The psychology behind “Just be yourself”
Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences researchers examine why thinking about the "true self" is so appealing, especially since many psychologists doubt that true selves actually exist.
By Alix Poth ’18
The idea of living as your “true self” is everywhere: self-help books, narratives on journeys of self-discovery, and countless advice articles. The view that each person’s identity revolves around a central defining core seems obviously true. In a recent paper, Rebecca Schlegel and Andrew Christy from the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences—along with researcher Andrei Cimpian from New York University—examine why thinking about the true self is so appealing, especially since many psychologists doubt that true selves actually exist.
The researchers tested whether this belief in a true self comes from what psychologists refer to as “essentialist reasoning”—the assumption that groups of people and things (e.g. men, cats, introverts) are similar in ways that make them fundamentally distinct from other groups (e.g., women, dogs, extraverts).
“Although essentialism is a simple, intuitive explanatory strategy, the accuracy of these folk beliefs is questionable,” Schlegel said. “Essentialist reasoning allows people to feel like they understand the world but by no means guarantees accuracy.”
“Essentialist reasoning allows people to feel like they understand the world but by no means guarantees accuracy.”
Three types of evidence were found to support the claim that the notion of a true self is a product of essentialism.
“First, we found that people generally understand the true self as a part of the person that does not change, that is a necessary and natural part of the person’s identity, and that clearly distinguishes one individual from another,” Schlegel said. These are all characteristics of essentialist reasoning.
The authors also found that belief in a true self goes along with holding essentialist beliefs for other groups, as one might expect if these beliefs all came from the same source. Finally, they discovered that the messages that promoted essentialist beliefs in other areas (for example, about race) spilled over to whether participants believed that a true self exists.
“Taken together, our findings imply that belief in true selves is part of a broader family of essentialist beliefs… and that there are important processes that are common to how people form many concepts such as personal identity and group identity,” Schlegel said.
By situating the concept of true selves within the established framework of essentialist reasoning, this work illuminates why the true self is such an appealing concept to many people. In addition, this work is likely to support researchers’ future efforts to study these beliefs and how they function within our psychology.
Read more about the study here.