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The Science of Human Behaviour

Posts Tagged ‘self-perception

Questions about “The Self”

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In recent times there has been a lot of discussion with regard to social psychology constructs such as self-esteem, self-determination and self-affirmation. Due to rapidly changing societies and new insights into cognitive processes of memory formation some old theories of self-psychology have recently been challenged. For example Heine, Lehman, Markus and Kitayama (1999) postulated that self-esteem, conceptualized as positive self-regard, is not a universal value and should be replaced by the concept of self-enhancement. However, all those theories are closely connected to the concept of self, which in itself still remains unclear. Since there are many different interpretation of the self, many discussions end in despair, each side holding on to their specific conceptualization of the self, which are not interchangeable. But can there be any definition that fits them all? Does “talking about myself” and “exercising control over myself” relate to the same objects?

Terms such as self-esteem suggest that there is stability of that process on the influence of behavior. However people can switch between different roles (selves?) with relative ease. Reinders et al. (2003) showed that in patients with Multiple Personality Disorder, there are specific cerebral blood flow patterns mainly in the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior associative cortices that can produce different senses of self. It is parsimonious to assume that the same process also mediates the different senses of self in healthy persons, however to a lesser extend in the sense that every self is aware of its coexistence within one person. Different selves have been postulated, such as the social self, the future self, the past self, the material self, the spiritual self… But do constructs such as self-esteem relate to all the selves in the same way or do they apply differently to different selves? Are there processes that extend through all the possible selves? Should we specify a specific self when looking at a process such as self-esteem?

People who have grown up in different cultures report that their self-concept differs in relation to the environment, as shown by Markus and Kitayama (1991). Chinese Canadians completed different measures with regard to the self, such as a measurement of independent, interdependent self-construal. When the test was conducted in a European setting (English researcher, English questions) their self-construct was predominantly independent. However if the setting (environment) was different (Chinese researcher, test in Chinese) their self-construct was more interdependent. Ross, Xun and Wilson (2002) replicated those findings and extended the method to other self-related constructs. They conclude that identities of bicultural persons may be stored in separate knowledge structures, which can be activated by the associated language.

At that point let’s take a look at different theories about the self. Descartes thought that the self was some entity that existed outside of the material body. William James defined the self as an object of knowledge consisting of whatever the individual views as belonging to himself (Epstein, 1973). George Mead noticed that the self-concept arises in social interaction as product of the individuals concerns of how others will react. Rogers saw the self as an organized fluid, but conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the ‘I’ or the ‘Me’, together with values attached to these concepts. Allport used the term proprium instead of self to stress the aspects of the individual that he or she regards of central importance and which contribute to a sense of inward unity. Furthermore the self has been described as a self-theory (Epstein, 1973),and as a cognitive knowledge structure. Sarbin remarked that behavior is organized around cognitive structures. Recently neurobiological pathways (especially the CMS, cortical midline structures) have been found to play an important role in self-referential processes. Those processes, distinguishing stimuli related to one’s own self from those that are not relevant to one’s self, might be the computing basis for the different kinds of self-concepts that have been observed.

I believe that the concept of self entails different cognitive processes, which should be looked at in the most abstract way still meaningful. Arguing from a philosophical, mechanical perspective I believe that having cognitive processes that assign a self / non-self marker to different knowledge objects should be enough to construct a theory of self. I assume that “the self” is a cognitive object that is constructed on-line, depending on the task and environment at hand. The content of those temporary self-representations is drawn for the knowledge that has been marked by the reflexive process as possessing the self-attribute. Those knowledge objects frequently used for the construction of the self should over time become chronically accessible. Such a definition of self would allow many degrees of freedom and would fit many definitions of the self previously given. Thus I propose that whenever “the self” is involved, it is necessary to specify which cognitive processes are suggested to be involved. I also propose that the environment for which the theory or hypothesis is formulated should be explicitly described. Ultimately it might be better to talk about reflexive processes instead of the self.


Epstein, S. (1973). The self-concept revisited. American Psychologist, 28, 404-414.
Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R. & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766-794.
Markus, H. R. & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, (98), 224-253.
Reinders, A. A. T. S., Nijenhuis, E. R. S., Paans, A. M. J., Korf, J., Willemsen, A. T. M., & Boer, J. A. (2003). One brain, two selves. NeuroImage, (20), 2119-2125.
Ross, M., Xun, W. Q. E., & Wilson, A. E. (2002). Language and the bicultural self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1040-1050.

Written by Martin Metzmacher

September 22, 2008 at 9:54 pm

Are We Strangers to Ourselves?

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Who are you?

Okay…easy enough question, but get this one:
How do you know who you are?
Do you get it right?

So many times I meet people that tell me all about them and how they are and when I finally get to know them, they seem to do quite the opposite of what they honestly believe about themselves (me included). So let’s take one step back and look at some ways that you can learn about yourself:

  • Feedback by others
  • Reflecting on appraisal
  • Introspection (emotions / preferences)
  • Self-perception (à la Bem)
  • Social comparison
  • …(probably a hundred more)…

Looking at the points above I propose two dimensions for categorization:

  • Information required by others / by ourselves
  • Information about behavior / about feelings and thoughts

For example I always thought of myself as being very sensitive to other people. Which is (kindly spoken) rubbish. But how did I come to think that way in the first place and why did I stop believing in it? It all started when I started seeing this girl, more precisely when she started telling me what I was actually (not) doing. I was taken my motivation for granted and did not really look at my behavior. In fact in inferred from my thought hoe I should be like…well I was not.

To cut a long story short Roos Vonk explained to me last week, why we think all sorts of things about ourselves that don’t have anything to do with what we seem to be doing (from someones else’s perspective). Roos Vonk is teacher at the Radboud University and has her own coaching company, but unless you inherited a fortune you probably cannot pay her anyway…

Recent theories indicate that there is an implicit self and an explicit self. While the explicit self is related to what we consciously think about ourselves, the implicit self is more strongly related to actual behavior. You could compared those two self-concepts to the implicit and the reflective system of Strack & Deutsch.

When asking WHY-questions we are talking about the explicit self in a conscious way. But it is questionable if we can understand the ways of the implicit self (and behavior) by asking these kinds of conscious, reflective questions. Instead it would be much smarter to ask WHAT-questions and to look at our own behaviour as if we would be another person. This way we can possibly negate some misleading thought and interpretations (and motivations on how we want to be).

So in the end…are we we strangers to ourselves. I would answer with a nes: We most probably cannot get insights about our own behavior by thinking about ourselves, yet if we train to think in a different we have the chance to observe ourselves 14 hours (probably more for the hard working scientists) a day. Several tools can also help us keep track of our behavior in an unbiased way. But for the lazy ones: Asking your girlfriend / boyfriend might actually be much more effective.

Written by Martin Metzmacher

May 13, 2008 at 8:46 pm

The Whorfian Hypothesis: Language and Thought

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Where are all the Eskimos gone?

The question of language and though and its reciprocal influence has been discussed countless times. It goes back all the way to the Greeks and probably even further. In the last 30s of last century the businessman and linguist Benjamin Whorf postulated what would be know as the Whorfian-Hypothesis. His hypothesis can be split into a strong version, called linguistic determinism and a somewhat weaker version called linguistic relativism. Linguistic determinism states that our thinking and behaviour causally depends on the structure of our language. Linguistic relativism postulates a relationship between language and thought, but rejects the idea that this relationship necessarily needs to be causal.

Today most scientists, believe that the strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis, as well as the opposite, the claim that language has no influence on thought, is wrong. Even stronger, the theory is thought to be non-scientific, because of circular reasoning, as Steven Pinker (1994). points out in his book The Language Instinct: “Eskimos speak differently so they must think differently. How do we know that they think differently? Just listen to the way they speak!”. In the 1960s, when Noam Chomsky’s work on universal grammar became popular, most scientists turned away from the Whorfian hypothesis, but advances in the field of cognitive psychology in the early 90’s sparked renewed interest. Since then an important shift has occurred in this field of research, as more basic cognitive processes such as spatial orientation and memory have been put on the agenda of the researchers. I am now going to present several pieces of empirical evidence in favour of linguistic relativism.


Capacity in short-term memory is limited. It therefore makes sense to symbolise complicated constructs in the short term memory and store the complete information of the construct concerned in long term memory (that is what language actually does). The influence of language might therefore for some part be mediated by memory. And indeed there is evidence that language influences information stored in memory. One interesting paradigm to test this are colour perception. Participants were presented with non-prototypical (turquoise) chips and, after a delay, had to pick the right one (Schooler, 1990). Participants that had been forced to label the colour as either blue or green performed worse on the retention task (in the direction of the forced label) than participants that had not labelled the colour of the chips. Interestingly the effect disappeared when participants where forced to use the label blue-green.

Spatial orientation

Whereas in most western languages the dimension of time is semantically situated on a horizontal plane, this is not the case for Chinese. In Chinese the dimension of time spans on a vertical plane and indeed Chinese participants in an experiment by Boroditsky (2001) were faster to confirm that April comes after March if they had previously been primed with a vertical array of objects. On the contrary, English participants were faster, when presented with a horizontal array of objects.


Higher order categories seem to be consistent throughout different languages (at least when the objects at hand are equally used in both societies), but this is not the case with lower order categories. In an experiment by Ameel (2005) it was shown that in French and Dutch bilingual speakers (from Belgium, thus sharing one cultural background) the categories used to classify objects (bottles and dishes) shared features of both the naming-pattern used by French native speakers and by Dutch native speakers. The researchers therefore concluded that the classification of objects not only depended on the commonalties between the objects, but also on language-specific factors.


In a study by Kemmelmeier and Cheng, bilingual Students from Hong Kong filled in Singelis’s independent and interdependent self-construal scales in English as well as in Chinese. As hypothesised there was significant difference in the self-construal of the students between the two languages. Describing themselves in English, students attributed a more independent self-construal to themselves, whereas in Chinese their self-construal was more interdependent. Kemmelmeier and Cheng concluded that language can serve as a cognitive cue to prime or reinforce culturally normative self-construals. This is also supported by a lot of episodic evidence from people (including me – especially when talking and thinking French) feeling like a different person, when talking in a different language.


The renewed interest of science in the Whorfian-theory has generated many interesting research findings. New paradigms and techniques, as well as the fast-paced development of cognitive neuroscience, have opened new doors for the researchers. However there is still much room for new research and specification of old findings. Research between different languages is mostly cross-cultural research, inviting numberless alternative explanations. Because of that research findings will need to be replicated in designs using bilinguals as participants. Furthermore, as the research on language and memory has shown, we will need to specify which cognitive processes actually cause the influence of language on though and how these mechanisms work. At the end of this search we might even meet up with the lost Eskimos.


Ameel, E., Storms, G., Malt, B. C., & Sloman, S. A. (2005). How bilinguals solve the naming problem. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 60–80.

Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought? Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43, 1-22.

Kemmelmeier, M., Cheng, B. (2004). Language and Self-Construal Priming: A Replication and Extension in a Hong Kong Sample. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35, 705-712.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York, US: William Morrow and Company.

Schooler, J. W., & Engstler-Schooler, T. Y. (1990). Verbal overshadowing of visual memories: Some things are better left unsaid. Cognitive Psychology, 22, 36-71.