The true self is what people believe is their essence. It's the core of what makes you you; if it was taken away, you would no longer be you anymore. People believe that their true self is the parts of them that are fundamentally morally good.
But it almost certainly doesn't exist. What we know from neuroscience and psychology doesn't provide evidence for a separate and persisting morally good true self buried deep within.
There might not be a satisfying answer but it doesn't really matter because of the impact it has on us.
We are in the Age of Authenticity, where ‘be yourself’ is the defining advice in life, love and career.”
John Locke, the English philosopher, thought that the most important component to our identities were our memories. Who we are is what we remember.
However, people think that moral traits are deep down core.
People attribute positive traits to the true self, and negative traits to something else. And while we usually think about ourselves differently than others, we think that other people’s true selves are morally good too.
It could be because it's beneficial for well-being and cooperation, but it could just be how we think about everything. We have a tendency to reflect on a thing's positive traits; this is called psychological essentialism.
When describing the essence of a table, we say it has four legs, and a surface to eat on—the traits of a good table. We don’t describe a broken table. Our notion of the true self may be in line with this essentialist thinking.
Though we all believe in a morally good true self, our definition of what's moral varies—and we define the “morally good” part of our true selves based on our own values.
Even when we strongly disagree with someone, it doesn't necessarily conflict with a belief in the true self, since the true self is not married to a person's actions. So when we disagree with someone we think that deep down we hold the same values.
A study found that when subjects were asked to think about criminal offenders, people were more willing to say that a person’s true self is morally bad.
The more people think that a person’s true self is morally bad, the more they support retributive punishment. The idea that the true self is just inherently, morally good is a bias that we have.
If having a morally good true self is core to our identity, then acting immorally isn’t just doing the wrong thing—it threatens our sense of identity and causes a lot of distress.
In response, some people might respond to the distress by denying that they're acting immorally and getting defensive. Others might rush out to do a good deed to reestablish their goodness. These two responses are called moral credentialing and moral cleansing.
We can start with the idea that people “have some essential drive to be morally good, while emphasizing that work needs to be done to realize that with some reliability in practice.”
Acknowledging our belief in a good true self can be a way to appreciate our capacity for goodness. Then, we can focus on "exercising it on a regular basis."
A belief in the morally good self can give a person hope to keep trying in poor circumstances.
Alternatively, it could be fuel for a kind of existential crisis if your life doesn’t match up to your “true self.”
More pressure to "be yourself" or "find yourself" can add to that stress—especially in the self-help realm, where the existence of a “true self,” is a given, not regarded as a cognitive tendency or bias.
You don't have to stop believing in it. You just have to be aware of it as a bias.
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