Who do you think you are?

animal vegetable mineral

An article I read recently put me in mind of the game “animal, vegetable, or mineral” that I played as a child. Through a series of yes-or-no questions, the asker in the game attempts to identify the object the answerer has in mind. The object and the answers are both reassuringly unambiguous, and it feels so satisfying to get to the correct answer. A perfect game for children. While we may consider our adult selves to operate better with uncertainty and shades of gray, the fact of the matter is that even our mature minds desperately prefer that which seems solid and real and unambiguous. There is actually a name for this – naïve realism – which means that we mistakenly believe that the world as we perceive it is how it actually is. But the truth is that our amazing brains, in the process of executing astounding feats of data processing and integration, commit any  number of additions, deletions, and errors. The net result is that the reality we perceive is as much a function of how it was processed as it is “real.”

This is no less true when the object of our perceptions is ourselves and others. We like to believe we are static, consistent entities – that what makes us “us” is as solid and real as what makes an animal, vegetable, or mineral what it is. But it turns out that the stuff that “self” is made of is even more ephemeral. We tend to think of human characteristics as real things that we perceive to drive behavior. The reality is that these characteristics are far more fungible than we credit. We are who we observe ourselves to be, not the other way around. For example, the Benjamin Franklin Effect (described in greater detail here) shows us that rather than, for example, doing nice things for people we like, we tend to like the people for whom we observe ourselves doing nice things. In other words, we observe our behavior and make explanations for it, which influences our attitudes and beliefs, and which in turn impacts future behavior.

This has interesting implications for impression management. As the Benjamin Franklin effect illustrates, getting someone to do something for you will lead them to the belief that they like you. Having someone write a recommendation for you would lead them to the belief that they admire you. In other words, people not only infer things about you from your behavior, but also through their own behavior in relation to you. If you embraced this concept, how would you network differently? Not only do you have control over your own behavior – the stimuli you provide people to respond to – you also have the ability to shape others’ behavior, and, in turn, shape their perceptions of you.

This idea has the potential to influence your self-perceptions as well. It is incredibly freeing and empowering because it challenges the notion that there is a hard-and-fast “me” and illustrates that you can behave yourself into a new way of being and doing. So, who do you think you are? Who do you want others to see when they look at you? How can you use these insights to strategically choose behaviors that create this person?

“Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

–Mahatma Gandhi