeds.
On the other hand, immoral actions threaten our sense of identity. And that’s a lot of stress. Therefore, some people simply deny their immoral behavior, shifting responsibility for it to third-party factors: “I was forced”, “I was provoked”, “I am not like that – life is like that.” Others seek to redeem themselves with quick acts of kindness, such as donations. And again become good in their own eyes.
Such decisions really quickly return a person in line with his ideas about his “true self”. But they do not encourage an ethical lifestyle in general.
How to Benefit from the Illusory “Real Self”
Yes, there is no “true self,” and deep down, people aren’t necessarily good at all. But this illusion has an important function.
The concept of one’s own “true self” can serve as a guide. A deep internal standard that motivates you to live according to your conscience.
Even if the circumstances are not ideal and make you stumble, you know that there is something good inside you – and you are looking for opportunities to express it. This approach gives meaning to actions and helps to build a life that you are satisfied and proud of.