Who am I? It's one of life’s Big Questions. And we might come up with very different answers – depending on when, why and where we ask it. Because our selves are not set in stone; in fact, they are extremely malleable. Over time, it is not only our appearance, our relationships and our circumstances that change, but also how we see ourselves and how we define our identity. Our self-concept – the part of our identity that we can put into words – is completely different at 20, 40, 60 or 80.
This calls to mind the Ship of Theseus paradox, which philosophers were already puzzling over in ancient times. The legendary King Theseus from Greek mythology removed the old planks from his ship and replaced them one by one with new ones over many years, right down to the very last plank. Is the entirely restored boat still Theseus’ ship, or has it become something entirely different? In other words, are we still the same person if we change throughout our lives? “Yes,” says psychologist Alexandra Freund, “our sense of identity remains the same, even when we change completely – in fact, the more we change, the stronger this sense of self becomes.” That our identities change throughout our lives is an interesting paradox, the professor and chair of developmental psychology in adulthood at UZH explains.
This partial rebuilding of our selves is driven by critical stages in our lives. At such turning points, we are no longer in calm and familiar waters. On the contrary, as the seas get choppy, our future is uncertain and our ship looks like it might even smash into the dangerous rocks ahead. It’s at times like these that we have to replace the most planks in our own ships – for instance when we leave school or start a new job, when we start a family, get divorced, move house, retire or lose someone dear to us. Or when we set ourselves new goals. Because our identity is also defined by who we want to be. “Setting new goals is often an opportunity to think about who we are and where we come from,” says Alexandra Freund.
But this introspection is capricious. While we all have an idea of who we are, the question of “who am I?” is far from easy to answer. Alexandra Freund discovered this herself when she put the question to elderly people for her thesis back in the mid-1990s. She had expected her interviewees to spout character traits, or to talk about their roles as parents, or their careers. In fact, most people were initially stumped by the question. “They came up with a few traits they associated with themselves, like being tidy or open-minded,” Freund recalls, “but hardly anyone mentioned any biographical details and yet they all had a distinct sense of identity.”
Strange indeed. Nothing is closer to us than ourselves, and yet the self is extremely elusive. “It’s not accessible to our direct experience,” says Freund, “the only way we can perceive ourselves is through self-objectification.” In other words, I observe myself almost as I observe others, only I have more information – feelings, thoughts, memories. The images we create of ourselves vary widely and depend heavily on the circumstances. Because we can never see ourselves and examine the attributes of our selves in a holistic way, only in parts. For example, at a job interview we would highlight different traits than we would to our friends or partner. “But this doesn’t mean that we’re lying, or trying to present an enhanced version of ourselves; rather, we are simply focusing on a different aspect of our lives,” the professor of psychology explains. Ultimately, there are as many selves as there are life contexts, says Freund.
But where does our self-concept come from in the first place? Staying with the Ship of Theseus: How and from what planks is it made? Developmental psychologists long considered the emergence of the human self as being the moment when a child first recognizes itself in the mirror, explains Moritz Daum. The psychologist researches how children and adolescents discover themselves and the world around them. But we now know that not only two-year-olds, but also crows, monkeys, ants and cleaner wrasses also pass this mirror test. And in experiments, psychologists have shown that our selves start to develop much earlier. Infants can already clearly distinguish between themselves and their environment. A newborn is able to tell whether it is touching itself or whether it is being touched by someone else. This shows that it already has an – albeit vague – bodily self-awareness. Looked at in this way, the development of the self and identity is an ongoing process that starts when we are born and only really ends when we die.
Once children recognize their reflections in the mirror, those around them increasingly become a sort of social mirror – first their parents, then their group of friends, classmates and teachers, and later work colleagues and superiors. They look to role models, emulate them, and distance themselves from them – and in this way, gradually form their own identities. In other words, we wouldn’t be who we are without other people. Parents can help their children in this process by being aware that they are role models and by taking this responsibility seriously. “If I make my child wear a cycle helmet, then I should wear one, too,” says Moritz Daum.
Role models remain crucial throughout our lives. Their influence is greatest in childhood, but even as adults we look up to people who have something we don’t. For psychology professor Moritz Daum, Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel is precisely such a role model. “When he enters the stage, he exudes this spellbinding calm,” says Daum, who once wanted to become a singer himself, “I’d like to be able to give lectures with the same incredible composure as Bryn Terfel, but I’m not quite there yet.” But are role models, parents, friends and teachers really that important when it comes to developing our personalities? Isn’t this more down to our genes – the genetic blueprint in our DNA that determines, plank by plank as it were, who we will become? Scientists disagree on this. While there seemed to be a consensus on the nature-nurture debate that emerged in the 1990s, whereby our behavior is determined by our genes and the environment in equal measure, there is now a growing body of research that gives primacy to nature over nurture.
One of these studies was carried out by Richard Plomin. In his 2018 book Blueprint. How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, the British behavioral psychologist works on the assumption that it is primarily genes that determine identity. According to Plomin, whether we will be forthright or anxious people, whether we will be happy or sad, and whether we will achieve academic success is mainly decided by our genetic make-up. He believes that the influence of parents, friends and school on the development of our personalities and skills is overrated and is in fact much smaller than previously assumed.
Michael Shanahan from the Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development at UZH has a different view. “Genes are molecules – presuming that molecules are largely responsible for my academic success is quite a bizarre idea,” he says. Shanahan is a social scientist, who has changed his own identity as a researcher. In his own words, he is a sociologist who became a biologist. His current research combines social sciences and biology in social genomics. Instead of pitting genes and environmental influences against each other, it is about looking at how biology and the environment interact when it comes to our development, explains Michael Shanahan, an American who has been researching and teaching at UZH since 2016. “Both the genetic code and our environment consist of information, and the way they interact influences human development,” says the social genomics expert.
The interface between biology and environment that Shanahan is referring to is what is known as epigenetics. It revolves around the question of how environmental influences such as stress lead to certain genes being activated or deactivated in our genomes. Social circumstances are also a significant determining factor. “We are exposed to stressors that activate parts of our genome, which in turn can influence our physical and mental development,” says Michael Shanahan. For example, permanent stress in childhood can make us behave more aggressively, but can also make us age more quickly, die sooner, and make us more likely to get sick.
Sociologist and geneticist Michael Shanahan believes our parents’ social status plays a key role in how we become who we are. This also has a crucial influence on epigenetics. “Children are sent on certain life paths, and these are heavily dependent on parents’ education, job and income,” he says. Social status is one of the most important influences in our lives, and has a significant impact on our epigenome. This means that genetically identical twins who grow up in very different households in terms of social status will become very different people with very different identities.
“We often hear in the media about how similar twins are,” says Shanahan, “but what we don’t tend to hear is that they can also be very different if they have grown up in completely different environments.” These differences affect both mental and cognitive development as well as health, because social status has an impact on epigenetics. How they do so and what the consequences are is the subject of one of Shanahan’s current research projects. There are indications that a low social status weakens people’s immune systems and leads to more inflammatory diseases, explains Shanahan.
Besides the interaction between genes and the environment, Michael Shanahan believes there is another factor that shapes our identity: our life course – the path we take in life that makes us who we are. “On the one hand, we aspire to a legitimate path that conforms with society’s expectations and indicates a respectable life, while on the other, we want to be creative and different from other people,” says Shanahan. Reconciling these two sides is a challenge for all of us that we each have to tackle in our own way.
Alexandra Freund also assumes that our self-concept is heavily influenced by society’s expectations. “When we think about our identity at certain stages of life, we are most likely grappling with these sorts of expectations,” the psychologist explains. Someone just starting their first job at 35 is likely to experience negative reactions, for example. Because people generally try to avoid negative judgments, social expectations have a powerful influence on our behavior, says Freund.
So, over the course of our lives, we – more or less consciously – replace old or rotten planks with new ones, therefore changing our self-concept. Guided by past experiences, social expectations and our vision for the future, we arrange the thoughts, feelings and memories that make us who we are into the most coherent possible self at a given stage of life. “This self is made up of flexible elements – like attitudes and motivations – and more constant parts of our personality, which are probably more heavily influenced by our genes,” says Moritz Daum.
But our personalities can change, too. Introverted people, for example, can develop and practice strategies for dealing with their shyness that eventually allow them to project a confident self-image in front of an audience. In this way, we can keep renovating our ship throughout our lives – right down to the very last plank. And yet still stay the same: “A large part of our sense of identity comes from being able to see how we change,” says Alexandra Freund. In other words, I’m me precisely because I change.