Understanding ourselves is partly about understanding who it is we want to become.
Because each of us is a perpetual work in progress, we live our lives with one eye on the future. In that future we see ourselves transformed into our true, ideal self – just as we would like to be.
While we take this for granted in ourselves, research finds we are much less likely to see other people’s good intentions and hopes for the future as part of their selves. Instead we are likely to judge them just as they appear to us – defined by their past and present, stuck in the moment, unlikely to change and ultimately knowable.
Future selves: our own and others
This is the conclusion reached by Elanor Williams and Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University in a new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They devised a series of experiments examining how we see our future selves in comparison to others.
In the first study 50 students were asked to assess how much their past, present and future selves contributed to their overall conception of themselves. Williams and Gilovich found that participants ascribed an average of 30.6% of their overall sense of self to their future selves1. Almost one-third of their self-concept, therefore, was future-oriented.
But when they thought about another person this went down to 21.6%. This suggested participants believed that more of their future plans were included in their own selves than in other people’s selves.
Can I know myself?
The proportion of the self that people ascribe to the future is effectively unknowable, unlike the past and the present. Because people ascribe around one-third of their self to the future, but less to other people, this suggests people consider themselves fundamentally more mysterious than others.
To test this theory a second study invited 68 students to think about the self as though it were an iceberg. Part of an iceberg, like a person’s future self, lurks below the surface and so can’t be seen. The students were asked to indicate for both themselves, and other people, how much of the future self lurks below the surface.
The results showed that people thought that more of themselves was hidden below the surface than for other people. This suggested people saw themselves as being more mysterious and mutable, while other people were more likely to be just who they appeared to be.
How far away is your ideal self?
Williams and Gilovich’s research heads towards a somewhat downbeat conclusion: most of us feel we have further to reach than others to attain our ideal selves2. The researchers tested this conclusion in a final study where participants indicated how far advanced they were on ‘life’s journey’ towards ‘self-actualisation’ both for themselves and for the ‘average Cornell student’.
When thinking about themselves students thought they were about 30% to where they wanted to be, while they thought the average student was about 50% towards becoming who they wanted to be. This confirmed their earlier studies which suggested we really do think other people are further towards fulfilling their potential than we are.
What Williams and Gilovich suggest is that the reason we feel others are doing better than us in the ‘project of the self’ is partly that we fail to take into account other people’s dreams and aspirations4. Our own future intentions are only too clear to us, and they often serve to remind us just how far we are from our goals. But when thinking about others we often fail to acknowledge their goals and aspirations and wrongly assume how they are is how they want to be.
As Williams and Gilovich put it:
“Understanding ourselves is largely an effort to understand where we are headed; understanding others is more of an effort to understand where they are.”
Unfortunately for us understanding our own hopes and dreams can be a source of considerable pain when we realise how far we have to go3. This pain may be made worse when we compare ourselves to others who may appear so much closer to realising their full potential.
The irony is that actually most people feel like this. Contrary to what we might imagine, other people are just as obsessed with the future as we are, and just as worried that everyone else is getting there faster than us.
1. Like me, you may have baulked at the idea that the self can be sliced and diced into percentages for past, present and future. This assumes that if part of ourselves is yet to be revealed in the future then the rest is necessarily already exposed in the past and present. But this is a strange way of thinking about the self and may be unrepresentative.
Williams and Gilovich, therefore, used an alternative method which didn’t rely on absolute percentages but accessed the same ideas. They got the same pattern of results again, suggesting the conclusion from their percentage-based studies was correct.
2.The alternative, that we set higher standards for ourselves, they claim is ruled out by another completed, but as yet unpublished study.
3. People who are in very close relationships with others are more likely to understand the other person’s aspirations. This may mean that the effect seen in this study is reduced in the case of close relationships.
4. Williams and Gilovich suggest that as people get older they may see their current selves as closer to their full potential. The findings in the current study may not, therefore, apply so strongly to older people.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.