Note: we posted this blog a few years ago. In this version, we have updated it with new insights and research findings.
Each of us has a unique self-identity that both “drives” what we do and is “influenced” by what we do. This dual component is one of the unique aspects of self-identity that we can tap into to help drive and sustain change.
As I’ve stated before, for most people, purposeful change needs to have an emotional foundation for it to be sustainable. The challenge we face is that tapping into our emotions is very difficult and often a random process, thus making purposeful change hard.
Since our self-identity is innately tied to our emotional core, being able to use our self-identity to help motivate behavior change could be very powerful. If we are able to hack into our self-identity, it will help to engage the emotional drivers that we require for change.
We often think of our self-identity as one cohesive overriding concept of who we are.
That’s a misconception.
Psychologists tend to think of people’s self-identity as being made up of a number of smaller self-schemas that are combined together (Horawitz, 2012). These different schemas dominate our personality at separate times depending on the circumstance, social group, or environment that we find ourselves in. For instance, you might be the strong forceful decision maker when in family situations, but in social situations outside of the family, you might think of yourself as more of a follower.
Image: Our self- is comprised of identity many self-schemas
One way to think about self-schemas is to imagine that they are miniature mind-maps that guide how we think of ourselves in a given situation (i.e., a very localized map). This map helps us envision how we should behave and think in this location.
This map is the lens of how we see ourselves fitting into and responding to the world. It prescribes what we expect our actions and thoughts to be in that specific situation.
This identity lens also colors our world. It can have a strong influence on what we see, what we feel, and what we experience. It also impacts how we interpret and how we respond to what we see/feel/experience.
Recent work on our sense of political affiliation highlights this fact. We like to think that we pick our political party based on how that party’s platform and policies align with our own self-identity, however, research by Dave Ciuk (2018), people tend to shift their self-schema’s based on the party’s position. While the initial decision on which party one joins may be reflective of their self-identity, once that party has been chosen, the party’s position seems to impact our beliefs.
We have beliefs or self-schemas about whether we are fun or boring, outgoing or shy, combative or peaceful, brave or cowardly, and these schemas shape what we pay attention to, how we encode the information we receive, and what information we retrieve based on the situation (Wheeler, Petty, Bizer, 2005).
In this sense, schemas reflect our core values of who we are and how we fit in the world.
Horowitz (1998) describes it as follows: “Self-schemas include scripts, future intentions and expectations about self-realization, and core values. These self-schemas function as cognitive maps; simplifying details into attitudes…”
Schemas are also temporal in nature which means that we can think of ourselves as behaving and thinking differently based on the timeframe we imagine ourselves in – i.e., whether we are thinking of ourselves in the past, present or future tense.
Therefore, we can visualize our future self as being different than what we are today. Sometimes this future self is labeled our “possible self” or our “ideal self” which is appropriate. The temporal nature of our self-schemas plays an important role in how we plan out our lives and make choices for the future.
Schemas and change.
So how does this impact our self-change initiatives?
First, we can think about how well our behaviors match with the schemas we hold of ourselves. If our behaviors fit with that vision of who we are, those behaviors are “congruent”; if they do not align with that vision, they are “incongruent.”
Image: Congruent Behavior (reinforces and is reinforced by self-schema) vs. Incongruent Behavior (creates angst to stop behavior or reassess self-schema)
The more congruent the new change behavior is, the stronger the motivational pull to engage in that behavior. Conversely, the more incongruent the behavior, the stronger the pull is to stop that behavior in order to get back in alignment.
This is the self-regulation part of schemas and it works for however we envision ourselves. For instance, if I think of myself as “a walker”, I will have a stronger motivational pull to choose to walk when I have an option between walking or driving (or other mode of transportation). Walking would be congruent with my vision of myself. However, if I find myself sitting on the couch, vegging out in front of the T.V., that would be an incongruent behavior that would exert a sense of cognitive angst at not living up to my self-schema and would push me to get up and go for a walk around the block.
If I have a self-schema where I believe that I am an outgoing, happy and social person – that schema will influence my behavior to be congruent with the image I have for that. If on the other hand, I believe that I am more of an introvert and need alone time to recharge, I will more likely engage in behaviors that reinforce this belief.
It is safe to say, we view ourselves through the lens of our schemas. Applied to our change effort, this can provide motivation to engage in or resist from certain behaviors that do or do not mesh with our self-schema.
Our behavior also provides us with a way to revamp our identity. As mentioned in the first line, our self-identity both drives what we do and is influenced by what we do.
Thus, our behaviors influence what our identity is.
If we start to walk to the store instead of drive, invite friends to go for a walk instead for a coffee, relax by taking an evening stroll instead of sitting in front of the T.V. – our self-identity will be impacted. We will need to reassess our behaviors and our schemas of self in order to get them more in alignment.
We can use our potential future selves to drive our behavior change.
We are usually really good at envisioning our future. It is one of the key facets in any purposeful change process. We need to visualize not only the change that we want to happen, but who we are in that change process. As Gandhi said “be the change you want to see in the world.”
When we imagine highly detailed visions of the self in pursuit of a desired goal, those visions shape and organize our actual behaviors (Inglehart, Markus, & Brown, 1989). One study showed that persistence and effort expended on a tedious mental task were influenced when participants “possible self-schemas” were activated. In other words, people who imagined themselves as successful in the future out-performed those who imagined negative outcomes (Ruvolo & Markus, 1992).
Hacking our schemas?
Hack 1: The old adage, “fake it until you make it,” rings true when we think about hacking our schemas.
To some degree, schemas can be thought of as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. So, if we tell a different story, we should be able to help influence our behavior.
Image: Our acted behaviors influence our self-identity.
As we have shown, our behaviors influence our self-identity. If we have always thought of ourselves as shy, but continually find ourselves in situations where we are initiating conversations with new people – our brain sees this as incongruent behavior and works to get back in alignment. One way that it can do this, is to reassess the schema of being shy and use this new information to update our self-schema to one where we see ourselves as being more outgoing (at least in those situations).
Hack 2: Can we envision our self so clearly and so in line with our goals/change process that we make it a reality?
Probably not – a vision by itself won’t be enough to achieve our goals – however, it can help. Karen Stein (1995) stated, “Possible selves have been shown to play a powerful role in motivating and regulating goal-directed behavior.”
So, we should be very mindful of what are we envisioning our future self to be. We should be purposeful in imaging our future self and the impact that the future self will have on us, and our behaviors and attitudes.
To identify alternative schemas, fill in the blank with detail on what you would like to do, “I am the type of person who ________!” This helps create the vision of that “possible self.” To add some more specificity to it, we could add in “I am the type of person who ________ in _______ situation!”
In one study that looked at how behavior changed when people held a “self as exerciser” schema, Kendzierski (1988) found that people with an exercise self-schema exercised more frequently than those with no self-schema and also used more strategies to help them exercise regularly.
Hack 3: Engage in reinforcing activities and create small wins
When we are at the beginning of a change process, we should purposely set up specific opportunities where we can actively engage in congruent behaviors. The more that we can reinforce our positive schema, the more that schema will make stronger cognitive connections.
These congruent behaviors are registered in our brain as small reinforcements of our schema. They are small wins for us in our change process.
We should look for specific activities or environments that we can be successful at. For instance, if my behavior is to walk more and I’m reinforcing my walking self-schema, I should purposefully park my car at the far end of the parking lot. This small step supports our schema and provides positive reinforcement.
Difficulty and cautionary advice
Hacking our self-identity isn’t a silver bullet. Here’s some reasons why:
We are really good at fooling ourselves…really good.
Once formed, schemas’ are often maintained in the face of contradictory evidence. We distort what we see or feel, our brain can ignore those behaviors that are incongruent with our schemas, and we engage in cognitive discounting – were we see contrary evidence as an exception and not the rule (Padesky).
Studies have shown that people are more likely to direct their attention to information that is consistent with an established self-schema, and to process information more quickly, and have greater recall for schema-consistent versus schema-irrelevant information. It is difficult to change our perception of ourselves when we only see things that are aligned with our behavior.
We view the world through our self-schema colored glasses.
We can’t just will ourselves into a new schema. We may tell ourselves that we want to be a certain type of person, but if that schema is not believed in our subconscious, it is hard to maintain. We will find other, older or more aligned schemas, taking over.
Take the shy example from above. We would hope that our brain would reassess the available information and start to reassess our schema – however what often happens is that the brain might view that behavior as an outlier (I’m not normally like that, it was just a few times) or reshape the memory of it (I didn’t really initiate the conversation), or just repress it (I don’t remember doing that).
Additionally, our various self-schemas can vary in their overall consistency from being rather fragmented to being harmonious with each other (Horawitz, 2012). If we have a harmonious set of schemas, our self-identity is stronger and we will feel more motivational pull to be aligned with it. If our schemas are more fragmented, that pull is lessened as our self-identity isn’t as cohesive – people tend to be able to shift to another schema more easily. For instance, if a behavior is out-of-line with our dominant schema, a person who has fragmented schemas is more likely to be able to find an alternative schema where the incongruent behavior fits than someone who has a more harmonious set of schemas. Work by Jonathan Haidt reflects that some people tend to view the world more black and white while others view it in shades of gray. This perception lends itself into our political beliefs but also impacts how we distort facts – the more black and white we perceive the world, the more likely we are to alter our perception of the facts than we are to shift our self-schema’s.
All of this leads to a potential problem where our hack efforts can backfire. So instead of us reshaping our identity by engaging in new behaviors, we just create angst and further reinforce the old or alternative schema.
Hacking our self-identity is one way that we can help ourselves change more effectively and sustain that change in the long run. It is a way that we can more consistently tap into the emotions which help propel that change process. Understanding how self-schema’s impact our behavior and how behavior impacts our self-schema’s can help us emotionally engage.
It is not the magic bullet; however, it is one more tool in our tool bag of change.