Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas

more

What's Your Story?

The story of our self is largely fictional. That can help and hinder us
what is your story lisa bortolotti
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Who am I? It is difficult for me to recognise myself in a photo taken when I was 5 and to identify with the thoughts I had when I was 16. But I can do that because I have a ‘sense of self’ which includes beliefs about myself that address two basic questions: which person I am and what type of person I am. The first question can be answered by reference to my life history (e.g., when I was born, who my parents are, what my job is) and the second question concerns my personality and dispositions (e.g., whether I am loyal, whether I am good at playing volleyball, whether I like Russian literature).

How do I keep all the relevant information about myself together to attain a sense of self? Well, I do what humans do best, tell stories. Self-narratives are the means by which I establish continuity between my past, present, and future experiences and impose some coherence on my disparate traits and features. I am not alone in doing this: we all create stories that make sense of the experiences we remember and connect our life events in some meaningful way using the literary devices stories have, plots helping us see how some events follow from other events and twists acknowledging surprising developments that have a big effect on the course of our lives.

Self-narratives, as all narratives, are to some extent fictional. In order to be able to tell a meaningful and exciting story about ourselves, we need to take some creative licences with the facts. We may consciously embellish some chapters of our stories by adding or omitting some detail. But other distortions of reality are just part and parcel of the way we tend to think about ourselves and are the outcome of biases that we are not fully aware of. For instance, we neglect evidence of failure, concentrating on evidence of good performance and emphasising our contribution to successful enterprises, so as to make ourselves into the heroes our stories deserve.

___

"We tend to exaggerate the continuity and similarity between our old and current selves."

___

We tend to exaggerate the continuity and similarity between our old and current selves. The so-called consistency bias occurs when we interpret the past in the light of the present. In a 1986 study, people asked to rate their attitudes towards major social issues, such as whether drugs should be legalised or ethnic minorities should be helped, are then asked again the same questions nine years later. They are also asked what their attitudes were the first time they were asked. Participants remember their past attitudes as much closer to their present attitudes than they actually were. Consistency biases also affect how people rate their romantic relationships. In a study by Elaine Scharfe and Kim Bartholomew, participants are asked to rate the quality and stability of their relationships twice, several months apart, and the second time they are also asked to report what their previous ratings were. Those who report their previous ratings inaccurately do so in accordance with the consistency bias: if the relationship worsened, they report that they rated their relationship less positively than they actually did during the first interview.

In the cases above, the consistency bias means that I am likely to see my past self as more similar to my present self than it is. In other cases, though, I can experience a failure in updating, which means that I see my present self as more similar to my past self than it is. For instance, people developing a chronic or degenerative disease may continue to view themselves as they were before the onset of the disease, not acknowledging some of their physical or psychological changes. According to K.P. Rankin and colleagues, people with dementia usually experience a shift in personality as a result of their condition, becoming more introverted, unassured, and submissive. They may also lose some independence in their lifestyles, having to give up jobs or hobbies, and needing more care and assistance. However, they are often not fully aware of such changes and tend to describe themselves as they used to be, outgoing, active, and self-sufficient.

If self-narratives are in part fictional and the outcome of biased beliefs about ourselves, should we not try and do without them? Do we really need them? We begin to realise how important self-narratives are when we can no longer rely on them. When self-narratives can no longer be reliably created due to some impairment of memory or reasoning that causes reality distortions to be too severe, or when self-narratives cannot be created at all for lack of self-awareness, then things start falling apart. According to Jeanette Kennett and Steve Matthews, the capacity to remember past episodes and integrate them in a coherent narrative is necessary for us to plan and make choices for the future. If our narratives are excessively fragmented, we fail to understand our responsibilities and commitments, and make errors of judgement.

___

"We are both the authors and the heroes of our self-narratives, and in our self-narratives authors and heroes influence each other."

___

This is what happens to people with dissociation who lose the capacity to recall significant past events as events in their own life and cannot construct a coherent self-narrative. As Michelle Maiese explains, a person who experiences dissociation has problems with both memory and self-awareness and cannot remember what her priorities are. This means that when a person with dissociation pursues a course of action, she may not be responsible for it, because she cannot think about reasons in favour or against that course of action that might have been relevant to her at an earlier time. Not only does the person overlook whether that course of action fits well with her prior commitments, but she is also likely to disregard the long-term consequences of her action.


So, when we tell stories about ourselves, this helps us identify a sense of direction in our past life events, but it also shapes our future choices, as we tend to behave in a way that matches the behaviour of the heroes of the stories we have been telling. Our self-narratives are not a faithful record of our lives, but dynamic creations that give significance to a large body of experiences and affect our responses to life events, enabling us to project ourselves in the future and exercise some control on the persons we become. We are both the authors and the heroes of our self-narratives, and in our self-narratives authors and heroes influence each other.

Join the conversation

Sign in to post comments or join now (only takes a moment). Don't have an account? Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google to get started:

iai donation
iai donation
iai donation
Why sign up for the iai?
  • Discover new ideas
    Free and unlimited access to hundreds of hours of debates, talks and articles from the world's leading minds, as well as courses that rival top academic institutions.
  • Have your say
    Join the iai community and engage in conversation and debate around the issues that matter.
  • Hear it first
    Be the first to hear about our video releases, articles and tickets to our upcoming events.
Sign me up