One can see a version of clashing multiple selves in the mental illness known as dissociative-identity disorder, which used to be called multiple-personality disorder. This is familiar to everyone from the dramatic scenes in movies in which an actor is one person, and then he or she contorts or coughs or shakes the head, and—boom!—another person comes into existence. (My own favorite is Edward Norton in Primal Fear, although—spoiler alert—he turns out in the end to be faking.)
Dissociative-identity disorder is controversial. It used to be rarely diagnosed, then the number of reported cases spiked dramatically in the 1980s, particularly in North America. The spike has many possible explanations: the disorder was first included as a specific category in the 1980 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, just as an influential set of case studies of multiple personalities was published. And increased popular interest was fueled by the 1973 novel Sybil and its 1976 movie adaptation, which starred Sally Field as a woman with 16 different personalities.
Some psychologists believe that this spike was not the result of better diagnosis. Rather, they say it stemmed in part from therapists who inadvertently persuaded their patients to create these distinct selves, often through role-playing and hypnosis. Recent years have seen a backlash, and some people diagnosed with the disorder have sued their therapists. One woman got a settlement of more than $2 million after alleging that her psychotherapist had used suggestive memory “recovery” techniques to convince her that she had more than 120 personalities, including children, angels, and a duck.
Regardless of the cause of the spike, considerable evidence, including recent brain-imaging studies, suggests that some people really do shift from one self to another, and that the selves have different memories and personalities. In one study, women who had been diagnosed with dissociative-identity disorder and claimed to be capable of shifting at will from one self to another listened to recordings while in a PET scanner. When the recordings told of a woman’s own traumatic experience, the parts of the brain corresponding to autobiographic memory became active—but only when she had shifted to the self who had endured that traumatic experience. If she was in another self, different parts of the brain became active and showed a pattern of neural activity corresponding to hearing about the experience of a stranger.
Many psychologists and philosophers have argued that the disorder should be understood as an extreme version of normal multiplicity. Take memory. One characteristic of dissociative-identity disorder is interpersonality amnesia—one self doesn’t have access to the memories of the other selves. But memory is notoriously situation-dependent even for normal people—remembering something is easiest while you are in the same state in which you originally experienced it. Students do better when they are tested in the room in which they learned the material; someone who learned something while he was angry is better at remembering that information when he is angry again; the experience of one’s drunken self is more accessible to the drunk self than to the sober self. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Personality also changes according to situation; even the most thuggish teenager is not the same around his buddies as he is when having tea with Grandma. Our normal situation dependence is most evident when it comes to bad behavior. In the 1920s, Yale psychologists tested more than 10,000 children, giving them a battery of aptitude tests and putting them in morally dicey situations, such as having an opportunity to cheat on a test. They found a striking lack of consistency. A child’s propensity to cheat at sports, for instance, had little to do with whether he or she would lie to a teacher.
More-recent experiments with adults find that subtle cues can have a surprising effect on our actions. Good smells, such as fresh bread, make people kinder and more likely to help a stranger; bad smells, like farts (the experimenters used fart spray from a novelty store), make people more judgmental. If you ask people to unscramble sentences, they tend to be more polite, minutes later, if the sentences contain positive words like honor rather than negative words like bluntly. These findings are in line with a set of classic experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s—too unethical to do now—showing that normal people could be induced to give electric shocks to a stranger if they were told to do so by someone they believed was an authoritative scientist. All of these studies support the view that each of us contains many selves—some violent, some submissive, some thoughtful—and that different selves can be brought to the fore by different situations.
The population of a single head is not fixed; we can add more selves. In fact, the capacity to spawn multiple selves is central to pleasure. After all, the most common leisure activity is not sex, eating, drinking, drug use, socializing, sports, or being with the ones we love. It is, by a long shot, participating in experiences we know are not real—reading novels, watching movies and TV, daydreaming, and so forth.
Enjoying fiction requires a shift in selfhood. You give up your own identity and try on the identities of other people, adopting their perspectives so as to share their experiences. This allows us to enjoy fictional events that would shock and sadden us in real life. When Tony Soprano kills someone, you respond differently than you would to a real murder; you accept and adopt some of the moral premises of the Soprano universe. You become, if just for a moment, Tony Soprano.
Some imaginative pleasures involve the creation of alternative selves. Sometimes we interact with these selves as if they were other people. This might sound terrible, and it can be, as when schizophrenics hear voices that seem to come from outside themselves. But the usual version is harmless. In children, we describe these alternative selves as imaginary friends. The psychologist Marjorie Taylor, who has studied this phenomenon more than anyone, points out three things. First, contrary to some stereotypes, children who have imaginary friends are not losers, loners, or borderline psychotics. If anything, they are slightly more socially adept than other children. Second, the children are in no way deluded: Taylor has rarely met a child who wasn’t fully aware that the character lived only in his or her own imagination. And third, the imaginary friends are genuinely different selves. They often have different desires, interests, and needs from the child’s; they can be unruly, and can frustrate the child. The writer Adam Gopnik wrote about his young daughter’s imaginary companion, Charlie Ravioli, a hip New Yorker whose defining quality was that he was always too busy to play with her.
Long-term imaginary companions are unusual in adults, but they do exist—Taylor finds that many authors who write books with recurring characters claim, fairly convincingly, that these characters have wills of their own and have some say in their fate. But it is not unusual to purposefully create another person in your head to interact with on a short-term basis. Much of daydreaming involves conjuring up people, sometimes as mere physical props (as when daydreaming about sports or sex), but usually as social beings. All of us from time to time hold conversations with people who are not actually there.
Sometimes we get pleasure from sampling alternative selves. Again, you can see the phenomenon in young children, who get a kick out of temporarily adopting the identity of a soldier or a lion. Adults get the same sort of kick; exploring alternative identities seems to be what the Internet was invented for. The sociologist Sherry Turkle has found that people commonly create avatars so as to explore their options in a relatively safe environment. She describes how one 16-year-old girl with an abusive father tried out multiple characters online—a 16-year-old boy, a stronger, more assertive girl—to try to work out what to do in the real world. But often the shift in identity is purely for pleasure. A man can have an alternate identity as a woman; a heterosexual can explore homosexuality; a shy person can try being the life of the party.
Online alternative worlds such as World of Warcraft and Second Life are growing in popularity, and some people now spend more time online than in the real world. One psychologist I know asked a research assistant to try out one of these worlds and report on what it is like and how people behave there. The young woman never came back—she preferred the virtual life to the real one.
Life would be swell if all the selves inhabiting a single mind worked as a team, pulling together for a common goal. But they clash, and sometimes this gives rise to what we call addictions and compulsions.
This is not the traditional view of human frailty. The human condition has long been seen as a battle of good versus evil, reason versus emotion, will versus appetite, superego versus id. The iconic image, from a million movies and cartoons, is of a person with an angel over one shoulder and the devil over the other.
The alternative view keeps the angel and the devil, but casts aside the person in between. The competing selves are not over your shoulder, but inside your head: the angel and the devil, the self who wants to be slim and the one who wants to eat the cake, all exist within one person. Drawing on the research of the psychiatrist George Ainslie, we can make sense of the interaction of these selves by plotting their relative strengths over time, starting with one (the cake eater) being weaker than the other (the dieter). For most of the day, the dieter hums along at his regular power (a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, say), motivated by the long-term goal of weight loss, and is stronger than the cake eater (a 2). Your consciousness tracks whichever self is winning, so you are deciding not to eat the cake. But as you get closer and closer to the cake, the power of the cake eater rises (3 … 4 …), the lines cross, the cake eater takes over (6), and that becomes the conscious you; at this point, you decide to eat the cake. It’s as if a baton is passed from one self to another.
Sometimes one self can predict that it will later be dominated by another self, and it can act to block the crossing—an act known as self-binding, which Thomas Schelling and the philosopher Jon Elster have explored in detail. Self-binding means that the dominant self schemes against the person it might potentially become—the 5 acts to keep the 2 from becoming a 6. Ulysses wanted to hear the song of the sirens, but he knew it would compel him to walk off the boat and into the sea. So he had his sailors tie him to the mast. Dieters buy food in small portions so they won’t overeat later on; smokers trying to quit tell their friends never to give them cigarettes, no matter how much they may later beg. In her book on gluttony, Francine Prose tells of women who phone hotels where they are going to stay to demand a room with an empty minibar. An alarm clock now for sale rolls away as it sounds the alarm; to shut it off, you have to get up out of bed and find the damn thing.
You might also triumph over your future self by feeding it incomplete or incorrect information. If you’re afraid of panicking in a certain situation, you might deny yourself relevant knowledge—you don’t look down when you’re on the tightrope; you don’t check your stocks if you’re afraid you’ll sell at the first sign of a downturn. Chronically late? Set your watch ahead. Prone to jealousy? Avoid conversations with your spouse about which of your friends is the sexiest.
Working with the psychologists Frank Keil, of Yale University, and Katherine Choe, now at Goucher College, I recently studied young children’s understanding of self-binding, by showing them short movies of people engaged in self-binding and other behaviors and asking them to explain what was going on. The children, aged 4 to 7, easily grasped that someone might put a video game on a high shelf so that another person couldn’t get it. But self-binding confused them: they were mystified when people put away the game so that they themselves couldn’t get hold of it.
But even though young children don’t understand self-binding, they are capable of doing it. In a classic study from the 1970s, psychologists offered children a marshmallow and told them they could either have it right away, or get more if they waited for a few minutes. As you would expect, waiting proved difficult (and performance on this task is a good predictor, much later on, of such things as SAT scores and drug problems), but some children managed it by self-binding—averting their eyes or covering the marshmallow so as to subvert their temptation-prone self for the greater pleasure of the long-term self.
Even pigeons can self-bind. Ainslie conducted an experiment in which he placed pigeons in front of a glowing red key. If they pecked it immediately, they got a small reward right away, but if they waited until the key went dark, they got a larger one. They almost always went for the quick reward—really, it’s hard for a pigeon to restrain itself. But there was a wrinkle: the key glowed green for several seconds before turning red. Pecking the key while it was green would prevent it from turning red and providing the option of the small, quick reward. Some of the pigeons learned to use the green key to help themselves hold out for the big reward, just as a person might put temptation out of reach.
For adult humans, though, the problem is that the self you are trying to bind has resources of its own. Fighting your Bad Self is serious business; whole sections of bookstores are devoted to it. We bribe and threaten and cajole, just as if we were dealing with an addicted friend. Vague commitments like “I promise to drink only on special occasions” often fail, because the Bad Self can weasel out of them, rationalizing that it’s always a special occasion. Bright-line rules like “I will never play video games again” are also vulnerable, because the Bad Self can argue that these are unreasonable—and, worse, once you slip, it can argue that the plan is unworkable. For every argument made by the dieting self—“This diet is really working” or “I really need to lose weight”—the cake eater can respond with another—“This will never work” or “I’m too vain” or “You only live once.” Your long-term self reads voraciously about the benefits of regular exercise and healthy eating; the cake eater prefers articles showing that obesity isn’t really such a problem. It’s not that the flesh is weak; sometimes the flesh is pretty damn smart.