Berent, I., & Platt, M. (2019, December 9).
Recent results suggest that people hold a notion of the true self, distinct from the self. Here, we seek to further elucidate the “true me”—whether it is good or bad, material or immaterial. Critically, we ask whether the true self is unitary. To address these questions, we invited participants to reason about John—a character who simultaneously exhibits both positive and negative moral behaviors. John’s character was gauged via two tests--a brain scan and a behavioral test, whose results invariably diverged (i.e., one test indicated that John’s moral core is positive and another negative). Participants assessed John’s true self along two questions: (a) Did John commit his acts (positive and negative) freely? and (b) What is John’s essence really? Responses to the two questions diverged. When asked to evaluate John’s moral core explicitly (by reasoning about his free will), people invariably descried John’s true self as good. But when John’s moral core was assessed implicitly (by considering his essence), people sided with the outcomes of the brain test. These results demonstrate that people hold conflicting notions of the true self. We formally support this proposal by presenting a grammar of the true self, couched within Optimality Theory. We
show that the constraint ranking necessary to capture explicit and implicit view of the true self are distinct. Our intuitive belief in a true unitary “me” is thus illusory.
From the Conclusion
When we consider a person’s moral core explicitly (by evaluating which acts they commit freely), we consider them as having a single underlying moral valence (rather multiple competing attributes), and that moral core is decidedly good. Thus, our explicit notion of true moral self is good and unitary, a proposal that is supported by previous findings (e.g., De Freitas & Cikara, 2018; Molouki & Bartels, 2017; Newman et al., 2014b; Tobia, 2016). But when we consider the person’s moral fiber implicitly, we evaluate their essence--a notion that is devoid of specific moral valence (good or bad), but is intimately linked to their material body. This material view of essence is in line with previous results, suggesting that children (Gelman, 2003; Gelman & Wellman, 1991) and infants (Setoh et al., 2013) believe that living things must have “insides”, and that their essence corresponds to a piece of matter (Springer & Keil, 1991) that is localized at the center of the body (Newman & Keil, 2008). Further support for this material notion of essence is presented by people’s tendency to conclude that psychological traits that are localized in the brain are more likely to be innate (Berent et al., 2019; Berent et al., 2019, September 10). The persistent link between John’s essence and the outcomes of the brain probe in also in line with this proposal.