You are an illusion.

We’re good at acquiring stuff. Working, going shopping and coming home with new toys we’ll probably never use is a cultural pastime. We even have a vernacular for it (i.e. retail therapy, impulse purchase, buyer’s regret).  We chase titles, belts and get a certificate to prove we learned anything. Well, so what?  What does it matter if people buy lots of stuff and get loads of certificates? Well, aside from the financial and sustainability issues, it seems to me that a sense of anomie, depression and anxiety seem to be worst at a time when we have never had so much of everything.  Are we more anxious, alienated and depressed in spite of the fact we seem to have acquired so much – or because of it?  What do we need this stuff for?  I’m reminded of my favourite Forrest Gump quote “There’s only so much you really need, the rest is for showing off”.  But showing off what?  Our identity.


You myth me?

Let’s talk about myths.  Now, if I asked the average modernised Australian (or American, or New Zealander)  what the ‘myths’ of your culture are, they’d be as hard pressed to tell you what they are as a fish would struggle to tell you about water. It’s everywhere, all around, so no one really needs to give it a name. It’s curious we are always quite ready to talk about the ‘myths’ of other cultures, but it’s kind of weird to talk about the myths of our own culture. Today I’d like to talk about two myths in particular, and here’s #1: We can keep acquiring things without end.  It’s a myth. Like the perpetually growing economy, endless natural resources, the tooth fairy, and disposal.

After all, you can own dozens of houses, but you can only be in one at a time, and certainly only have one home. You have to vacate one to be in another. The best you can say is you have exclusive access. Friends? Well you can have 700 on Facebook, but do you know any of them really?  As well as the two or three friends you really have time for?  You can drive one car at a time, play one guitar, ride one bike, study only so many arts and commit to so many projects. So when you acquire something, you must lose something to make room for it. Behavioural economists call this opportunity cost.

He that sips of many arts, drinks of none – Thomas Fuller

Now, I’m not the first to take issue with mindless gathering of statuses, objects, houses, followers and likes.  After all, it wasn’t long ago ‘frugality’ was regarded as a sign of maturity, wisdom, and virtue.  But why?  I think frugality has to do with seeing through myths about ownership and identity.  It’s less about environmentalism and sharing (although that’s probably in there) and more to do with clarity.


I am what I own…

Psychologist Mark Manson suggests that we think we are changing our ‘selves’ when we change habits, possessions or status – and this can get in our way.  But why do we get identity involved with our choices in things, habits and attitudes at all? That’s the question!

I suspect it works like this.  In our youth, we’re very attentive to signals that give us information about how we are perceived by others (I look popular, sporty, a nerd or I’m creative etc). That’s why social anxiety, and concerns with the opinions of peers, tend to peak during the teenage years. Erik Erikson, developmental psychologist, suggested that different developmental periods presented different developmental tasks to resolve. The task in one’s early adult life?  Erikson’s 5th developmental stage is (drum roll)… Identity versus Confusion.  Our possessions, certificates, monikers and statuses are accumulated to reflect our identity.  In our early years that’s as it should be, but we’re supposed to grow past it ( to Intimacy, Generativity etc).  If we don’t we can get stuck in what is neatly described by the ‘Diderot Effect’. Here’s an example.

My wife and I own a small practise, which has expanded rather quickly; we’ve been fortunate to win some awards, bringing with it the usual 15 minutes of minor fame in the local paper. My neighbour was kind enough to congratulate us, adding “Mate, you’ll have to sell up and get a bigger flash place won’t you?”  He wasn’t teasing.  Apparently our little weatherboard cottage and dented utility don’t fit with our identity as he saw it; so, it’s time to ‘trade up’?  My wife won Business Person of the Year, so perhaps I’m ‘punching above my weight’ now, but assuming I don’t get my marching orders in favour of a more upmarket gentleman, I don’t plan on moving… back to Diderot.

Diderot was a poor philosopher who received the gift of a new scarlet dressing gown from a noblewoman. Dressed so resplendently, he looked at his tattered old couch, and his beaten up desk and thought ‘I’m not that guy anymore’. So he went into considerable debt to ‘upgrade’ his goods to match his upwardly mobile identity; an identity he’d become a slave to according to his essay lamenting the loss of his old gown. The Diderot effect is well known to marketers and economists – for obvious reasons.  Keep offering a ‘better’ identity, you can keep selling people new accoutrements to go with their new identity.  Of course, such bustling commerce requires that we remain stuck in Erikson’s 5th stage – acquiring our ‘identity’.  Cultural level immaturity if you like.


Who do you think you are? Myth #2.

Our cultural worship of youth, and our (relative to other cultures) disdain for the elder keeps us reinventing. our ‘identity’ over and over in a kind of developmental ‘Groundhog Day’.  We discard one, reinvent, re-purchase and re-furnish, but never mature. No wonder we’re pretty good at acquiring symbols of our identity; be they ‘jobs’, ‘Paleo cookbooks’, ‘Black Belts’, ‘BMWs’, or ‘Active Wear’.  This developmental merry-go-round is supported by two assumptions that are treated as self-evident in our culture: 1) That there IS a ‘you’, and 2) Things will be much better all round if you find this ‘you’ reflected  in the stuff you own.  By you I mean an unchanging ‘authentic’ identity that waits to be realised or uncovered.  Trouble is, this idea is not universally accepted, and is recently undermined by psychological studies.

Any assumption that things are permanent is not only an illusion, it’s contrary to natural laws. The persistent belief in an enduring personality has more to do with the subjective experience of being separate from the world around us than empirical evidence. Not only does Zen philosophy take issue with the idea that the 5 year old writing their name is the same person as the 80 year old that signs a cheque, psychological science is also casting doubt on the idea. A 2016 study found that there was no reliable link between any personality variables in people as they aged between 14 and 77 years, with one weak exception (how easily one’s moods tended to change).  In an experimental study, researchers found that study participants could reliably alter their personality if they chose to in only a few weeks!

Yet, we acquire possessions, certificates, statuses and titles endlessly, hoping to ‘be somebody’ (what if it turns out you’re really a right wing conservative insurance broker with a yellow combover?? Eek!).  Every time we discard our old robes and put on new ones along with our new ‘me’, we must be progressing right?  Maybe not. I wonder if we keep acquiring new ‘me’s because we’re stuck in that youthful acquiring mode. If we just acquire a bit more status, stuff etc, we’ll be someone.  I think this is an illusion of maturity, not progress.

Now, just for the record, I do believe we have some enduring  tendencies.  For example, I’ve always seemed to like bright clothing,  I’ve always loved nature, and both of these predilections have served me well over the years.  However, I also believe humans are far more malleable than we think, and our temperament really only has the influence on our behaviour that we give it.  But instead, we tend to confuse the details of our occupation, statuses and possessions with our general temperament.  This is, I will argue below, putting the cart before the horse, and it gets us into trouble.

A few years ago, I was having a BBQ with a colleague,  and we were discussing the sort of mental biases that to get people into trouble.  My colleague casually proclaimed (with astonishing arrogance), “I’m a psychologist so I don’t get into trouble with things like that because we know about them.”  Now, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverksy  won the Nobel Prize for identifying and describing the kind of mental shortcuts that people use,  and for describing how they can get them into trouble at times.  One example, the Planning Fallacy, causes us to underestimate how long a job will take, and usually causes us to under budget!  In his excellent book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Professor Kahneman points out knowing about these biases won’t save you from them, and with characteristic humility describes cases where he fell “hook line & sinker” for the very cognitive biases he won a Nobel Prize for ‘discovering’!


My colleagues’ naively self-aggrandising declaration was a classic example, in my view, of one’s perceived identity ‘running the show’.  He convinced himself that because he had acquired the right to refer to himself as a psychologist,  monitoring his thoughts and behaviours was no longer required –  his identity would look after all that.  He was a psychologist, after all.  But this made him more vulnerable to bias – not less. This is what comes of mistaking a ‘representation’ of a thing, for the thing itself.  Confusing a black belt for the skill and character that should be in evidence prior to receiving it, confusing a marriage certificate for the daily acts of service and love that should go into a relationship, confusing gym memberships for good health, and self discipline.  When we believe we are immune to certain of life’s pitfalls and failings because we have a certain identity, the proverbial ‘crazy’ shrink, the ‘immoral’ preacher, the unfit karate ‘master’, and the likes of Bill Cosby and Rolf Harris (paragons of good old family values) become somewhat less mysterious. Their ‘identity’ afforded them a certain ‘plausible deniability’.  Even, in fact especially, to themselves.

Thinking that the symbols that project our identity are actually a real part of ‘us’, and can therefore exercise some protective power in our daily lives affords a certain laziness too.  When we buy books about zen but never meditate, buy memberships and fancy equipment but never train, go to university with a “P’s (‘pass’) make degrees” mentality, we accept the appearance of progress (recognised with a certificate or some accolade) over real growth, real challenge, genuine self-knowledge, and (unfortunately) real confidence.

Perhaps ‘finding ourselves’ doesn’t require that we uncover our ‘identity’, ‘self’ or whatever you want to call it. Instead, I suspect what is required is that we see through identity.  See it for what it is – a projection to the world.  Don’t get me wrong, we need an identity. It’s a social tool. It is helpful to project an image of reliability, sociability and trustworthiness – it gets us loans, likes and on occasion, laid. In fact, my doctoral research (among many others) indicated clearly the primary motivation behind much of our social behaviour is the preservation of reputation. This isn’t as bleak as it sounds.

If the data is to believed, we can’t expect our identity to manage our behaviour, rather we need to keep an eye on our behaviour and how it impacts upon the picture of ourselves we want to see in the metaphorical mirror. A liberating prospect.  I’m not really a ‘night person’, I have a habit of staying up too late, I could change it.  I’m not ‘right brained‘, but I do enjoy drawing and I’m OK with the fact that I use intuition to make decisions. We are responsible for maintaining our identity, not the other way around.  This is true not only with others, but with ourselves.   Israeli Psychologist Dan Ariely and his colleagues study the maintenance of identity, and found that even when nobody was looking people only let themselves cheat a little bit in order to preserve the belief that they are an honest person.  We don’t rely on our identity to maintain us, we maintain it.

As long as we think that a status, certificate, house, car or job title will complete our identity, and will mean we have ‘arrived’, we’re in the grip of an unhelpful delusion.  Identities can be stripped away in a day by any of life’s misadventures – psychologist today, bartender tomorrow – but if we believe those identities are in fact ‘us’, our resilience and ability to let go of the past will fail us when we need it most.  We are always works in progress, learning and relearning, we never ‘arrive’ at our identity. Let go of the idea. Then there’ll be room to be in the world as you are in this moment.

Whoever you are.

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