What makes you who you are? Your experiences? Your memories? Your favorite foods?
None of these truly define us. What people believe really make us individuals are our personal moral traits, according to a new study co-authored by Shaun Nichols, a professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Philosophy.
The research moves beyond the tradition in philosophy, which has focused on memory as the most important factor in defining the individual self, and introduces a broader perspective on the question of what makes you who you are.
“The philosophical tradition has emphasized the importance of memory - that you need to have the same memories to be the same person,” said Nichols, who co-authored the study with Nina Strohminger, a psychologist at Duke University.
“Previous studies had focused on the presence versus absence of memory,” Nichols said. “This paper looks at a variety of different dimensions, including morality, personality and intelligence, and every result came out with morality as the most important factor in defining the self. We found that memory was second place to morality by far.”
Morality, in this case, refers to personal moral traits such as the tendency to be kind or the tendency to be selfish, Nichols said.
“When you imagine yourself losing all of your memories that seems terrible,” he said. “But we found that for most people, the idea that somebody who used to be nice is now cruel would be considered a much more profound influence on their behavior than just forgetting various things.”
The paper, published in March in the journal Cognition, documents the results of five independent studies involving over 800 U.S. participants, all showing overwhelmingly that personal morality is considered the most important trait in defining the self.
The researchers compared moral personality traits, such as the tendency to be kind, with non-moral personality traits, such as the tendency to be shy.
“We found that the moral personality traits really were much more important to the way that people thought about the true self,” Nichols said.
“If you’re shy or artistic or a slow learner and those traits change, people don’t think that’s as much of a change in who you are,” Nichols said. “But if you go from being callous to being kind, people think that’s a big change.”
Nichols and Strohminger did not investigate whether an individual’s personal morality is likely to change over the course of their lifetime, but they did find that people’s belief about whether they will change affects their actions.
In an earlier study, also published in the journal Cognition, Nichols, along with Daniel Bartels of the University of Chicago and then UA graduate student Trevor Kvaran, investigated how perceptions of whether the self changes over time influences people’s actions. They found that people were more likely to give money to charity in the long term if they believed the self would change over time.
This is predicted by Buddhism, Nichols said. If people come to appreciate that they won’t be the same person over time, then they may be less concerned about how their life turns out in the end.
Now Nichols is gearing up for a new investigation into whether individual beliefs about whether or not the self will change over time affect attitudes about death in Christian, Hindu and Buddhist populations. That investigation is being supported by a $249,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Nichols is leading one of 10 research teams selected for the Immortality Project, based at the University of California, Riverside.