Bob Levine: ‘Nobody has just a single ‘self’’
We all have multiple identities – that’s why we are able to thrive at work, says the professor of social psychology
As a young college professor embarking on his first teaching role, Bob Levine received a powerful introduction to the vagaries of the self. Sitting in his office awaiting his first lecture, he was terrified: “Whatever in the world, I was asking myself, had possessed me to select a profession whose defining activity – speaking before groups – had been my lifelong phobia?”
That first week was a blur, he recalls in his new book, Stranger in the Mirror, but during those early performances something unexpected happened: a new self emerged – one that was confident and verbally at ease.
Levine, a professor of social psychology at California State University, was confused. Where did that new self – or Dr L, as he fondly calls him – come from? “It’s a good question,” he says. “Do we have a whole cast of characters sitting around playing harmonicas somewhere in the depths that, when the moment comes, get on stage?”
The answer to that question, and many others about the self, is far from straightforward but, as Levine suggests, the way time, situation and culture change us has big implications for the way we work and do business. And, he tells Work., with something as arbitrary and malleable as our concept of self, sometimes we need to resort to a little self-deception.
Why do we need a sense of self?
I believe it’s about being humans that can function in a social world. To do that, we have to have some sense of who we are. The reality is, we are many different selves, but we want to convince ourselves there’s something deep inside that is basically us. The self we believe exists is a narrative, a story we tell ourselves. It’s a way of making sense of who we are and how to act and, perhaps most importantly, enables us to connect to the person we are going to become. It’s a very odd thing because, if you think of the self you are right now, the self you were when you were six and then try to imagine yourself 30 years from now, they are completely different people. But we are wired to see them as connected, because if we didn’t we would simply indulge ourselves in this momentary self.
Are all of our selves at the conscious level?
Each of us is aware that we don’t have as much control over the decisions we make, the self we become and the words that come out of our mouths as we think we do. Think about talking for 60 seconds – were you planning every word you were saying? It’s just not possible, but somehow it comes out of us. Science tells us there is a spike in brain activity before we are aware of making a decision [including neuroscientist Benjamin Libet’s 1985 study, which demonstrated that participants who were asked to flex a finger had decided to act before they were aware of making the decision]. So things are going on before we are even aware of it. We do have some control, but it’s almost like an editor’s function. We can watch what happens and try to change it.
You talk about us being more like a republic than an individual. How do we resolve the dissonance that having different selves creates?
It would be weird if a person was precisely the same at home as they were at work, for instance. When you are assigned a new role, you know you are going to become a different person. It is hard to predict what kind of person you will become, and it is a mystery where that person comes from, but we all know it happens. At first, when we turn it on we feel like a phoney, but in the best of circumstances over time we look at it as another side of ourselves. We are different people in different situations. If you’re not, then you’re not particularly socially skilled. There is sometimes a cognitive dissonance about this, but we find ways of rationalising it, of reframing it. We may tell ourselves we act this way at work, but it isn’t the real me. So which is the real you? One could argue that what’s important is to understand the balance that works for you, to take note of how you feel about yourself in different situations. But with some things you just have to bite the bullet. That’s the cost of doing business.
Is there any downside to this?
In social psychology, the power of the situation is virtually a mantra for us. The conditions of time and place are often better predictors of how a person will react than the kind of person they are on a personality test. In the 1971 Stanford prison experiment [in which a fake jail was set up in a university basement and students were given roles to play], people were assigned to be either prisoners or guards (see below). Even though it was determined on the toss of a coin, participants embraced their new role within a very short amount of time. One participant [a guard], who at the beginning of the experiment described himself as a pacifist, couldn’t believe the sadistic things he was doing to prisoners within a matter of days. We should never underestimate the person that we can become.
In your book you talk about the disconnect between our self today and our future self. How is this relevant to the way we work?
Hyperbolic discounting – the notion that the further things move into the future, the less tangible they are – clearly made sense a long time ago. When people were out hunting animals there was no need to delay gratification, but we tend to fall into that same way of thinking at work. Procrastination – where we know we have to do something we don’t want to do – is a good example. My students have a term paper to write, but they put it off and, the more they do so, the more miserable they are because they are living with the knowledge that they will have to do it eventually. If you think about the dynamic here, it underscores how difficult it is to make sense of our selves. You are punishing yourself, and at the same time you are punishing the self you are going to become. The separate parts aren’t just divided from each other, they are at odds with each other.
Can we do anything about it?
It is essential to understand that it is normal to hyperbolically discount, that there are irrationalities in our selves. If we can recognise that, it allows us to edit our selves. In some cases, we can exert willpower. When that doesn’t work you need to treat yourself just as you would treat another person – if there is something you want to change, come up with a persuasion technique. Sometimes, we just need to trick ourselves. In my book I talk about a great writer who, when he was having trouble writing, would take off his pants [trousers] and tell his butler he was not to give them back until he had written so many words. Or, there was a woman who had a cigarette addiction and didn’t have the willpower to quit. She was very concerned with human rights, so she wrote a large cheque to the Ku Klux Klan and told a friend if she ever saw her smoking again, then the friend was to send the cheque to the KKK.
Are there wider repercussions of hyperbolic discounting in business?
When running a business we can fall into that same way of thinking. To some extent, quarterly reporting makes sense as it keeps people’s eye on the ball, but if you are to grow your company you need to think long term – and long-term planning is about possible selves, what one can become. Every business knows there is a time to move on and that involves doing something unnatural in our thinking. We need to act in the present in a way that predicts the future – which is unpredictable. Once we phrase it that way we have a better chance of getting there. The same is true when hiring someone. You think you are hiring that person in the moment, but what you’re trying to do is hire a person who doesn’t exist yet. It’s very difficult to know how we will evolve in the future, and to predict that about other people is equally tricky.
Does the sense of self differ across cultures?
In the US and UK, there is a notion that you have to be true to yourself – if we present ourselves in one situation one way and differently in another, we talk about being a hypocrite. It is assumed the self is an independent entity – we may have people around us, but there is this space between others and ourselves. If you look at other cultures, east Asian ones in particular, there is a different sense of what it means to have a self. If you ask people in Japan to describe themselves they have difficulty answering. If you ask them about a particular role, however – for example, who they are at work – they can generate specific traits. It’s understood that there is nothing wrong with the fact that they are describing different traits in one situation than in another.
What implications does this have for working across cultures?
This is a good example of why sometimes people involved in cross-cultural negotiations can leave situations with very bad feelings. We’ve all heard of this sense of harmony – what they call the wa in Japan. They talk about honne (your inner feelings) and tatemae (your public face) and it is understood that, if the situation calls for your tatemae to act in a way that is different from what you feel inside, that’s your obligation. In a business meeting in Japan, if you ask a local person a question that they interpret as being important [to you] for them to agree to, they will do so, and some time later they will go back on it. You think of them as a hypocrite, but they view you as too insensitive to understand what their answer meant. It was your obligation to understand what that yes meant. The communication there lies in what was not said.
Heiress, terrorist or both?
How much control do we actually have over our many selves?
The notion of self was central to the trial of Patty Hearst, the American heiress kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a left-wing terrorist group, in 1974. She insisted that she was forced by brainwashing, threats and sexual assault to support their cause and take part in a bank robbery. The legal defence of brainwashing was unprecedented and, ultimately, failed – Hearst was found guilty and sentenced to 35 years in prison (she was pardoned in 2001).
In essence, the prosecution convinced the jury that Hearst – renamed Tania by her captors to symbolise her new identity – had been turned by the SLA to support its aims. The jury ultimately believed prosecution witness Dr Harry Kozol, who described Hearst as a “rebel in search of a cause” who participated in SLA crimes of her own free will. The jury took a binary view of her state of mind – she had either been a voluntary terrorist or she hadn’t – and, after an unimpressive performance by Hearst as a witness, decided she had. But if you accept Levine’s theory of selves, you could argue she was adapting to a dangerous and unexpected situation.
Her behaviour would have come as no surprise to Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University. On 14 August 1971, police cars picked up volunteer ‘prisoners’ in a mass arrest. Arriving at a fake prison, where they were to stay as inmates for two weeks, they were stripped naked, searched and given uniforms and a heavy chain to wear around their ankles.
At the start of Zimbardo’s experiment, the 24 educated, middle-class volunteers, who were randomly assigned the role of prisoner or guard, feared they would be bored. Yet, in less than 36 hours, prisoner 8612 was discharged because of “extreme depression, disorganised thinking, uncontrollable crying and fits of rage”. Most of the guards flexed their power to some degree – one admitted: “I wanted to see what verbal abuse people would take before objecting.”
The line between play-acting and reality became so blurred that the experiment was aborted after six days. Even Zimbardo, acting as superintendent, had “fallen into the role so thoroughly it was unclear where my identity ended and the role began”.
Ultimately, Hearst’s predicament – and the plight of the ‘prisoners’ – vindicates the point George Orwell made in his novel 1984 when, before his execution, Winston Smith felt delighted because he had learned to love the tyrant Big Brother.
Words: Claire Warren
This article first appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of Work., the magazine for senior members of the CIPD