The psychology of the self is all about who we believe we are. Not just in our own minds but in the perception of how others view us, as well.
There are many facets that make up this sense of self: self-awareness, self-esteem, self-knowledge, and self-perception. When attended to and encouraged, these parts help people to alter or modify all aspects of themselves. This is usually done as a response to the need for social acceptance. This is wired within our own instinctual survival and the basic need to feel safe and secure in us and our surroundings.
From the moment we arrive into the world, we are the center of our universe. Our immediate society of persons is feeding, comforting, teaching us, and our instinctually driven mind wants to keep that comfort. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister wrote in The Self in Social Psychology: “No topic is more interesting to people than people. For most people, moreover, the most interesting person is the self.”
In our current world of social media, we all have a platform to laud ourselves in real time. We are our biggest fans.
How we perceive ourselves in the world that we occupy is called our self-schema. Whether we consider ourselves to be pretty, talented, smart, artistic – and, yes – racist or not is in that self-schema. These powerful drivers are entrenched in how we view ourselves and the others that we come in contact with.
Now, the interplay between the sense of self and the social world around us is a constant. The social surroundings we craft affect our social awareness. Based in instinctual self-interest, we cloud our judgement with it and that driver of protecting motivates our social behavior. If others think well of us, we think well of ourselves.
But what if that self-schema – that identity – is challenged?
If we find our world is rocked by new evidence or opposing viewpoints, we don’t like that. The brain doesn’t like that. That means that our universe that we’ve been the center of for so long isn’t correct.
Enter the one-two punch of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.
Now, many have shared these terms but what, exactly, are they talking about?
Since our brain tends to only accept new information that aligns with our schema, it can feel uncomfortable or even downright stressful, to the brain that is having to take in something that conflicts with our comfort bubble that we have enjoyed for so long.
See, the self-concept we’ve built is personal and social. If the social group we are aligned with all agrees with us, there’s no stress. We are comforted by the bubble. When that bubble bursts, and new information is presented, the survivalist side of us – the one with the desire to protect – will reject and excuse.
The stress our brain feels – embarrassment, guilt, anger and fear – is that cognitive dissonance. Remember, the brain doesn’t like to be scared. Marketers know this and they feed off of it. It is a powerful driver. For example, if you’ve considered yourself an all-loving person who thinks they see everyone equally, then learning about privilege can be painful.
To cope with this stress and discomfort, we deny, deflect and dismiss. We will react and blurt phraseology quickly saying things like “Not ALL men!’, or “All lives matter!”, or even “Fake news!”
It’s easier for the mind to slam the door than to go through the work it takes to move from a toxic mind home.
To admit that those we’ve had hero complexes for aren’t, indeed, heroes dismantles a whole house of comforting rhetoric, especially if you’ve been comfortable in that house for a lifetime.
In order to feel better in the face of the stress, we fall into confirmation bias where we will seek out the evidence that backs up our own wrongness. This, for some reason, is easier than re-learning. This is why conspiracy theories have legs and people can still walk around believing the Earth is flat, even in 2020. This is also where we victim blame with easily-repeatable lines like: “What was his criminal record?”, “What was she wearing that night?”, “You say it to each other all of the time!” and “They shouldn’t have been on the bridge in the first place.”
We see these things happen in real time, all of the time. It doesn’t help that there are countless “sources” to mine, and even authority figures, who fall to it, setting forth permissible examples of it. It’s more desired to preserve our desired schema so we, instead, perform great feats of mental gymnastics to maintain it.
In 2012, The European Journal of Social Psychology published a study where they had found that those who refuse to apologize for being wrong “resulted in greater feelings of self-esteem than not refusing to apologize” and that the “apology refusal resulted in increased feelings of power and control.”
That belief perseverance, rooted in instinct and driven by fear, is tough to change.
And, since the need to feel powerful sticks to our instinctual survival base, and our self-esteem influences our sense of who we are, it is often difficult (and quite frustrating) to deal with those who dig in their heels; But, it makes them feel good – certainly better than the stress of realizing a need to relearn. Couple that with an entire group who will back up the wrongness because vulnerability can feel scary, and it’s an entire pack of paranoia.
Political Scientist Robert Jems once spoke on the influence of self-perception and belief perseverance saying: “Once you have a belief, it influences how you perceive all other relevant information. Once you see a country as hostile, you are likely to interpret ambiguous actions on their part as signifying their hostility.”
Frustrating? Yes. But all is not lost.
The human mind, thankfully, is also malleable and teachable. If bias and dissonance are rooted in fear, the kryptonite to that fear is knowledge.
In 1980, Lee Ross and Mark Lepper stated that “No one denies that new evidence can change people’s beliefs. Children do eventually renounce their belief in Santa Claus.”
Ross and Lepper do assert, however, that this change does tend to happen slowly and the person must choose to be open to it.
We, as a society, need to normalize being able to be wrong. We have to be okay with learning so that we can grow in self and each other. But it takes work and it requires being uncomfortable with who we thought we were, the ideals that we held and what we thought of those in our circle of influence.
As Jonathan Swift wrote in his essay Thoughts on Various Subjects, back in 1711: “A man should never be ashamed to own that he is in the wrong, which is but saying in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”
Here’s to hoping that we all strive to be wiser today than we were yesterday.