The Ernest Becker Foundation
|Of Recent Interest: The Self in Social Psychology|
|Sunday, 01 October 2000 03:00|
In this new collection of essays published by Taylor and Francis (1999), the self is one of those terms we all understand and use on a daily basis, yet find extremely difficult to define.
Certainly it starts with a body. My two year old points to her belly when she refers to herself, and I think that is where we all begin. On the other hand, she still only refers to herself in the third person, even while expressing clearly personal feelings. This seems contradictory to me and I would love to get into her head for just a minute so as to understand just what the self looks like to her.
Baumeister organized the book around his own schema for the experience of selfhood—reflexive consciousness, interpersonal being and executive function. He suggests that historically, the self as problematic or as an object of investigation is a very recent and very Western phenomenon. But here and now, the self is a very live topic. A recent survey reported some 31,000 publications pertaining to the self in the last 20 years! The essays collected in this book won’t get us inside the head of my two year old; they do help us navigate that daunting mountain of writing, bringing us up to date on the state of research concerning just about any aspect of the self you can think of.
Of most interest to Foundation readers will be the section on motivational roots for self esteem maintenance. The two essays comprising this section both support hypotheses that will draw the attention of readers of Ernest Becker. One of these is by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynki and company, reporting and evaluating experimental research conducted to test "Terror Management Theory Hypotheses," suggesting that self-esteem serves an anxiety-buffering function. Those who attend Foundation functions have heard oral presentations on these experimental sequences, but seeing it in print only deepens one’s respect for the thorough conception and thought behind this project.
The other essay, by Mark Leary and his group of researchers, reports on experimental research supporting what they call the "Sociometer Hypothesis." This hypothesis suggests that levels of self-esteem vary with a person’s sense of social inclusion and that threat to self-esteem alerts the individual to dangers of social exclusion. When we consider how deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history is the reality that social exclusion placed one literally in mortal danger, it is not difficult to understand that a psychologically sensitive species would develop a "6th sense" that is constantly monitoring inclusion or exclusion from the social group. It appears to this reader, in fact, that the sociometer hypothesis is easily contained within Terror Management as a case in point of defensive functioning.
As Baumeister notes in his opening paragraph, "No topic is more interesting to people than people. For most people, moreover, the most interesting person is the self." Nevertheless, being a 500 page, double-column text, it is not likely that this will be the book people take with them to the beach or a mountain ski outing ! It will be more than worth any time you spend with it, however.
Becker on Otto Rank
"Rank was—as the young people say—'something else' You cannot merely praise much of his work because in its stunning brilliance it is often fantastic, gratuitous, superlative; the insights seem like a gift, beyond what is necessary."
From the preface to Denial of Death
more on Otto Rank here