Chances are you have lots of beliefs about yourself and everyone else you come across. You use these beliefs to help understand why people do what they do. If someone yells at you, you might forgive them because you know they are under a lot of stress. Or, you might not trust them because you think that this person is always angry with you. Or, you might even think that deep down, they are an angry person who should be avoided at all costs.
There are probably times when you believe that a person’s actions reflect the situation they are in or their current mental state. But, you also have times when you think that a person’s actions are a reflection of their true self.
Psychologists around the world have been interested in capturing the qualities that people think are part of someone’s true self and also in understanding how the idea of a true self affects people’s actions and their relationships with others.
An interesting fact of the true self is that it seems to be a belief that is similar across cultures. That is, aspects of the true self have been explored in studies using many different populations around the world, and the beliefs tend to be quite similar.
Two core beliefs are that the true self tends to be moral and good. So, when people make a change in their actions, they are more likely to be judged as doing something that reflects their true self when they change from doing something bad to something good than vice versa. This is why someone who stops abusing drugs or alcohol is often judged as allowing their true self to come through, while someone who starts abusing drugs or alcohol is judged as suppressing their true self.
These beliefs also tend to lead people to assume that someone can change for the positive over time, even if many of their past actions have been bad. We are reluctant to decide that someone is truly evil and prefer to believe that their true self has a moral beauty that might someday lead them toward better actions in the future.
An interesting fact of the true self is that our beliefs about our true self and other people’s true selves are similar. This belief differs from the way we often treat our motives compared to those of people from a different group. Often, we assume that we and people from our group have better motives than people from some outgroup. But, we also assume that deep down (in their true self) members of other groups are good and moral people.
Why does the concept of the true self matter?
One reason, the belief in a true self affects people’s judgments about what actions give life meaning. A person might work hard at their job and also spend time with family. They might believe that their job is just something they do, but that the importance they place on family relationships is part of their true self. Meaning, the effort they put into their family relationships will give them a greater feeling that their life has had meaning than the effort they have put into their profession.
Another reason, the belief in true self can influence the treatments people will consider for mental illnesses. For example, many college students are willing to take medications for attention disorders that allow them to focus on their work. Part of the reason why they take this medication so freely is that few people consider their ability or inability to concentrate as a central part of their true self. On the other hand, many patients suffering from bipolar disorder are reluctant to take their medication, because they believe that their medication is changing aspects of their true self.
While the true self seems to be an important part of people’s beliefs about themselves and others, it is hard from a scientific standpoint to think of the true self as something that actually exists. I may believe that I have a true self, but is there actually a true self inside me? It can be useful to believe that we and other people are inherently good and moral, but that doesn’t mean that there is an inherently good and moral person lurking within every person just waiting to get out.