Our multiple selves

By and large, we think of ourselves as one person. But below this conscious self conceptualization, we also tend to think of ourselves as being composed of multiple selves. Just a few of my many selves include slow-but-steady runner, ex-harpist, quasi-fluent French speaker, and first born. As I write this, I’m all of those, but a better description of my current state is probably amateur blogger. Traits aside, I’m also present-me. I’m not quite the same person future-me, who I count on to get out of bed tomorrow morning despite the darkness, or even-more-future-me, who will be eligible to withdraw the interest accrued from my Roth IRA at age 59 and a half.

The latter dimension of selves – the ones that inhabit the future – is a fundamental aspect of one of the projects I’m working on right now (present-me is chipping away in hopes that a future-me will learn something valuable). After reading and thinking extensively about how patterns in language might moderate the similarity we perceive between our current and future selves, I found this awesome Atlantic article from 2008: First Person Plural. The article seamlessly pulls together wisdom from diverse lines of research in order to show us why we should care about our multiple selves.

It starts by talking about happiness. Empirical studies of what makes people happy often turn up paradoxes. For example, whether people are happier while working or while on vacation seems to be a no-brainer. But when they actually record their happiness at regular intervals during a given day, it turns out that their moods are better while at work. One difficulty in addressing the question what makes a person happy is articulating what happiness is and how it can be operationalized, but another, less apparent difficulty is defining what exactly is meant by the person. The same action or circumstance might have very different effects on the current person and some future person. If I’m in the market for a new laptop, choosing a less expensive model might bum me out on the day that I’m buying it, but it might make me really happy the next day when I have enough money left over for a printer. Or… saving money on the laptop might make me feel great in the moment that I’m saving, but disappointed in the future when I realize its glacial operating speed. We’re tricky.

The author promotes a view that although our brains do give rise to a sense of self that persists over time, we also have different selves continuously shifting in prominence. Especially when we look farther into the future, our future selves appear progressively less similar to our present selves. fMRI research by Ersner-Hershfield and colleagues has shown that similar brain areas active when we think about other people and when we think about our future selves. There is more overlap between these activity patterns than there is when we think about ourselves today and ourselves in the future, lending support to the idea that we really do perceive of our future selves as other selves.

Even if we don’t necessarily consciously think of our future selves as someone else, we all do seem to know that sometimes we have to do things now in order to restrict the influence our future selves will have over something. A college roommate of mine used to set three alarms for the morning, and made sure that one was all the way across the room – she knew that the only way to assure that her future self got out of bed and made it to class was if she’d need to physically get up to turn off an alarm. Some people disable their social media sites for a pre-specified amount of time while working under a deadline so that even if they try to procrastinate through Facebook, the site just won’t load. Even if we believe we have free will, we don’t necessarily believe that the person we are at this very moment will have free will over the person we are at some future time.


This idea of multiple selves can help explain the paradox of having children. Most people report that their children are a huge source of their happiness. But studies have shown that people are actually less happy while spending time with their kids than they are doing many other activities, like eating or praying. Surveys also show that people’s marital satisfaction decreases once they have kids and increases once those kids leave the house. The author claims that claims that kids make people happy and the reality that many people report less happiness when taking care of kids aren’t incompatible. Instead, the person who loves having kids can just be considered a different person than the one who dislikes actually spending time with them. (Of course, I don’t have kids, so I’m taking other people’s word for all of this).

In general, we don’t look kindly on people whose short-term selves alone control their behavior. We feel that present self should make decisions that benefit future self, such as eating well and saving money. But disregarding the short term selves in favor of benefitting the long term selves can also be dangerous. It can result in missing out on everyday experiences that can enhance life in favor of future ones (that you may never even profit from). The adage “everything in moderation” applies to the power we allocate to our many selves. Each should get a voice in our decisions, but sometimes certain voices should also trump others.