The Cunning Thief (Wikimedia Commons)

Self-Signaling: How Our Actions Can Change Who We Are

Most of us think we make choices because of who we are.

But few of us understand the reverse is also the case — we are who we are, in part, because of the choices we make.

In This Explains Everything, psychologist Timothy Wilson asks a question:

“People act the way they do because of their personality traits and attitudes, right? They return a lost wallet because they’re honest, recycle their trash because they care about the environment, and pay $5 for a caramel brulée latte because they like expensive coffee drinks.”

This seems sensible, but what “feels” right or makes sense is not necessarily the truth. We are social creatures, and oftentimes context (rather than personality) can play a big role in our decisions.

“Often our behavior is shaped by subtle pressures around us, but we fail to recognize those pressures. Thus, we mistakenly believe that our behavior emanated from some inner disposition. … Countless studies have shown that people are highly susceptible to social influence but rarely recognize the full extent of that susceptibility, thereby misattributing their compliance to their true desires.”

Now, this is where things get interesting.

It’s not just that environment affects our actions. Our actions, in turn, also affect how we see ourselves.

“Perhaps we aren’t particularly trustworthy and instead returned the wallet in order to impress the people around us. But, failing to realize that, we infer that we’re squeaky-clean honest. Maybe we recycle because the city has made it easy to do so (by giving us a bin and picking up every Tuesday) and our spouse and neighbors would disapprove if we didn’t. … It’s evident that behavior emanates from our inner dispositions, but … the reverse also holds. If we return a lost wallet, there’s an upward tick on our honesty meter. After we drag the recycling bin to the curb, we infer that we really care about the environment. And after purchasing the latte, we assume that we are coffee connoisseurs.”

This is powerful stuff.

A large part of well-being is how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. If my actions change how I see myself then, well, how I act can have tremendous effects on my quality of life.

Actions can literally change who we are.


In his book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, bestselling author and psychologist Dan Ariely introduces what social scientists call “self-signaling”:

The basic idea behind self-signaling is that despite what we tend to think, we don’t have a very clear notion of who we are. We generally believe that we have a privileged view of our own preferences and character, but in reality we don’t know ourselves that well (and definitely not as well as we think we do). Instead, we observe ourselves in the same way we observe and judge the actions of other people — inferring who we are and what we like from our actions.

Although introspection is a powerful tool, it seems most of us are just not that good at it.

The book contains all sorts of fascinating experiments, but one series in particular stood out to me. Subjects asked to carry around a counterfeit Prada bag were then asked to take a test. The people holding counterfeit bags (on average) actually cheated more:

“…once we knowingly put on a counterfeit product, moral constraints loosen to some degree, making it easier for us to take further steps down the path of dishonesty.”

So this feeling that we are dishonest actually makes us do more dishonest things in the future.

There’s more, though. Take enough steps in the wrong direction, and (as all of us have done before), we shrug our shoulders and say, “Aw, what the hell.” We stop caring at all.

Ariely calls this the what-the-hell effect:

“…for many people there was a very sharp transition where at some point in the experiment, they suddenly graduated from engaging in a little bit of cheating to cheating at every single opportunity they had. …when it comes to cheating, we behave pretty much the same as we do on diets. Once we start violating our own standards (say, with cheating on diets or for monetary incentives), we are much more likely to abandon further attempts to control our behavior — and from that point on there is a good chance that we will succumb to the temptation to further misbehave.”

I’ve felt this many times before. At the gym, if I cheat once on reps (“Well, I lost count at three but it felt like I did eight of them so let’s just say it was eight…”), it is easier to be lazy the next day as well. Soon, I start to skip entire exercises. And, soon after that, I stop going to the gym at all.

There is a vicious circle here — when we cheat, we see ourselves as cheaters. And, after we cheat enough, there is a risk we give up our rules and standards altogether. A single cheat meal can affect today, tomorrow, next week and even who you see yourself as for the rest of your life.

Now, the good news. It works the other way.

A single dishonest action might make us more dishonest, but a single positive action can make us better too.

We know that just faking a smile makes us feel better. And making a better choice today — whether we choose to eat a healthy meal, to phone a friend just to say hello, or to donate money to a cause we believe in — affects our tomorrow in both what we do and in how we see ourselves.

Sometimes, to fake it is the way to make it.

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