In Stranger in the Mirror, Robert Levine argues that the self is unfixed, constantly changing, and, ultimately, a fiction. The way we see ourselves and the version of ourselves we present to others can vary widely from moment to moment.
To see his theory in action, there is an easy psychological test you can try, described in Chapter 14 of the book. On a blank sheet of paper, write “Who am I?” at the top and then answer that question 20 times. Next, have two others answer “Who is (your name)?” 20 times. Where do the answers align? Where are they different? What accounts for those differences? The results will be an interesting insight into what makes you, you.
According to Levine, Americans tend to come up with 20 answers about themselves fairly quickly, usually in the form of sweeping psychological traits (kind, outgoing). Stephen Cousins, a social psychologist who worked for a time in Japan, found that people there had a harder time with the test. They did not come up with answers as quickly, and the answers they did come up with were general and not very informative. They listed physical traits, their professions etc. They rarely listed psychological traits. However, when Cousins changed the test and asked “Who am I at home” or “Who am I at school,” the Japanese test subjects responded with more detail than the Americans did. In Japan, the self is all about context. Robert Levine goes into much more detail on the different ideas of “self” across cultures in Chapter 15 of Stranger in the Mirror.
For another snippet from the book, check out our poll on the PUP Facebook.
If you’ve ever wondered about the possibilities and limits of the self, then Robert Levine’s intriguing book is for you.