Early on in life we learn who we are in relation to others. Because we have a deep seated urge for a sense of identity, for knowing who we are, we hold on to views we and others have of us.
Confirmation bias, i.e. the biased perception where we look for everything that confirms our beliefs and where we ignore everything which doesn’t confirm our beliefs, feeds this often externally imposed sense of self further. Throughout life our own confirmation bias keeps feeding this belief that once started based simply on how others in early childhood commented on us and made us feel of how we were different from the rest of our then peers.
How it all starts: introverts vs extroverts
It starts in first grade, or even in kindergarten; those who belong to the 50% of the students in the class who upon first impression to the teacher are less outgoing than the other 50% will get to hear from their teacher (and parents after teacher parent meetings) that:
– it’s ‘nice’ having them in class because they don’t make too much noise (thus motivating them to remain quiet)
– they should speak more and louder (a contradiction to what they are praised for in the previous point)
– they shouldn’t be afraid to talk (implying that if they don’t talk, it automatically means they are afraid)
and in short, that they are ‘shy’.
The other half of the class gets to hear that:
– the ‘shy’ students should follow the example of this half of the class when the teacher asks a question (thus motivating this half to remain talkative and talk loud)
– they shouldn’t make so much noise and learn to be quiet (a contradiction to what they are praised for in the previous point)
– they shouldn’t always talk and want to draw attention to themselves (implying that if they talk it is because they like attention)
and in short that they are ‘outgoing’.
The same can be applied to any ‘traits’, as has been demonstrated in ‘the monster study’ where children were ‘made into’ permanent stutterers.
The monster study and its implications
The impact of feedback in early life on our self-perception has been demonstrated in an experiment held in an orphanage in 1939, where 11 of 22 children were praised for their speech and 11 children were belittled for their speech.
This had lasting effects on the children’s speech throughout their life, even after they were informed that the ‘belittlement’ was faked.
While that study is commonly referred to as ‘the monster study’ because it created lasting negative psychological impact on its unwitting participants, similar studies are held the world all over every day with every child. It is called classroom, peer and family experience.
As these are part of life and do not occur in the context of proving a theory, these daily ‘experiments’ are not generally considered horrific, even though a vast majority of adult’s insecurities, weaknesses, and low-self esteem regarding certain aspects of their life stem exactly from childhood experiences where we were made to feel negative about one or more of our capacities, repeatedly, until we believed it.
You are what you believe
What is insidious about this, is that teachers, parents, siblings, friends, uncles, aunts, even strangers, but most important of all: you yourself through confirmation bias will automatically be focused on all instances that prove you are either A or B. This ‘A’ or ‘B’ can be anything.
It can mean you see yourself as:
– good or bad at something (maths, language, social skills, ball sports, physical coordination, etc…)
– introverted or extroverted (Big 5)
– pragmatically oriented or a creative dreamer (Big 5)
– impulsive or organized (Big 5)
– skeptical or trusting (Big 5)
– stable & calm, or having strong emotions (Big 5)
– focused externally or internally (MB)
– sensing or intuitive (MB)
– thinking or feeling (MB)
– judging or perceiving (MB)
– caring or aloof (16PF)
– concrete or abstract thinker (16PF)
– emotionally reactive or emotionally unreactive (16PF)
– conflict avoidant or competitive (16PF)
– serious or humorous (16PF)
– moralistic or machiavellian (16PF)
– sensitive or thick skinned (16PF)
– sentimental or not (16PF)
– unsuspecting or vigilant (16PF)
– practical or impractical (16PF)
– forthcoming or non-disclosing (16PF)
– complacent or self-guilting (16PF)
– traditional or open to change (16PF)
– cooperation oriented or self-reliant (16PF)
– tolerant of flaws, or perfectionistic (16PF)
– low energy or high energy (16PF)
– prone to notice differences first, or prone to notice similarities first
– structured or spontaneous
– mars or venus
– typical or atypical for your gender
– typical or atypical for a person of your country/age group/ethnic origin
– preferring one style of music, or another
– Capricorn, aquarius, pisces, aries, taurus, gemini, cancer, leo, virgo, libra, scorpio, or sagittarius
– Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog or pig…
As is obvious: the list of ways in which we can categorize ourselves just so we can establish the perception there is a constant to our identity, is endless. By dichotomizing or otherwise categorizing and comparing and labeling ourself, we feed into our need for a sense of identity. All this happens without much effort.
Biased to hold on to the familiar at the expense of personal growth
As soon as you or someone else gives yourself a label that you believe might be true, confirmation bias takes over to reinforce the beliefs you grow about yourself, helps you internalize these beliefs until they become a stronger and stronger part of your sense of self.
Such beliefs often and quickly become so strong that you really believe this is just how you are. In fact these beliefs are so strongly expressed, that others accept them as true; those already in your life continue to believe what you continue to believe about yourself, and new people in your life see you in the way you continue to see yourself.
Your belief about yourself feeds their belief about you, which in turn further feeds your belief about yourself. This confirmation bias fed belief about the self is so strong that even if all evidence points to the contrary, you will be convinced that deep down you are not what you have become, but are still the very same old self. You will ignore if other people remark things not in line with your belief about yourself, you will ignore memories of when you did things not in line of what you think you are.
For example, when you have internalized you are shy early on in life, even when all of your behavior points out that you are no longer shy, and people tell you you are really talkative and spontaneous, you may still be ignoring all this and continue to pay note to the few times you are feeling ‘shy’ or thinking others definitely saw you that way. It may take a while for your mind to catch up you are not that label given to you as a kid.
Another example: when you have been lead to believe you suck at maths and have internalized this belief, then it will demotivate you each time you try to work on your maths, not realizing that others also had to work on theirs. You will keep telling yourself you need more effort than others, which makes you feel unfair and give up as soon as you feel it costs you effort. Yet, what you label as excessive effort and see as an amount of effort that others probably don’t have to invest, might be a pretty normal amount of effort.
It might be the same amount of effort for someone who doesn’t see himself as bad in maths, but because you are only in your own head you fail to see that and fail to believe it. In contrast, those who have internalized the belief that they are good at maths plainly ignore the memory of having had to study or are convinced they learned it at a faster pace, even when in fact they needed to put in no less hours. If they tell you their biased perception that it came easy to them, it may further feed your false sense of incompetence.
Labeling yourself and then letting confirmation bias take over is in fact a pretty fucked up way to stigmatize and limit yourself. Yet, nearly everyone is limiting themselves like this in one way or another, and only a few escape these self-imposed limits.
The one thing that limits your potential
The problem we all face is that the belief we and others have of ourselves has the power to limit our own potential. Our belief is the one thing limiting or freeing our potential. Another classic experiment conducted in 1968 and elaborated upon later in other experiments, found that teachers who have a rigid belief about students can have their belief about students act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That is, if the teacher is made to believe certain students have potential and others do not, then by the end of the year the teacher’s belief is reflected in the student’s performance. In other words, adults have the power to lock up or unlock children’s potential.
As we all have been children at some point, this is relevant to us all. What another in a dominant position believes of you (and generally what adults believe of children; what your teachers, parents, uncles, aunts and older siblings thought of you), or what a group of people believe about you, will affect what you believe of yourself. Especially at an early age, but also later on if you are unaware that others can potentially contribute to your self-perception if you let them. What others think of you, can have an effect on what you become if you allow it and are not aware this is possible.
Be especially careful for this in the following instances:
– about beliefs formed during your childhood
– when using personality tests of any kind or having others categorized you in a new and unfamiliar way
– know that other’s judgment tends to have stronger impact on our self-perception when are in a new and unfamiliar environment
– you are more prone to be categorized wrongly if you somehow stand out from the majority.
In the subsequent post (“Do this one thing to improve your life”), I will address how to bypass these self-limiting beliefs imposed on us by others in early childhood, and perpetuated by ourselves thereafter.
– the monster study: praising or belittling speech can affect speech for life
– other’s expectations (e.g., teachers) affect our performance positively or negatively
– Some common ways to feed your sense of individuality and identity, as well as your need for belonging:
* Myer’s Briggs Type Indicator
* 16 personality factors
* the big five personality traits
* Western zodiac
* Chinese astrology