“True self” Journal Club General Discussion

Join the discussion of Nina Strohminger, George Newman, and Joshua Knobe’s article and of the commentaries by Simon Cullen, Ophelia Deroy, Victoria Fomina, Larry Hirschfeld, Gloria Origgi, Brent Strickland, and Radu Umbres. To post a comment, you should be registered and logged in. Please provide a short title for your comment. If it responds to another commentator, you might use “@Xxx” in your title. Comments are moderated and may only appear after a short delay. (New comments appear at the bottom. For any practical question, send an email to: tiffany@cognitionandculture.net).



  • comment-avatar
    Noga Arikha 24 February 2017 (11:51)

    “To thine own self be true”
    This paper provides a very interesting account of how people understand a “true self”, based on instances of self-report. In previous work (“Neurodegeneration and Identity”, Psychological Science, 26:9 2015), Strohminger has shown that the families of patients afflicted with frontotemporal dementia, which affects moral judgement, report having lost that person’s “true self” more acutely than those of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, for instance, which affects cognitive functions, memory and language. This is what has led her to conclude that the moral sense – rather than cognitive faculties – is more likely experienced as an aspect of the “true” self. A radical change to a person’s moral character – from kind and patient to impulsive and rude, for instance – is understandably experienced by others as a fundamental change in “who” that person is.

    The use of such clinical data for investigations on the notion of self is of great value and needs to be pursued. The terms, however, cry out for more historically and philosophically grounded definition. This paper shows up via a larger set of studies a widespread psychological need to believe in an equivalence between truth and goodness – a strikingly Platonic, optimistic stance, “a hopeful phantasm”, as Strohminger writes in conclusion (perhaps a heartwarming one in these days when many in political power shun both truth and goodness). But as others in this discussion have pointed out, the questions posed in the various studies and the responses given by the participants need to be parsed and contextualised.

    Strohminger herself calls the “true self” a “folk concept”, a “fiction”. It is also, as Larry Hirschfeld observes in his response here, specific to Western modernity – tied into the idea of authenticity, a product of socio-political developments, and so on. (A study of this is Jerrold Seigel, “The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century”.) For a long time, the social self was the “true self” – rule-, role- and duty-bound. The idea of a lone, authentic individual, an essence set apart from others, is largely a product of Romanticism. Shakespeare famously has Polonius, in “Hamlet”, say to his son Laertes “to thine own self be true”. But Hamlet later brands Polonius a “knave”, and Laertes demonstrates his loyalty to his dead father by helping avenge his assassination at the hands of Hamlet, without considering what self he is beyond a son and an avenger. Shakespeare is thus unlikely to have willed this phrase as the wise piece of advice it has since become, twisted to fit modern concerns with self-fulfillment and self-expression. Self-determination is limited where one must stick to an externally or internally given script and social role. What we do, how we relate to others, and how we choose to act, constitute in part our self, as moral agent, just as, Gloria Origgi reminds us in her comment, the self is profoundly entwined with our social situation and how “we see ourselves being seen”.

    Strohminger chooses not to address what respondents in her investigation understand by “moral goodness”, perhaps because that is not the point of her investigation. From this paper, however, it seems that all humans participate in a “folk” sense of the Platonic equation of truth with goodness, even as to define an action as “morally good” or not depends on innumerable variables, on how consequentialist or utilitarian one will be, etc. Further, to oppose a morally good “true self “ to the “self” tout court is to assume that there exists a purer, better self than the complex, multifarious bundle the self is, the “organs and thoughts, desires and intentions, whims and dispositions”, in Strohminger’s words. Winnicott had talked of the “true self” as that most alive, authentic, spontaneous aspect of identity. His notion of a true self is separate from a moral sense, which encapsulates the capacity to recognize and separate out our desires and intentions, to direct our passionate dispositions and control our whims. I would argue that this very capacity partakes of the old, indeed cross-cultural acknowledgement of the need to curb self-serving impulses and direct our emotions through reflection, transcending selfish and ego-bound passion. And as Ophelia Deroy points out in her comment, our capacity to take such a distance from our current selves, and perceive ourselves as capable of doing and being “better” does not obviously require us to make the self/true self split.

    In a more complex picture of an interplay of the moral sense with the sense of self, without recourse to a “true” self, the self would be defined by the ways in which the conscious “I” relates to immediate emotions, navigates the interplay of desires, wishes, duties, roles, dreams, the fluctuations between these, and deliberates in order to accommodate these fluctuations. This would unpack somewhat the “folk” picture Strohminger presents of people understanding “their emotional state as an expression of their true selves”. For many people do take anti-depressants that change moods and sensory perceptions without fear of changing the sense they have of their core identity. It is unclear how the notion of a “true self” will help identify the changes wrought by the pharmaceutical substance, or how such essentialist talk, where the “true self” as folk construct seems the modern equivalent of the soul of old, helps understand what happened to someone whose cerebral damage has annihilated the person one once loved. How someone perceives the “true self” of their spouse will also differ from how the spouse experiences the “I”, labile as such an entity must be. We do not know exactly how the sense of self is the outcome of cerebral processes, but we do know that it changes devastatingly when certain processes are damaged, that these changes are discrete, and that the explanatory gap between these processes and overall experience remains. Strohminger concludes that “What counts as part of the true self is subjective, and strongly tied to what each individual person herself most prizes”. It seems a philosophically separate matter to argue that what we prize most must be seen as “morally good” in order to be valued.

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    Paulo Sousa 24 February 2017 (12:28)

    The intuition of a moral true self and the evolution of cooperation and morality
    Nina and all other participants: many thanks for this fascinating discussion. Here is a brief speculation. If the intuition of a morally positive true self is a default intuition about persons in general (about all selves and others as long as they are considered as persons), this intuition may have evolved in the context of the evolution of cooperation and morality as described in the work of Baumard and Sperber on the topic. In other words, it is a default intuition that facilitates cooperation. This speculation could also potentially explain the boundary conditions of this default intuition: when entities are considered to be outside of the moral circle, as in the extreme dehumanisation of outgroups, the default intuition would be cancelled or would loose its strength.

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    Dan Sperber 24 February 2017 (22:44)

    The evidence raises interesting questions calling for more evidence
    In her reply, Nina writes :
    “Many of the commentators point to qualitative, cultural, or anecdotal experiences as potential counterpoints to arguments [about the universality of the “true self”] in the paper. I think these sources of evidence are fertile sources for idea generation. …But as evidence, they stand rather spindly and unsteadily on their own. They require great girders of support, in the form of empirical data. It would be wonderful to follow these leads, these hints and allegations, quantitatively.”

    Quantitative evidence giving support to empirical claims on the one hand, and qualitative experiences as sources of idea generation? I have attended too many debates polarized in similar terms to hope that framing our discussion in such a way would really be helpful.

    I see the social psychological literature on the self (and now on the true self) with its valuable experimental data as being itself a “fertile source for idea generation” rather than as having delivered a well-understood and robust theory in the matter. One somewhat vague but truly interesting idea that this literature suggests and for which it provides some initial evidence is that people in the West have an understanding of the true self distinct from their understanding of the self, that they conceive of the true self as positive and moral, and that some such conception is, if not universal, at least common across cultures. To turn such an idea into a more precise hypothesis, some basic questions should be answered.

    1) Are we talking of an evolved trait, or of a trait culturally acquired in cognitive development, or of the environment-sensitive cognitive development of a specific evolved disposition? I am not asking for an immediate answer, but for a discussion of what kind of evidence experimental or otherwise would help answer such a question.

    2) A second related but different question: How much is such a conception of the true self part of a semi-explicit doctrine of selfhood and morality, which might vary across cultures and be absent in some of them, as opposed to being part of the spontaneous and intuitive way in which people understand themselves and others (which would probably leave less room for important cultural variation). The evidence to answer such a question couldn’t be, I take it, just experimental – and the experiments would be different from those now common in the field. Ethnographic and historical research would have to be called upon (as it is for instance in Garfield, J. L., Nichols, S., Rai, A. K., and Strohminger, N. (2015) discussion of buddhist idea in the matter).

    3) What role do conceptions of the true self play in individual and in social life? Do they play a role mainly in the way people conceive of themselves and of others, in their individual attempts at explanation and prediction, as suggested for instance by Simon Cullen or Ophelia Deroy, and, in a comment in the general discussion, by Noga Arikha? Or do such conceptions play their main role in interactions with others, for instance in building and maintaining one’s reputation, as suggested for instance by Gloria Origgi and, in a comment in the general discussion, by Paulo Sousa? Again, the evidence that would help us answer this question should, I take it, involve both novel experiment and ethnographic observations.

    In the absence of well-developed answers to such questions, we don’t really know what the available experiments tell us about. A sceptic would argue that they show that the kind of people who have been asked this kind of questions in these experiments tend to give the kind of answers the participants gave. I am not such a sceptic, not because I think the evidence is that much stronger, but because I think the available evidence, even if limited, suggests much more relevant questions and hypotheses some of which (that I might come back to later in this discussion) are well developed in the work of Nina and her collaborators.

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    Radu Umbres 26 February 2017 (14:57)

    Morally familiar and morally-unfamiliar selves
    Following Nina’s and Paulo’s response, I would also push more on the issue of the role played true moral self in social cooperation. Perhaps there is a two-step way in reaching judgements about true selves, with social affiliation a discriminating factor in the way people evaluate others, and the moral true self works only when a boundary condition has been satisfied.

    Here is a related question: how would people judge the true morality of other selves when the information involves moral duties entirely unfamiliar to the respondent? Such as strange cultural taboos : do not eat pumpkins on Fridays. What would a radically different – and incomprehensible in own moral terms – case study make respondents think about moral true selves? Would abiding to weird but contextually-strong moral duties make us perceive something about the self of a (culturally-) other?

    And again following Paulo and Dan’s ideas, would there not be strong selective pressures against a mental mechanisms biased towards seeing the real self of others as true and moral, if that could lead to social interaction with non-cooperators? Or is there an evolutionary advantage in being so socially-optimistic? Linking this with the earlier ideas about boundary conditions, perhaps there is a positive re-enforcing process when dealing with some people, but not with others.

    Thanks to Nina and everybody for this thought provoking conversation! And pardon the anthropological naivity of my suggestions 🙂

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    Nina Strohminger 27 February 2017 (01:29)

    Why morality?
    Noga writes:

    “Strohminger concludes that “What counts as part of the true self is subjective, and strongly tied to what each individual person herself most prizes”. It seems a philosophically separate matter to argue that what we prize most must be seen as “morally good” in order to be valued.”

    It seems too strong to say a trait needs to be seen as morally good *in order* to be valued. But the evidence does suggest that moral goodness is generally valued *more* than other traits, such as those related to warmth and competence (for an example of this phenomenon, see Goodwin et al., 2014). And this is a mystery in want of an explanation.

    In earlier work I have suggested that the reason morality is to so deeply linked with identity is because keeping track of individuals is a necessary part of the fundaments of morality, such as cooperation and personal responsibility. But Paulo’s suggestion takes this a step farther: maybe morality is more valued in the selfhood conception because it facilitates cooperation. And indeed some work on individual differences in moral identity suggests just that (Aquino et al., 2009). I find this view entirely plausible.

    I would like to add that we need not be committed to the view that there is just one reason why the true self takes the form that it does. It could be due to some mixture of the evolutionary origins of morality, cultural influence, and psychological essentialism. The essentialism point should not be forgotten I think. There is a positivity bias for the essences of persons, but also for the essences of non-human concepts (see De Freitas et al., in press). This suggests there may be domain-general cognitive mechanisms contributing to the true self’s features.

    Aquino, K., Freeman, D., Reed II, A., Lim, V. K., and Felps, W. (2009). Testing a social-cognitive model of moral behavior: The interactive influence of situations and moral identity centrality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(1):123–141.
    De Freitas, J., Tobia, K., Newman, G., and Knobe, J. (In press). The good ship Theseus: The effect of valence on object identity judgments. Cognitive Science.
    Goodwin, G. P., Piazza, J., and Rozin, P. (2014). Moral character predominates in person perception and evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(1):148–168.

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    Dan Sperber 1 March 2017 (00:07)

    The relevance of hypocrisy
    So let’s consider the idea, suggested in Gloria’s commentary and, in this discussion, by Paulo and Radu, that the main function of the image of people’s true self might be to help identify reliable partners in cooperation and to be so identified by others (and idea to which I cannot be be partial – see Baumard, André & Sperber 2013; Sperber & Baumard 2012).

    By advertising my own true self, I give others a fundamental and compact argument to the effect that they should see me as a basically moral person disposed to act for the common good. To the extent that such is the function of producing an image of one’s own true self, it should of course be super-positive. But why should others accept this image at face value? Why should the true self of others be viewed as positively as one’s own, as Nina et al suggest it generally is? Shouldn’t one be vigilant regarding the fundamental moral dispositions of others? If everybody had a good moral true self, it would be irrelevant to differentiating people’s reliability. This quasi-universally good true self might serve as little more than an automatic, lame, and superficial excuse for one’s and others’ failings. It may inspire feel-good Christmas stories. Still, what about the bad true selves discussed by Victoria and Radu?

    At this point, I see two ways to go: (1) No, wrong idea: true self is not about trying to be positively valued by others and trying to value them at their real worth and in particular it is not aimed at informing trust. Maybe its main function is in one’s relation with oneself rather than with others. (2) Yes, this defending one’s own reputation and evaluating that of other may well be the main function of images of the true self but then the fact that the experimental evidence suggests that others’ true self is also quite generally morally good should be viewed with suspicion: it might be an artefact of the experimental situation and design. After all, unlike what people do in real life, participants in experiments are not evaluating and choosing partners, let alone doing so in conditions where being too trusting might be quite costly.

    I have no knock-down argument for (1) or for (2), but here is a type of (so far) non experimental, non-quantified consideration (“anecdotal”?) that might be relevant. Hypocrites! We are aware that there are hypocrites in the world. I am sure you know some personally. They make interesting character in stories, from Molière’s Tartuffe to Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry (not to mention the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood). They display an excellent self but it turns out that their deeper true self is evil. Forget novels and tales: people are on the look-out for hypocrites lest they become their victims. Imagine a study – experimental, why not? – aimed at investigating not, or at least not directly, the true self but people’s understanding of hypocrisy. It might well throw an indirect but strong light on an aspect of common ideas of the true self and in particular on common ideas about bad true selves that the evidence discussed by Nina and others bypasses.

    Baumard, N., André, J.B. & Sperber, D., 2013. A mutualistic approach to morality: the evolution of fairness by partner choice. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(1), pp.59–78.

    Sperber, D. & Baumard, N., 2012. Moral reputation: An evolutionary and cognitive perspective. Mind & Language, 27(5), pp.495–518.

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    Gloria Origgi 1 March 2017 (19:25)

    True Self, Reputation and Character
    I still have some doubts about the whole thing:

    1) It seems to me implausible that the “True Self module” might “fire” in the same way if the target is ourselves or other people. One of the authors of the article, Joshua Knobe, showed in previous works that people have a tendency to pay attention to “negative” moral traits, and this is confirmed by a huge literature on the very idea of responsibility (cf. Arendt 1987: “Collective Responsibility”). As Noga points out (and it is one of te major points of Derek Parfit’s book, Reasons and Persons) identity and responsibility are deeply related: we have a “self” because people can track our actions and find us responsible of an evil action. The negative bias in responsibility attribution is well known. So the interest of a module to morally overrate your fellows seems odd….

    But, as Dan says in his last comment (and I’m inclined to agree), the “TS-module” is more for self assessment, then, I really see it very close to the notion of character, self signalling and reputation (see J. Elster (2013) “Reputation and Character”), that is a form of self-signalling that can also motivate action in order to tell to ourselves how morally good we are…

    And what about self – deception ? How reliable are we about our true selves? Don’t we all have the tendency to morally overrate ourselves (cit. evidence/evidence/evidence)?

    Also I share Larry’s doubts about the universality of the concept. Cultural history and philosophy (cf. Bernard Williams 1993, Shame and Necessity) show that some conceptions of ourselves may emerge at a certain period of time (like feeling ashamed, so typical of the classic culture and feeling guilty, so typical of modernity, in a way that can be related to the emergence of the concept of “true self” and authenticity). Not only the geography, but also the history of the concept, might be much more local than the authors assume…

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    Victoria Fomina 2 March 2017 (22:33)

    Is the true self effect limited to the domain of reasoning?
    Paulo, Radu, Nina and Dan’s discussion of the relationship between the true self images and social cooperation raises a set of intriguing empirical questions regarding the role the true self images might play in social interactions. As Radu and Dan (in his latest comment) point out, taking the true self of others at face value makes for a poor strategy of identifying reliable partners for cooperation. Indeed, a scenario, in which people automatically attribute a morally excellent self to complete strangers and determine their attitude towards these strangers based on such an attribution, does not seem very plausible. Nor does such a radical scenario necessarily naturally follows from the experimental evidence laid out in Nina et al.’s paper. The evidence for the true self presented in the paper (if my understanding of it is correct) mostly stems from documenting the patterns in reasoning about the self of others based on the available pieces of information about these others’ behavior. As such, it can hence provide little insight into how people in a real-life setting perceive the moral dispositions of strangers in a condition of complete vacuum of information regarding these strangers’ past actions.

    Perhaps, the true self is then better construed not as a default intuition about the character of others that affects every day social encounters, but as a bias in reasoning and interpretation of available information about the behavior of others that privileges the significance of positive acts and dispositions over the negative ones. In other words, it is in the domain of making a practical judgment about concrete acts of specific individuals, which involves reflexivity, deliberation, and reasoning, that the true self effect is manifest. While such a bias might not be the ultimate factor informing the decision about the others’ attractiveness as potential cooperators, it might in some contexts function as a social mechanism of reputation calibration over time. After all, reputation building and evaluation is a long-term (even life-long in some cases) process. Although such a mechanism would not necessarily work in all the contexts (an inveterate criminal’s overnight transformation into a model citizen is likely to be taken by the public with a healthy dosage of skepticism), it could function well in the cases of status transition. One example that comes to mind is a child’s transition to adulthood: the change in the behavior that accompanies such a transition – suppression of selfish impulses and improving display of cooperative dispositions – would, one can argue, be perceived by the community as a manifestation of a young adult’s true self. The ethnographic data on forms of moral pedagogy and the role narratives of moral transformation (including the feel-good Christmas stories mentioned by Dan) play in it can offer a fruitful terrain for further investigating the issue.

  • comment-avatar
    Samuel Veissière 3 March 2017 (11:28)

    The True Self and the Intentional Continuum (comment on Simon Cullen’s commentary)

    (This was initially posted on February 14 as a comment to Simon Cullen’s commentary. We copy it to the general discussion – The ICCI team)

    Thanks for this insightful commentary – I very much look forward to reading your paper when it comes out.

    When, how, and by whom moral responsibilities and intentions are attributed to agencies other than the ‘true self’ in the evaluation of a wrongdoing is a very pertinent question for cognition and culture.

    Running your experiment with non-WEIRD populations is likely to yield fascinating results.

    Alessandro Duranti has called for a timely research project on what he calls the “intentional continuum” across cultures: namely, building on Robert Levy’s work on the cognition of emotions in Tahiti, the extent to which agents’ intentions and propositional attitudes ‘as such’ are hyper-cognized to hypo-cognized across cultures.

    When Rita Astuti and Maurice Bloch replicated Jonathan Haidt’s moral dumbfounding scenarios among the Vezo of Madagascar, for example, they found that, in the accidental ‘separated-at-birth’ incest scenario in which the child turns out fine, the situation is judged as “wrong” regardless of the actors’ intentions, since the act of incest will upset the ancestors and cause catastrophes. We could call this view (my term) a ‘cosmic-consequentialist’ position, which is likely to be found among many non-WEIRD people, and all other cultures (like the famed ‘Opacity of Mind’ examples from Melanesia) where percolutionary forces are given more weight that illocutionary ones. Without going as far as Julian Jaynes on the ‘unconscious Greeks’ or post-structuralist conspiracy theories that present psychological interiority as Evil inventions of Locke, Descartes, and Kant, we have good reason to believe that our Western ancestors did not attribute much causal power (moral or otherwise) to an interior true Self. As Bernard Williams points out, Oedipus blinds himself for acts that he knows he did not intend to commit.

    All this to say that I am intrigued by your findings: intuitively, I would have guessed that morally conservative people in intention-centric, epistemologically individualist cultures would have placed a lot of moral and intentional weight on a person’s ‘true “bad” self’ And then again, it also goes to show (perhaps), that conservatives are less individualistic, and closer in folk-intentionality styles to their non-WEIRD cousins. Thoughts?

    Astuti, R., & Bloch, M. (2015). The causal cognition of wrong doing: incest, intentionality, and morality. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 136.
    Robbins, J., & Rumsey, A. (2008). Introduction: Cultural and linguistic anthropology and the opacity of other minds. Anthropological Quarterly, 81(2), 407-420.

    Duranti, Packer, M. J. (2016). The Anthropology of Intentions: Language in a World of Others, by Alessandro Duranti: Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2015, 237 pp.,

    Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological review, 108(4), 814.

    Veissiere, S. (accepted with revisions). ‘Varieties of the Intentional Experience: Cognitive Ideology, Translucence, Complexity. Anthropological Theory.

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    Samuel Veissière 7 March 2017 (11:59)

    True Humeans, Intuitive Lockeans
    Thanks all, for the fantastic comments. I am jumping in again after corresponding with Simon to recap a few main points.

    If there is a True Self module, I am inclined to think it is more likely a relatively stable, but culturally variable cognitive illusion that serves a cooperative function on the one hand, and a self-monitoring, self-rehearsal function for the adaptive purpose of self-deception (as suggested by Gloria) on the other. Against Jaynes’ bicameral mind hypothesis, the illusion that we are the author of our own thoughts may be phylogenetically older than ancient Greece…but likely not much older than the evolution of explicit, declarative memory systems (which have also been shown to serve a self-deceiving prospective function). Could it be that the True Self illusion is still dependent on language in ontogeny, and many have started to spread epidemiologically at beginning of the broad spectrum revolution 100 or so K ago?

    To make clear sense of the muddle, I like to ground these questions in philosophical debates on personal identity. First, we should ask whether the Lockean view of the “true Self” as a psychologically continuous bundle of episodic memories passes a cross-cultural and historical checklist.

    I would say yes and no. On the one hand, a person must remember having had experiences they can attribute to themselves in order to feel like they are a Self, and these experience/memories must be validated intersubjectively by other people’s memories and reports.

    On the other hand, classical work in psychology (e.g. Elizabeth Loftus) and the current predictive-processing view of the brain clearly show that most memories are confabulated post-hoc and serve a rehearsal function for future action (see also Marh & Csibra’s excellent piece in BBS on the communicative function of episodic memory), and that, the marvels of distributed cognition notwithstanding, it is very difficult to get two people to agree to agree on the veracity of each other’s memories.

    So ontologically, Hume’s proto-Buddhist view of the Self as a bundle of disconnected mind moments (a bundle of whatever we feel and reconfabulate from moment to moment) might be more correct. Epistemologically, this is a more difficult question.

    We could posit that like intuitive mind-body dualism (I defer to Paul Bloom on this question), humans are also intuitive Lockeans. Descartes and Locke may be wrong ontologically. As a cognitive scientist, I leave my ontology to physicists and biologists.

    The Lockean view of the self as psychologically continuous, thus, may be a stable cognitive illusion that may or may not precede language phylogenetically, but got solidified with the advent of declarative memory systems, which themselves co-evolved with language.

    Ontogenetically however, different narrative and moral environments [mutually expected standards of behaviour and how they are internalized, narrativized, with looping effects] may give rise to very different personal and inter-subjective experiences of “true selfhood”. Or do they?

    Here, Maurice Bloch’s comments on Galen Strawson’s “against narrativity” hypothesis may be helpful. Strawson proposes that the idea that we are the story we tell ourselves is overblown in the recent western Canon (Bruner, etc.). He argues that the difference may be one of personality traits. On this view, some people are clearly diachronic and feel a strong sense of psychological continuity from their childhood self to their current self.. Others — which he terms “episodics” – do not. Maurice Bloch hypothesizes that cross-cultural differences in Selfhood might be found at the level of diachronicity and episodicity. Western cultures may be more diachronic, and diachronic ideologies might loop back to further enhance the illusion (see Veissiere, 2016 for a discussion an a scale to test for diachronicity and episodicity).

    But even then, the argument is not fully satisfactory. Clearly, there cannot be cultures where people are so episodic as to not remember themselves and each other. We are back at square one, so let’s seek simpler clues from the phenomenologists. In Dan Zahavi’s Merleau-Pontian reading of the question, the “core” Self (“minimal” in other versions of the same story) is what is universally found among humans and most sentient beings: the “true” self is simply that which experiences itself as sentient; that which is aware of itself as aware; that which experiences pains and feelings as its own: the so-called first-personal quality of selfhood.

    We can now return to the dualist/monist question in the epistemological sense. Do all cultures primarily think of their and other people’s selves as mental over physical? Like Paul Bloom and Galen Strawson, I would argue that all humans do. This is an argument that still doesn’t appeal to many anthropologists, and for which we likely need more experimental evidence.

    Once we have laid out all these basic problems and anthropologized them a little, I feel more comfortable returning to the fascinating question posed by Simon when he asks whether, where, and how people attribute some actions to the “True self”, and to agencies other than the Self; .

    It wouldn’t be difficult to find cultures that de-emphasize agents’ intentions in the assessment of a wrongdoing. Methodologically, running focus groups in the field would be more advantageous than working with Amazon Turk, where participants might already be a little too WEIRDed.

    It will be more difficult to find ways of determining how children and adult across cultures conceptualize the seat of true personhood and agency.

    Here are some ideas:

    Querying people on how they conceptualize the continuity of personhood in old age after dementia. In WEIRD cultures, we tend to think of our elders as “no longer there” once they don’t remember us or no longer behave according to our very rigid expectations on standards of behaviour. Would that pass a cross-cultural checklist? I don’t think so!

    The many licenses to legal and moral responsibility we WEIRDs grant to people in dissociative or psychopathological states is also very interesting. If someone was in a state of psychosis, intense inebriation, or even rage, we might agree that their True Self “wasn’t there”. Our folk ontologies regarding parasomnia (sleep) disorders is fascinating in that regard: sleepwalkers and sexsomniacs are usually not held responsible for their actions because the general consensus is that “they” were not there — yet, someone had these experiences and conducted those actions, even if their waking self doesn’t remember any of it!. This is also very likely not to pass a cross-cultural checklist. Lo and behold, of course, current neuroscience tells us that the assumption that consciousness is absent from dreamless sleep was also misguided!

    Conclusion: good psychology and neuroscience, like the Samaritan experiment that show how vulnerable to context our attention and actions are, tend to support the Humean, “Buddhist” view of the Self — and indeed of volition itself — as a cognitive illusion. If the Self is nothing but a pseudo-volitional bundle of disconnected mind moments that arises from anticipation of experience primed by prior learning and responses to exogenous and interoceptive cues, then we WEIRDS may have an even weirder folk psychology than previously assumed.

    So let’s get to work with the non-WEIRDS?

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    Von Hippel, W., & Trivers, R. (2011). The evolution and psychology of self-deception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(01), 1-16.

    Windt, J. M., Nielsen, T., & Thompson, E. (2016). Does Consciousness Disappear in Dreamless Sleep?. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(12), 871-882.

    Zahavi, D. (2009). Is the self a social construct?. Inquiry, 52(6), 551-573.

  • comment-avatar
    Brent Strickland 7 March 2017 (22:13)

    Do “true self” representations have a function?
    Thanks everyone for these comments and the discussion. I’ve found the questions about the potential evolved function of a “true self” representation to be interesting. Perhaps for example, as Victoria suggests, the possession of a bias to place a higher weight on positive acts than negative acts for the purposes of evaluating the potential for successful cooperation could be useful in some specific contexts. These are cool ideas, and I’m definitely not opposed to them as a matter of principle.

    However, I’m not yet convinced that we have good reasons to be assuming evolved functions here at all. In particular, I still wonder if the cross-culturally similar notions of the “true-self” are due to some form of environmental sensitivity. As I was suggesting in my original reply to Nina, it seems quite possible to me that (i) humans have multiple competing desires (ii) some of those desires count much more heavily than others towards creating a sense of meaning (as can potentially be measured by deathbed regret) and (iii) morality plays a particularly important role in determining this sense of meaning. If these are generally true of members of the human species (and I think it’s likely that they are), then there may be little need to talk about the evolved function of a true-self concept (or TS module or related cognitive biases along the lines of what Victoria suggests). The true self concept could simply be the product of sensitivity to an environmental regularity in much the same way that “lightening” and “thunder” concepts are. Both are presumably universal but have no evolved function per se (though the learning mechanisms that underlie general concept formation do of course). Whatever general mechanisms of concept formation underlie the acquisition and development of concepts like “thunder” and “lightening” may also be responsible for the formation of “true self” concept.

    The view I’m laying out here predicts that you should find a fairly strong correlation between what cultures consider to be the most meaningful or important elements in their life (e.g. time with friends and family, pursuing one’s dreams, helping others) and the traits that members of that culture would assign to the true self. How strong are the reasons to reject this “null hypothesis”?

    The case that Nina mentioned in her main reply bears on this point somewhat. Between warring factions within the self, liberals attribute homosexual urges of others to the true self while conservatives attribute the desire to resist such urges to the true self. One might argue that they can’t both be right. So roughly half the population is employing a representation of the true self that doesn’t map onto an environmental regularity, thus falsifying my environmental theory. However, this interpretation could be complicated by lack of information (e.g. not knowing what other people will find deeply meaningful) or by true differences in local environments. Perhaps homosexuals who came out of the closet in the Bible belt (where conservatives are quite common) really do regret doing so on their deathbed, while latent homosexuals in NYC generally do regret not being more honest with themselves. If there’s a difference in exposure between liberals and conservatives to these types of cases, differences in guesses about what belongs to the “true” (i.e. meaningful) self may be perfectly rational. So in summary, I think finding exactly the right type of information to falsify the “environmental regularity” hypothesis isn’t straight forward, but I think it’s necessary to do this work before moving on to the more interesting idea that representations of the true-self have an evolved function (in a way that differs with mental representations of “lightening” or “thunder”).

  • comment-avatar
    Ophelia Deroy 10 March 2017 (21:36)

    Moral optimism generalised?
    Thanks, Nina, for the response and to everyone else for adding so many layers to the discussion. I am jumping on the bandwagon of the function of the ‘true self’, which Gloria, Dan, Brent, Victoria and others have already raised. More specifically, in my initial comment, i related to the ‘true self’ assumption to the general optimism bias which has been well-documented (e.g. Sharot, 2011 for review) – although i am sure that there are more cross-cultural studies to be done here. Basically, we tend to believe that we are less at risk of experiencing negative events (such as dying of lung cancer if we smoke, seeing one’s house burned down, etc.) compared to others. This self-directed optimism eventually makes us, among other things, more motivated and less risk-averse – it’s a good illusion to have about oneself, in a nutshell, and something which also has little costs by contrast with realism or pessimism.

    The optimism bias, as defined in the literature, is about the likelihood of facing risks or tragedies more or less than others. Take now the likelihood of doing something morally good in the near future or if given a chance. Perhaps we all, optimistically, think that we would act in such a moral way.

    In her response to my comparison, Nina is right to point that the optimism bias is only directed toward oneself, while the ‘true moral self’ bias (if this is indeed a bias) is, according to the evidence she quotes, equally applied to oneself and others. The optimism bias is studied in a comparative way, and is also contrastive between self and others by essence. Perhaps one does not need to be so contrastive when it comes to moral outcomes, and be generally optimistic that humanity as a whole, would be morally good if offered the chance. Your moral deeds do not diminish the value of mine, where as my likelihood of not being one of the 70% of smokers who have lung cancer partly depend on others being the unlucky ones.

    My main point here is not to identify the ‘true moral self’ to the optimism bias of course. It is mostly to suggest that studying it as a bias instead of a folk concept or theory could be a fertile route – and this seems to be in line with what was suggested by others. This bias in turn could serve both a social function and an individual one (as the optimism bias does – it is good for our sense of self-worth, it is motivating, etc.).

    Writing this comment and seeing Gloria’s comments, i also think that we should look more into the ‘equality’ assumption that is granted by the true self. I could be generally optimistic, and think that both you and I, if given a chance, would show our great moral dispositions or characters. But i could still think, that, given equal chances, i would show a greater moral disposition than yours……

    Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Current biology, 21(23), R941-R945.

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    Nina Strohminger 15 March 2017 (17:19)

    Thank you to everyone
    for such a fun and intellectually engaging discussion. True self research is in its infancy, and many of the points raised in this webinar lay out important directions as the field matures. I am excited to see where this new research takes us.

    Thanks, finally, to Dan and Tiffany, for inviting me to be part of this webinar. It was a great honor.