Labels Make You Less Sure of Yourself

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Artwork: Adam Lupton

Which superpower best represents you?
What is your Greek God name?
What character from Game of Thrones are you?
What can your star sign predict about your relationships?
What are your core personality traits?
Who is your ideal lover?
Who are you?

Who are you?

Who are you?

In Buddhist philosophy, there is a concept called anatta, which literally means “non-self”. It is a core doctrine of Buddhism, and states that people have no lasting characteristics, no fixed personality traits, and no ‘core self’.

This concept has always seemed radical to Western cultures because so much of what we value stems from being an individual. In a capitalist society – where we work to live, buy for fulfilment, and forge our own unique paths through life – it becomes easy to identify with what we do, what we have, and what we seek to achieve.

Not only does the idea of ‘non-self’ challenge these pillars of Western culture, it goes against our very nature. Humans have evolved (effectively for the most part) as pattern-recognition machines. Two concepts that appear similar are a match. Add a third and it becomes a pattern.

These behaviours served us well through our rise to the top of the food chain. Recognising patterns in the environment ensured our survival, and as we began to develop frontal lobes and Theory of Mind, we noticed patterns within ourselves too: What made us tick, what we responded to in the environment, and the sorts of people we were drawn towards.

These have became core components of how we see ourselves as individuals to this very day.

In recent years, our pursuit of individualism has been studied through the lens of the quantified self.

Take horoscopes as one example. The desire to quantify our behaviours and personalities as something that can be labelled and categorised has led some of us to believe that the fixed patterns of star systems billions of light years away hold some significance to our personal lives. Before you know it, a vague prediction that could apply to just about anyone feels suddenly relevant.

Most personality tests use this same logic.

Modern culture exacerbates this desire. The role of advertising is to invoke some sort of choice. This allows us to hold preferences in categories we didn’t even know we could hold preferences for, thus adding another dimension to self-quantification.

This is why personalisation campaigns exist. It’s why cereal companies position themselves as artisanal, feel good products that can ‘complete you’. It’s why fast food outlets make charity donations in your name with every purchase.

Social media and digital apps have capitalised on this. With one click of a button we can proudly tell the whole world that we have voted. Snapchat and Instagram filters allow us to express ourselves in a way we believe align with our sense of self. The sheer number of emojis, gifs, and stickers available is staggering.

Perhaps unwittingly, through the pursuit of individualism, through the process of quantifying ourselves, we have crafted a culture of identity politics in which self-expression and attachment to popular cultural icons are the biggest indicators of social status.

Simply put: The more unique you are, the more interesting you are.

Take monetised mobile ‘freemium’ games (most popular with the generation that complains about young people using phones at the dinner table). A single app can draw hundreds of dollars in micro-transactions from a single person in increments small enough to not warrant any concern. Is this because they’re all addictive, or because incremental payments reward us with more options, more choice, and more ways to express ourselves while signalling it to others.

Virtue signalling. Self-expression. Self-quantification. These are the necessities to becoming a successful individualist. ‘Non-self’ challenges these ideas, yet psychological research has shown the benefits of easing up on the ego pedal again and again and again.

Individualism relies on a culture of ‘self’- in that we all have innate or ‘hardwired’ personality traits that can be built upon, or uncovered, by our cultural upbringing. This is an appealing notion, but the research just doesn’t support it. In fact, the more we discover about personality and cognition, the more it appears that very few traits and behaviours, excluding conditional reflexes, are inherent within us from birth.

We are fast discovering that there may be no ‘core self’; something that personality psychologists have struggled with for decades. It’s a daunting thought because it places less importance on all that we’ve built.

What do our personal tastes say about ourselves if there is no fixed ‘self’ to anchor them to?

Unnerving as this may be, the evidence supports it. What we may have once thought of as a core ‘sense-of-self’ is an evolving societal mechanism. Some studies are beginning to show that the emotional residue from decisions made months in passing can continue to impact future decisions, even when the source of the emotion has been forgotten.

It’s baffling to think about.

The unconscious is a powerful tool and influences so much of our behaviour. We buy Pepsi over a store brand because of memory structures built up through years of advertising exposure, but will buy that same store brand on a whim when it looks almost identical to a name brand but slightly cheaper.

We hold onto faulty beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence due to habits in the way we think. Confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and normative environmental exposure can all lead us down the path of misinformation. Even the fact that something was normalised for us as a child, and therefore in a state of mental plasticity, can act as a baseline for how we critically evaluate the world as we grow old.

So much of what we believe makes us ‘who we are’ is out of our control.

The environment, personal idols, advertising, religion, pre-conceived beliefs, cultural upbringing, family tradition, and general System 1 style thinking influence so much of our personality. It’s a wonder we still believe that complete and total self-knowledge is within our grasp.

And all the Buddhists did to discover this concept of non-self was remove themselves from as much external bullshit as possible for as long as they reasonably could.

The lesson here is to limit our exposure.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that shifting from aesthetic to ascetic pursuits will make us happier. It’s about being in tune with what really matters and filtering out anything that doesn’t.

It’s about stepping back from all the ways in which we break down and label our personalities and simply allowing ourselves to be.

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