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Deducing Our Selves


Explanations > Identity > Deducing Our Selves

Believing others | Looking-glass self | Explaining our actions | Accepting evidence | See also


How do we decide who we are? How do I know I am a scientist, a family guy, a photographer, good negotiator and so on? The construction of identity is a complex affair that takes several key sources into account.

Believing others

When other people tell us we are stupid or clever, we tend to believe them, particularly if they are important to us and we trust them. Parents are very significant here as the naive child takes in much of what they say without question. Even strangers can have a surprising effect on us, perhaps as they have no interest in us and may be trusted to tell a more unvarnished truth.

The more others tell us about ourselves, the more we believe them, especially if what we hear is consistent. Believing others and adopting their descriptions of us into who we are also happens more quickly when their words align with existing inner suspicions. If I think I am good at football and others confirm this, I will soon believe I am a very good footballer.

This gives an easy way of changing minds: just tell people who they are and what sort of things they do ('You're a smart guy. You'll know this is the best way').

Looking-glass self

Even more than believing what others tell us about ourselves, we believe what we think they are thinking about us. We are all amateur psychologists, reading the minds of people around us in what is called 'theory of mind'. And we are pretty confident about these readings, especially in deciding what others are thinking about us. In this way we see ourselves through the eyes of others in what has been called the 'looking-glass self'.

In practice, while we are fairly good at reading others' thoughts, we are also fairly bad at it. Our pre-existing notions about both the other person and of ourselves have a huge effect in biasing our assessment of what they are thinking. If we think they are clever, we guess they can quickly understand all problems. If we have a negative self-image, we assume they are thinking critically about us.

To use this to change minds, make sure people think you are trustworthy and authoritative. Be consistent in what you do and demonstrate care for them. When the believe you are a good person they will then take much at face value.

Explaining our actions

We conclude a lot about ourselves from what we do. If we make friends easily, then we conclude we are friendly and likeable. If we walk a lot, even out of necessity, we may decide we enjoy walking.

With our need for consistency, we will take actions based on our beliefs, values and so on. Perhaps surprisingly, we also will change our beliefs and values based on what we do, when this is the only way of explaining our actions (I just gave money to charity -- I must be a caring person).

This principle is used a lot in changing minds, where if you can get a person to do something and they cannot explain it as doing it for you/money/etc. then they have to conclude they did it because that is who they are, and consequently change their inner systems to remain consistent.

In a classic experiment, Freedman and Fraser asked people to either sign a petition or place a small card in a window in their home or car about supporting safe driving. This Foot In The Door (FITD) persuasion method led to the same people later agreeing to put a large sign advocating safe driving in their front yard.

Accepting evidence

We also will take note of other evidence, for example if I have several qualifications I may conclude I am rather clever. Likewise if I fail several exams I may decide I am stupid.

In a fascinating experiment Dutton and Aron (1974) had an attractive woman ask for interviews of young men both on a swaying rope bridge 200 ft above a river, and also on terra firma. A part way through the interview, she gives them her phone number. Over 60% from the rope bridge called her back, versus 30% from terra firma. They had interpreted their arousal from fear on the bridge as attraction to the woman.

To use this principle, create situations that build evidence that the person is the sort of person you want them to be.


These self-images tend to be circular, for example the more others tell us we are good at something, the more we tend to do this and the self belief is reinforced by further comment.

Conflicts can also appear here too. If I sing a lot at home I may conclude I am pretty good at it and enter a talent competition. If the judges there tell me I cannot sing then I feel an inner tension. Are they idiots who are wrong or must I change my self-image? When that image is strong and important to us we will defend it long before we accept the evidence before us.

See also

Identity is..., Identity Conflict, Social Identity Theory, Theories about how we think about ourselves, Beliefs


Dutton, D. G. and Aron, A. P. (1974) Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510-517

Freedman, J., & Fraser, S. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195-202


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