According to influential social-psychologists, such as Anthony Giddens (Modernity and Self-Identity, 1991), our identity equals our identity narrative: the story we tell about ourselves to ourselves and to others. Giddens writes: “A person’s identity is not to be found in behavior, nor – important though this is – in the reactions of others, but it the capacity to keep a particular narrative going.” The idea behind this interpretation is that we reflect the understanding of ourselves into an “ongoing ‘story’ about the self” which is “the individual’s biological narrative”. At any given moment only one narrative can exist for a person, according to the theory, and the narrative has to be internally consistent. When prompted to define oneself, every individual should be capable of presenting this narrative about themselves to themselves and to others, so the theory tells us. This theory underlies the European Union ‘s Right to be Forgotten.
In first pilot of the Dynamiczna Tozsamosc project (Gdansk, Poland, 2011), an exercise was introduced that involved workshop participants (aged 11-14) answering the question: “Who are you until now?” The question “Who are you” is the generally agreed upon question in identity literature to ask about identities. The addition of “until now” was devised to trigger a deeper reflection by asking for an evaluation of one’s identity not in general but up until now, thus stressing the assumed dynamic nature of our identities that is explicit in the narrative approach as well as in the project.
In the workshop exercise the question was asked twice, each time in a different setting. The first time participants would be taken out of the class room in which they were passively listening to an introduction on an identity-related theme, and would be asked individually, away from the group, to stand in front of a camera, very close to the objective. Without any introduction the question would then be asked by a second instructor, after which there was a thirty second to one minute interval for an answer of for being silent. The individual answers were then shown to the whole group, not by means of video but by means of Augmented Reality: the individual participants were asked to show a marker to a webcam while being visible on a large screen. On the place of the marker then the registration of their answer would appear while the participants would also still be visible. When the participants would move the marker around gently, the shown registration video would move gently with them on the screen. When the participants would move the marker vehemently though, the registration video would stop – only to resume after the marker was held relatively still again. Therefore, if participants would show their emotions too expressively, the showing of the recording would be interrupted and the attention of the class would focus on their face. This setting predominantly evoked timid reflection.
The second time the participants had to answer the question they had already had the experience of the first time – both the registration and the viewing of themselves by means of Augmented Reality – and had gained knowledge and experience in the workshop about identities and film language. This time they were not guided in front of the camera as actors but were able to individually direct their film clip as directors. They were free to choose their own setting (frame size, background, lighting) in which they would answer the same question once more. In a final session participants would watch their two answers as videos back-to-back and then evaluate them.
The exercise was formally implemented again in two subsequent projects: Dynamiczna Tozsamosc 2012 in Poland and Dynamic Identity (2012-2015; age group: 11-18) in Greece, the Netherlands and Poland. In Greece the exercise was executed semi-legally since no filming of students formally can take place in schools – but in the project the filming of youngsters doing this exercise took place outside of the class room and with their parents present.
What was striking was that only about 5-10% of the participants (youngsters in the age group 10-18 and adults in age group 21-60) answered the question in the two different settings identically or near identically. The other participants either added or subtracted information (ar. 30-40%) or changed their answer completely or nearly completely.
When asked why participants gave a (near) identical answer twice, they would answer something like “that is who I am”, “that is my answer”, or “that is how it is”. When those who added or subtracted information were asked why they changed their answer, they gave answers such as “I had time to think about it more”, “I was more prepared” or “I saw myself and decided I wanted to change elements”. When those who changed their answer (near) completely were asked they would answer “the first time I did not know what to say”, “I was not prepared” or “I was spontaneous first and then I thought about it”.
From the dialogues that followed after every answer only the participants who had answered the question twice (nearly) identically stated that this is how they saw themselves. The others indicated that they actively sought to construct an answer that was both fitting to them and to the setting in which they were to answer the question. To the follow-up question what it was that made the answer fitting, no participant went beyond a statement of the type “that’s how I felt it”.
In contrast with the answers given by the majority of participants at least the answers provided by those who repeated themselves (nearly) identically seem, at first sight, to affirm the assumption that individuals possess a coherent, ready-made narrative about themselves. But, when focusing on what kind of self-description these participants provided when answering the question, this would-be affirmation becomes more problematic. The participants would typically say things like “I am human”, “I am me” or “I am a student and I love to play guitar”. Their statements were hardly what one would expect to find in a narrative that was constructed over many years. Rather, the answers consisted of truisms or an enumeration of a (small) selection of the roles that the individuals perceived to be playing.
For the instructors it was unexpected that such a small percentage of the participants presented their answers consistently. Consistency of our narratives is supposed to be essential according to socio-psychologists like Giddens and according to leading neuroscientist (see f.i. scientists quoted in Anil Ananthaswamy, The man who wasn’t there, 2015 – see outcome 7).
Robert Cialdini (Influence, 2007) sees consistency even as “automatic, stereotyped behaviour” (see also notes on Cialdini). He explains the importance of consistency: it concerns how we are seen. Cialdini writes: “The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds do not match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of valued human characteristics such as logic, rationality, stability, and honesty.”
Why would participants not conform with this basic, social mechanism of the human social brain? A possible explanation for the lack of consistency is that participants might not want to reveal their true narratives, or their complete true narratives, in a workshop setting and therefore tweaked their answers in such a way as to only reflect the role they play within the given frame. This would be fully in line with the theories of Erving Goffman (see outcome 4). But, a complicating factor with regard to this explanation is that youngsters almost without exception claim that they do not play roles and do not present different versions of themselves in different situation but always are the same person – see outcome 4. Only if a punishment can be foreseen, many say that they censure themselves but that does not mean, so they stress, that they say something different instead.
Another explanation for the findings in the workshops can be the theoretical frame of Zygmunt Bauman: liquid life. According to Bauman (Identity, 2004; Liquid life, 2005; Liquid times, 2007) the pace of life and changes in modern society having become so fast and so profound that there is no way to stop and think or reflect. In order to survive in these fast times individuals try to adapt as much as they can, anxious not to fall behind and become obsolete. Those individuals do not try to build one, definite narrative out of the puzzle pieces that make up who they are, but they all the time reconfigure the puzzle pieces and fit them to the circumstances into new configurations.
EGE, an advisory organization to the European Commission, links to Bauman and speaks about our “fluid self”: “Its relevance for ethical reflection lies in its impact on the traditional concepts of ‘authenticity’ and ‘autonomy’: fluid or hybrid identities may threaten the consistency and continuity that has been considered to be crucial for the concept of a practical identity, which ultimately relies upon a self that may not only identify with his or her actions but is also identified by others. Hence, the new possibilities for shaping one’s own identity, constrained only by the features and rules of the programs one uses, make social relationships potentially insecure; ethical concepts such as trust, truthfulness or reliability may lose their function to create spheres of belonging — while at the same time enforcing short‑term relationships that can easily be replaced.”
Bauman’s liquidity is empowered by features and functionalities of new technologies that we use to present ourselves online. Facebook’s timeline for instance challenges the notion of identities as coherent, non-contradictory narratives by us on ourselves. Facebook’s timeline shows multiple versions of our story that have developed over time in one place: our Facebook profile. In addition, others add their content to that same place so that our narrative is no longer only “by ourselves”. EGE comments on this: “Facebook now allows its members to store a life story and hence structure their entries in a diachronic manner. Memory and forgetting are complementary concepts for personal identity: without some forgetting and the necessary selection process in giving meaning to one’s identity, the creation of an identity of the self (ipse) becomes more and more dependent on the socially ascribed ‘markers’ of identification (idem).”
Possibly Bauman’s liquidity was triggered by the add-on “until now” to the identity question.
To find out more about identity narratives, the setting of the question was changed in follow-up workshops like in the project Talking about Taboos (all age groups) and the project Dynamiczna Tozsamosc 2014-2016 (all age groups). In a shortened version of the exercise above the question was now asked once per individual in a group of participants. Every participant was asked the question “Who are you until now” while facing a camera, and while being in a class room together with other participants. The instructor asking the question was holding the camera while giving attention only to the individual participant in front of the camera. The instructor did not refer to anything or anyone beyond the here and now and beyond the instructor and individual participant. The instructor implemented intense listening, patience, good will, honesty and respect while interacting with the participant.
This situation was to provoke feelings of acuteness and of trust, as well as a sense of agency. This setting was loosely based on Emmanuel Levinas’ (Totalité et infini, 1961) description of a meeting between two people in which all references to the outside world have vanished and in which the participants who meet can initiate a fresh new contact, transcending the norms of society, and, as a result, can be as open as they choose to be. This setting was to test out whether it was the setting that made individuals self-conscious to the extent that they would tweak their narrative.
The question in this short exercise was presented to all participants, one-by-one, with the instructor changing positions all the time to face the next participant. The interaction with all participants was identical but very personal.
After all participants answered the same question individually, patterns would be visible in the answering. Mostly it was the case that the first person took the longest time to answer. Applying Erving Goffman’s insights (The presentation of Self in everyday life, 1959; Frame analysis, 1974) this occurs because there was no apparent frame ready for this participant to build upon. There was no ready-made mould to model the answer after and no given definition that described the situation or explained what was asked of the participant. The second and following participants typically would answer quicker. For them a mould did exist – the one created by the first participant.
Sometimes participants mostly or exclusively used the frame that was created by the first participant. Sometimes some or many participants ignored the frame that was created by the first person and created a fresh frame. More often than not the second participant in line would use the frame as provided by the first participant. But often it was the third participant who would either deviate or follow the first two participants – in which case more participants would follow.
It was observed that the better participants knew each other and were in close contact with each other beyond the workshop setting, the more participants followed the frame of the first participant. The less the participants knew each other, on the other hand, the more participants chose their own frame. The occurrence of a repeated frame thus seemed to point at the stronger or less strong influence of peer pressure.
Given the outcomes of the first setting it seems highly unlikely that the individuals who were asked the identity question had a coherent, non-contradictory individual narrative in their head that was waiting to be prompted. The outcomes from both settings point at the influence on the individuals’ answers by the setting in which the question was asked.
Some participants during the second round of the Dynamic Identity pilots in the Netherlands stated that what they thought about themselves was both irrelevant and uninteresting. To them what others said about them was much more interesting. Howard Gardner & Katie Davies (The app generation, 2013) found that the identities of youngsters nowadays are “more externally oriented”. Maybe, there is something in Zygmunt Bauman’s (Moral blindness, 2013) statement that “the updated version of Descartes’s Cogito is ‘I am seen, therefore I am’ – and that the more people who see me, the more I am …”
This external orientation may lead anxiety. Peter Ditto claims that most of our knowledge about the world isn’t grounded in direct evidence, but socially-based: “The way we know we’re right is when most people around us agree.” Social evidence online is different for different individuals because of the majority illusion. Social evidence is another social mechanism of the human social brain according to Cialdini (Influence, 2007). The downside of it is that when the social evidence is at loggerheads with our internal beliefs our entire self can feel threatened, causing a crisis.
Steven Laureys (quoted in Anil Ananthaswamy, The man who wasn’t there, 2015) claims that our awareness consists of two dimensions: awareness of the external world and internal awareness. According to him “one works at the expense of the other”. He explains: “Studies in healthy patients showed that these dimensions of awareness are inversely correlated: if you are paying attention to the external world, then activity in the network associated with external awareness goes up while the regions associated with internal awareness dampen down.” For many current youngsters this seems to mean that because of their more external orientation their internal orientation become less active. This could explain the outcome that the individuals who were asked the identity question had no coherent, non-contradictory individual narrative in their head that was waiting to be prompted, because in the vision of Laureys internal awareness equals awareness of “aspects of one’s self. When you are self-aware, in that you are conscious of your own body, your memories and your life story, aspects of the self become the contents of consciousness. These comprise the self-as-object.”
Uta Frith (quoted in Ananthaswamy, 2015) takes the thought a step further. In her vision “the self can be broadly divided into two: a prereflective self-awareness (the “I,” or the self-as-subject) and a reflective part (the “me,” or the self-as-object).” The reflective part of us is according to Frith linked to our ability to understand what others think and feel, our so-called Theory of Mind. A less functional Theory of Mind can be found in autism. A person with autism has an inability to effortlessly fathom people’s emotions. This situation is taxing for that person: “[one] has to compensate by paying conscious attention to, say, body language and facial expressions … No wonder social situations continue to be a source of anxiety.”
Projecting these mechanisms on the more external orientation of quite a few youngsters and the resulting lower awareness of, among other thing one’s memories and one’s life story, which then lead to a less developed self-as-object, then it now is more understandable why youngsters would see barriers in their communication in real life. If to this a diminished ability to understand nonverbal communication is added – see outcome 3 – then these barriers become even bigger for youngsters. This is not to say that many youngsters suffer from autism but it seems that some of the mechanisms underlying autism might provide an insightful frame.
This hypothetical state of quite a few youngsters has a good side. It makes these youngsters far more open to a flow, in which the concept of self would only hinder. A flow is a situation in which “individuals [become] completely absorbed in the activities in which they are engaged” (Wiliam, Embedded formative assessment, 2011). Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, the originator of the concept, describes “flow” as: “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning” (quoted in McGonigal, Reality is broken, 2011). Ananthaswamy (The man who wasn’t there, 2015) explains how a less present concept of self is linked to this situation of flow: “the loss of self-consciousness does not involve a loss of self, and certainly/ not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self. What slips below the threshold of awareness is the concept of self, the information we use to represent to ourselves who we are.” Unfortunately, multitasking – see outcome 7 – is often hindering the coming into existence of a flow, providing its own alternative, addictive dopamine loop.
Another good side is that, according to Ananthaswamy, the reverse situation, an enormous conceptual self, leads to very negative consequences: “It would not be a stretch to say that many of society’s ills can be attributed to an unbridled conceptual self, which wants too much or fights to preserve reified identities … Coming to terms with the self’s mostly fictitious nature (the unresolved issue of subjectivity notwithstanding) may help to rein ourselves in.”
Leaving the consequences for now, the second outcome thus can be summarized as follows. Identity narratives are most probably not present in most youngsters as a conscious narrative that has been developed over years. The identity narratives available seem to be flexible and depend on the setting and on the audience to which the narrative is directed. But, this is in complete contradiction with how many youngsters see themselves, as will be discussed in outcome 4: many youngsters see themselves as not playing different roles for different audiences and always being themselves.