Rejecting the old self for a better one

Science & Technology

April 15, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES

"I'm a better person than I used to be," might seem the exclusive mantra of former presidents, chastened lovers and veterans of the analytic couch. But if a series of studies by two social psychologists offers any indication, the conviction that today's self is a new and improved version of yesterday's is ubiquitous.

Asked to evaluate themselves in the past and in the present, the researchers found, the subjects in their studies consistently reported that they were now more competent, more socially skilled, more tolerant, more polite, more mature and less boring than they had been.

Moreover, their own degree of improvement over time, the subjects revealed, was substantially greater than that of their friends and relatives. And the participants remained convinced of their self-betterment -- even when no actual change had occurred.

"Individuals perceive themselves to be champs now, and by comparison to their current status, chumps in the past," wrote the researchers, Dr. Michael Ross, a professor at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and Dr. Anne E. Wilson, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, also in Waterloo, in a report in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

To believe that the achievements of the past pale in comparison with those of the present serves a purpose, the researchers contend: It makes people feel good about themselves. "Individuals may benefit psychologically from criticizing a distant, earlier self, especially on attributes that are important to the present self," wrote Ross and Wilson.

Leaving an earlier self behind, you can "stop taking the blame for things that were unsatisfactory," Ross said, explaining: "You can say 'That was the old me. I no longer act like that, I no longer do that.' In comparison to that old me, the new me can look pretty good."

At the same time, he said, you also "stop benefiting from things you did a long time ago."

The findings fit with a growing field of research that documents the variety of psychological mechanisms people use to shore up a positive self-image.

Such "positive illusions," as they have been termed by Dr. Shelley E. Taylor, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, help people cope and maintain their buoyancy in a competitive and unpredictable world.

Researchers have found, for example, in what has been called the "Lake Wobegon Effect," that most people describe themselves as above average on a wide variety of traits and abilities, though such an abundance of superiority represents a statistical impossibility.

The work of Ross and Wilson, Taylor said, offers a persuasive demonstration that people actively compare themselves not only with other people, but with their past selves. "It's one of the ways that people maintain the illusion that they are always improving, always productive, always getting better and better," she said.

While magnifying the distance between past and present benefits the self-image, it can also be a potent way to impress others. "By being critical of a past self, you can suggest that you're not simply extolling your virtues but that you're able to take a good hard look at yourself," Ross said.

Yet the confession of past sins as a tactic for highlighting present rectitude can be a dicey business, Ross pointed out.

Drinking and drug use may be cases in point. While some politicians have admitting smoking marijuana or drinking heavily in their youth and suffered little at the polls, cocaine may be a totally different story. "It could be that admitting to taking cocaine is going to taint you in the eyes of some voters forever," Ross said. "People have to play this game carefully."

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