The notion of the “true self” rests on a distinction between elements of your psychology that are part of who you really and truly are and elements of your psychology that are, we might say, just along for the ride. To illustrate the idea, think about an instance when you were conflicted—for example, a time you stopped yourself from acting on a desire that tempted you. For me, it always works to imagine the waiter asking me if I’d like another basket of chips while waiting for my meal. On the one hand, I’m pulled by my desire to ask for more chips; on the other hand, I’m pulled to decline by my belief that I shouldn’t fill up on snacks. The thought is that one of these conflicting psychological states—my desire or my belief—is internal to my true self, while the other is external. The one represents where I really stand, what I’m really and truly like. The other is like an alien in my head. It’s mine in one sense, but in a deeper sense, it’s not.
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There are various accounts of what makes the difference between what’s internal to and what’s external to one’s true self. A traditional picture, with roots as far back at least as Plato, goes something like this: You are both essentially identified with your values and capable of reflecting on your psychological states from their perspective. The true self, on this picture, is a mesh between your values and those psychological states endorsed from their perspective. For example, a desire is internal to your true self if it is for something you value. I find this traditional picture quite attractive. And one reason for this is that it enjoys support from psychological studies about people’s judgments about the true self.
First, there is evidence in support of the idea that your values constitute the perspective from which you endorse or reject psychological states. The key finding here is that our values affect our judgments about other people’s true selves. Taking political affiliations as proxies for values, researchers found that liberal and conservative subjects often expressed opposing views about whether a given psychological state was internal to a person’s true self. For example, when presented with a vignette about Mark, who believes that homosexuality is sinful but feels sexually attracted to other men, 57% of liberal respondents judged that Mark’s feelings were part of his true self, but not his belief. Only 26% of conservative respondents agreed. However, when presented with a vignette in which Mark is characterized as believing that homosexuality is morally acceptable but harboring negative feelings towards homosexual couples, the pattern was reversed. In this case, 68% of conservative respondents judged that Mark’s feelings were part of his true self, but not his belief. Only 38% of liberal respondents agreed. The upshot is that subjects were more likely to judge that a psychological state was a part of Mark’s true self when they thought that state was good than when they thought it was bad. This suggests that the traditional picture is correct to claim that our values are the standpoint from which we make judgments about the true self.
A second piece of support for the traditional picture comes from a series of studies that looks at judgments about identity over time. The results suggest that people take persistence to depend more on the continuity of moral traits than any other psychological or bodily characteristics. In one study, subjects were asked to consider a scenario in which they see someone they knew at age 25 for the first time in 40 years and rate the degree to which a given change in the meantime altered that person’s true self. Changes to a person’s moral character (e.g., becoming racist, becoming cruel, becoming honest, becoming generous) were judged to have more impact on the true self than changes to memory, personality, basic cognition, preferences, or perception. Other studies support these results. Taken together, these findings suggest that our judgments about the persistence of persons over time focus on evaluative elements of their overall character.
In sum, we have one set of results that suggests the standpoint from which we make judgments about the true self is evaluative and another set of results that suggests the object of those judgments is evaluative. When it comes to the true self, we tend to make judgments about values from the perspective of values. This fits well with the traditional picture.
To be fair, support from the psychological literature for the traditional, values-based conception of the true self is not entirely conclusive. For one thing, it’s unclear that the same notion of values is at play in all of these studies. Thinking something is good or bad is not exactly the same as thinking that it is morally good or bad. For another, political affiliation is not a perfect proxy for values. Not all liberals have the same values, nor do all conservatives. These issues should be explored in future work. But the judgments of regular folk appear to support the traditional philosopher’s view that you are your values and those psychological states that align with them.