Our traditional tendency is to define ‘the self’ as a unique constant, based in the recent past, which includes a distinct appearance, personality, social status, memory and morality. We see ourselves as being a certain age, having a certain gender, a certain level of intellect, a certain socio-economic background etc. These labels are created not only by ourselves, but are co-created by society, groups and institutions which label individuals during social interaction and in turn promote individuals to internalize these labels1.
When we interact with others, we are aware of the way in which people judge, react, and are different from us, and this results in the conceptualization of the self as a unique entity. We begin to understand “who we are” by creating a distinction between our characteristics and those of the group, and we label ourselves by these distinctions. In addition, we also accept labels given by others and internalize these by accepting the reasoning behind them. Our identity is co-created – often without realizing how or why we have created it. Its created out of how we perceive others to perceive us, as well as our own thoughts of ourself2.
This traditional construction of the self is developed without the awareness of its social nature. It often goes unrealized that “what I am” is only a social construct and only has meaning within the group or society where it was created. For example, when someone internalizes a label, they do so relative to the variance of the characteristics within the group – in other words: all labels are relative. When you say “I am short”, “I am smart” or “I have xyz characteristics”, this can only be a true sentence relative to a specific group, and it is not objectively true.
A more intuitive example of this is when someone describes themselves as short, and once they move to another country where the average height is much shorter than they are, they may begin to label themselves as tall. Objectively however, they are neither short nor tall, yet when compared to a specific group they can be said to be either tall or short. This not only applies to height, but many additional things including: weight, attractiveness, social norms, beliefs, morality and ethics etc.
Much of what we know about ourselves, others, and the world around us is based upon these subjective ideas which we express as labels. We internalize these labels without an understanding of how they were formed. We see ourselves as a unique constant, possessing many characteristics which can change over time. This is the traditional paradigm through how we begin to view the world, and it has a great impact on how we perceive events, and how we think, feel and act. The following list provides some examples of the inclinations which result from this traditional paradigm. The traditional paradigm:
- Can lead to a number of existential questions such as “who am I, why am I here, and what is my purpose?”. These existential questions often come about when people try to understand the self as a changing entity. It leads to cognitive dissonance – having inconsistency thoughts of the self – and the inability to reconcile these inconsistencies. This often leads individuals to either suppress the questions by engaging in other thoughts, ideas or activities (to distract themselves) or leads the individual to fall back on scientifically unverifiable spiritual belief systems in order to reconcile these inconsistencies.
- Can lead to negative thoughts about ourself when we compare the number of friends we have, the amount of wealth we have, and how happy we are to other people. This belief arises because the average person has less friends, money, and happiness then their friends. It arises due to the ‘friendship paradox‘, which holds that in any social network, the average individual will always have less friends then their friends have (the average person is more likely to be friends with someone who is more social and has lots of friends, therefore they will always have friends who have more friends then they do)3. This has been shown also to apply to wealth and happiness as well4 . Without an understanding of how the self is constructed, our observations about others and ourselves can lead us to develop negative thoughts, labels, and beliefs about ourself which limit our happiness.
- Can lead a person to justify the false beliefs of others by believing “thats who I am” and create a self-fulfilling prophesy which perpetuate these beliefs. For example, saying such as “perhaps you’re just bad at math/art; I know I am” are common and can lead to the creation of self fulfilling prophesies. Research suggests that self fulfilling prophesies are not generally powerful. However, they can become very powerful when the beliefs of others come from close family, friends or groups, and when multiple people within your social world hold the same belief5. These self fulfilling prophesies can affect us in many different ways including: determining what we like or dislike, how we see ourselves, how we understand our skills and abilities, how we behave, and what we believe. Consider the number of different religions all over the world and how these religions are concentrated in geographical areas.
- Can lead to obsessions about the past, resulting in low self esteem and excessive negative thoughts of the self when people view themselves as not living up to their past self. Research in self esteem shows that sources of self esteem include our past successes, how key figures in our lives perceive us, and the likelihood that our actions will be accepted by a group6. As a result, losing these past successes, believing that specific individuals perceive us negatively, or believing that our actions will be rejected by a group we belong to can result in low self esteem and negative thoughts of the self. For example, if a runner breaks their leg, or a guitarist can no longer move their fingers, they may be obsessed with their past experiences and may define themselves by these experiences which will result in low self esteem and negative thoughts. The traditional way we have understood the self generates these possibilities.
- Can lead to ethnocentrism: The act of evaluating other people and cultures according to the standards of one’s own culture – making your own group seem superior. This is because the self was created without the awareness that its ideas, characteristics, role, and social norms were created in relation to those of a group7. It sees these things as objective rather than subjective. This can result in narrow minded opinions of other cultures, racism, the belief that your own values/social norms are right while others are wrong, and a skewed understanding of other cultures.
- Can also lead to individual and collective narcissism. Narcissism is excessive interest in oneself leading to: a lack of empathy for others, arrogance, a self-focus in interpersonal exchanges, bragging, ideas of entitlement and superiority etc. Collective narcissism is a type of narcissism where an individual has excessive interest or love for the groups they belong to. Examples of groups include national, cultural or ethnic groups.Just as the traditional notion of the self can lead to ethnocentrism, the affirmations of ones own superiority are internalized by a group which leads to narcissism, and ideas that their groups they belong to are superior to others8. Due to the connection between individual and collective narcissism, it also leads to individualistic narcissistic behaviour.
- Can lead a person to believe that a specific person, place or thing will always bring their life meaning, significance, or purpose, and that these things cannot be found elsewhere. Cognitive dissonance occurs when things not associated with your identity bring you meaning, joy, or purpose in life and it is hard to adopt these with fixed notions of identity. Consider the story of the fox and the grapes: the fox wants grapes which are too high for him to reach. He wants them, but knows he cannot have them. He makes the false assumption that the grapes are sour, eliminating his cognitive dissonance. Likewise, when we consider anything (people, places, ideas, things etc) we do so through a paradigm which makes false assumptions about the people, places, and things which can bring meaning, significance and joy to our life. For example, being a 20 year old male whose identity is linked with traditionally masculine activities, sports, hobbies and lifestyle, may falsely assume that dance/ballet is not fun, entertaining, or can never bring meaning to his life.
- Can lead a person to act and behave in accordance with their perceived identity, instead of acting in a way which could better achieve your goals, wants, or needs. For example, in the US National Football League and National Hockey League, it has been shown that teams who switch from lighter uniforms to black uniforms (a color often associated in many cultures with evil and death) are more likely to play aggressively and incur significantly more penalties9. Additionally, in virtual worlds, when one creates an avatar (or figure representing themselves or an online identity) they are more likely to behave and have this avatar behave in ways which are congruent with the avatars appearance10.
When we can understand ‘the self’ as a social construct (and something which is relative to the groups, culture, and people it is associated with) we become more self aware. It allows us to understand how some of our thoughts, ideas or beliefs were created and we are able determine their validity. This can lead to a reduction of the negative inclinations listed above and can also lead to many positive impacts listed in some of my other articles.
In order to get to the root of the issue, I believe that we should not only look at how the self is socially constructed, but more importantly, at what ‘the self’ is, and the nature of personal identity. By examining what really constitutes personal identity we can get a better understanding of ourselves, our spirituality, our ideas, beliefs, and how we see the world.
To discover exactly what “the self” is, click HERE, where I introduce you to a few thought experience about the nature of personal identity.
- Cooley, Charles Horton. Human Nature And The Social Order. New York: Schocken Books, 1964
Mead, George Herbert, and Charles W Morris. Mind, Self & Society From The Standpoint Of A Social Behaviorist. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1934. Print.
Feld, Scott L. ‘Why Your Friends Have More Friends Than You Do’. American Journal of Sociology 96.6 (1991): 1464. Web.
Eom, Young-Ho, and Hang-Hyun Jo. ‘Generalized Friendship Paradox In Complex Networks: The Case Of Scientific Collaboration’. Scientific Reports 4 (2014): n. pag. Web.
Madon, S. et al. ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: The Synergistic Accumulative Effect Of Parents’ Beliefs On Children’s Drinking Behavior’. Psychological Science 15.12 (2004): 837-845. Web.
Heatherton, T.F. & Wyland, C. Assessing self-esteem. In S. Lopez and R. Snyder, (Eds). Assessing Positive Psychology. (pp. 219 – 233). (2003)
Carignan et All. ‘Racism and Ethnocentrism: Social Representations of Preservice Teachers in the Context of Multi- and Intercultural Education’. International Journal of Qualitative Methods; (2005) Vol. 4 Issue 3, p1
Bizumic, Boris, and John Duckitt. ‘”My Group Is Not Worthy Of Me”: Narcissism And Ethnocentrism’. Political Psychology 29.3 (2008): 437-453. Web.
Frank, Mark G., and Thomas Gilovich. ‘The Dark Side Of Self- And Social Perception: Black Uniforms And Aggression In Professional Sports.’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54.1 (1988): 74-85. Web.
Yee, Nick, and Jeremy Bailenson. ‘The Proteus Effect: The Effect Of Transformed Self-Representation On Behavior’. Human Communication Research 33.3 (2007): 271-290. Web.