Wisdom//

Your True Self and How to Find It

The latest from decision science identifies a link between gut feelings and the real you.

Courtesy of Westend61 / Getty Images
Courtesy of Westend61 / Getty Images

Why did The Verve see life as a “bittersweet symphony”? The choice of adjective might be telling, tempering any straightforward sweetness with a dash of bitterness up front. These contradictory sensations can apply to our sense of taste just as well as they can to our sense of self. The song recognizes as much, at first believing so firmly in the sameness of the self as to warrant repetition of the same phrase three times — “I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change” — before calling back to it at the end of the verse: “I can’t change my mold, no, no, no.” In between, though, the sweetness of a stable self is cut by the reality of lived life, bittered by behavior through which a single coherent self turns into a million different people from one day to the next.

Psychological research has started to unpack what The Verve understood 20 years earlier. People can, of course, act inconsistently, even over the course of vanishingly small windows of time. We drop a few dollars in the Salvation Army’s red kettle one holiday season but not the next, we recycle our morning coffee cup on Monday but trash it on Tuesday, we sneak in our 250 hourly steps before lunch but insist that we’re too busy for them later in the day.

Moreover, we forgive the versions of ourselves that refused to give, go green, or get up as having fallen victim to the situation. In other words, we explain away these actions as having been taken by our actual self. The actual self navigates through the actual world, trying his or her best to do what we really should do but also taking into consideration the limitations imposed by not having enough money, enough willpower, or enough time. None of this keeps us from holding in our heads an image of ourselves that doesn’t have to worry about considerations and limitations and shortcomings. If the actual self is the reason why we can seemingly morph into a million different people, then this restriction-free true self is the unchanging mold. The true self stays constant underneath and in spite of the bobbings and weavings of the actual self like a ship that resolutely charts a course forward through choppy waters.

While just about everyone believes that they have a true self somewhere deep inside, just about no one believes that they are a rotten apple to their core. It comes as no surprise, then, that the two go hand in hand: Not only do we have a true self, we also have a pretty great true self. This idealization of the person that we really are means that where we see the true self in action, so too do we see better outcomes, with the true self guiding us to virtuous and moral actions, satisfying choices, and meaningful lives.

In light of how keen people seem to be on their true selves, Taly Reich and I wanted to find out how people might pull their true selves from their inner depths into the light of reality. We suspected that we might coax out the true self when we make decisions using our intuitive gut feelings instead of overthinking our choices. After all, our emotional reactions (like just preferring strawberry rhubarb ice cream without being able to say exactly why) come up automatically and are, much like firm molds, rather consistent (we don’t suddenly switch our favorite ice cream flavor from one summer to the next). Perhaps, then, relying on feelings would lead to choices that seem to showcase who we really are.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

We tested this idea in a first experiment that asked people to imagine choosing between two different DVD players. One group made the choice based on their gut feelings while another group made the choice based on extensive deliberation. After everyone picked a player, we asked them to tell us how much their choice reflected their true self. As we suspected, the group that chose intuitively was more likely to say that their DVD player said something about who they really were inside.

But would focusing on feelings also change how people behave? In another study, we again asked people to make a choice, this time between four different restaurants, either going with their gut or giving it a lot of thought. We then gave them the chance to publicize their decision by emailing friends and family about the restaurant they chose. Again, intuitive people were more certain that their chosen restaurant revealed their true self, and this led them to share their choice with more people.

So, the next time you’re standing at a deli counter or scrolling through Yelp, why not try going with your gut rather than thinking to the point of overthinking? It should help you to pick something in which you’ll find a lot of value because in it, you should also find a bit of yourself.

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