When it comes to knowing yourself, social psychologists speak of the “looking-glass self,” a term coined in 1902. It refers to our tendency to understand ourselves by perceiving what others make of us. In other words, the self is the result of learning to see ourselves as others see us.1 The great Scottish poet Robert Burns is credited with saying: “Oh would some power the gift give us / To see ourselves as others see us.”2 Apparently, each of us has that power, for seeing ourselves as others see us is the experience of every human being.3
Human beings are social animals. A growing body of research—some parts surprising, some parts amusing—indicates the extent to which we are profoundly relational creatures and pushes against any notion that anyone is a self-made self. I will make five general points in connection with this fact, drawn from David Brooks’s excellent work, each one striking at the heart of expressive individualism. The following five points are my own synthesis of the relevant studies:
- You were largely formed by your parents.
- Your thoughts are not entirely your own.
- Your mind is not exclusively your own.
- Your behavior is shaped by the company you keep.
- You don’t know yourself that well.
1. You were largely formed by your parents.
Parents effectively pass on to their children an identity, which the child then accepts, revises, or rejects in adolescence. But even if you feel you have discarded the readymade version of you, the influence of your parents and family of origin remains pervasive and powerful. To cite a bizarre example, consider your name, something you had no choice in. One study found that
people named Dennis or Denise are disproportionately likely to become dentists. People named Laurence or Laurie are disproportionately likely to become lawyers. People named Louis are disproportionately likely to move to Saint Louis, and people named George disproportionately move to Georgia. These are some of the most important decisions in people’s live, and they are influenced, if only a bit, by the sound of the name they happen to be given at birth.4
2. Your thoughts are not entirely your own.
You like to believe that you think for yourself. And it’s not just those presently around you that affect your thinking:
The truth is, starting even before you were born, we inherit a great river of knowledge, a great flow of patterns coming from many ages and many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past, we call genetics. The information revealed thousands of years ago, we call religion. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago, we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago, we call family, and the information offered years, months, days or hours ago, we call education and advice. But it’s all information, and it all flows from the dead to us, and to the unborn. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and its many currents and tributaries, and it exists as a creature of that river the way a trout exists in a stream. Our thoughts are profoundly moulded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.5
3. Your mind is not exclusively your own.
Human beings are able to function in a social world because of our network of minds created by our mammalian limbic systems, which resonate with the minds of others, enabling us to partially permeate each other’s thought and behavioral worlds. As Brooks writes, “Human beings understand others in themselves, and they form themselves by re-enacting the internal processes they pick up from others.”6 As he points out, our “minds are intensely permeable. Loops exist between brains. The same thought and feeling can arise in different minds, with invisible networks filling the space between them.”7
4. Your behavior is shaped by the company you keep.
Once again, a somewhat humorous and mundane example makes the point: At restaurants, people eat more depending on how many people they are dining with. People eating alone eat least. People eating with one other person eat 35 percent more than they do at home. People dining in a party of four eat 75 percent more, and people dining with seven or more eat 96 percent more.8
The impact of the behavior of others can have an effect on how you behave even when you don’t notice it. Yawning, for example, is highly contagious.9 Indeed, imitation is a powerful human instinct, and it takes very little for it to kick in:
Friends who are locked in conversation begin to replicate each other’s breathing patterns. People who are told to observe a conversation begin to mimic the physiology of the people having the conversation, and the more closely they mimic the body language, the more perceptive they are about the relationship they are observing. At the deeper level of pheromones, women who are living together often share the same menstrual cycles.10
5. You don’t know yourself that well.
This one is most important for our purposes and it makes looking inward to find yourself problematic. What are you like in terms of your personality? “Numerous studies have shown that there is a low correlation between how people rate their own personality and how people around them rate it.”11 The same goes for how people regard themselves in terms of moral behavior and with respect to their achievements. One study found that half of college students said they would call out a sexist comment made in their presence. However, “when researchers arranged for it to actually happen, only 16 percent actually said anything.”12 Many studies show that people overestimate how much they know, and, if successful, how much of it was due to their talent and grit. One Harvard professor argues that “we have a psychological immune system that exaggerates information that confirms our good qualities and ignores information that casts doubt upon them.”13
Many human beings are comically and infuriatingly overconfident. And apparently, self-confidence bears little relationship to actual competence:
A great body of research finds that incompetent people exaggerate their own abilities more grossly than their better-performing peers. One study found that those who scored in the bottom quartile on tests of logic, grammar, and humor were especially likely to overestimate their abilities. Many people are not only incompetent, they are in denial about how incompetent they are.14
Your identity is constituted in relation to other people and in being known by them.
Brooks’s summary concerning human beings as social animals is blunt but accurate: “We don’t know ourselves. Most of what we think and believe is unavailable to conscious review. We are our own deepest mystery.”15 As Michael Horton insists, “the ‘self ’— understood as an autonomous individual—does not exist.”16 The notion of a self-made self is naive at best; to recall and counter The Greatest Showman, no one marches to a beat that they alone drum. So much for “nobody can teach me who I am.” When it comes to your personal identity, you have been schooled by others from before you were born.
You are not just an individual. You are not your own creation. You did not invent yourself. You exist in a web of relationships. You are a social animal. Your identity is constituted in relation to other people and in being known by them. Indeed, the social and psychological sciences are increasingly defining personhood in relational terms. The self is no longer seen as an isolated and individual phenomenon but as something formed within a network of relationships and neural connections, a being-in-relation.
Most of the subtle influences that I have noted in this section operate at the level of the subconscious. You are not the product of your own conscious deliberations and choices. When it comes to forming your identity, your subconscious does the bulk of the work. The research that Brooks cites shows that the unconscious mind is the realm “where character is formed and most of our most important life decisions are made—[it is] the natural habitat of the social animal.”17 You and I might like to think of ourselves as boldly expressing our individuality in order to find our true selves, but the truth is that rather than being a single, soaring eagle, eyeing our prey from a great height, we are more like a honking goose in a tight V-flight formation.
But don’t misunderstand my goose analogy. It’s not about repressive conformity but interdependence. Geese provide an excellent example of synergy. “As each goose flaps its wings, it creates ‘uplift’ for the birds that follow. By flying in a V formation, the whole flock adds 71 percent greater flying range than if each bird flew alone. When a goose falls out of the formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.”18
Like these geese in formation, we humans are also wired to be interdependent, secure in a network of relationships, with invisible connections and indissoluble ties. “If we have as much sense as a goose, we stay in formation with those heading where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give our help to others.”19 We fly best together, in harmony and unison, bearing our own burden and also sharing the burdens of others. And as any goose will tell you, it’s the only way to fly!
In order to know yourself and be yourself, you need to be known intimately and personally by others. But it doesn’t end there. You also need to be truly loved by them. Being known and loved are the key ingredients to every personal identity worth inhabiting.
Brian S. Rosner