One Among Many

The self in social context

The Trinity of You

Self, personality & identity

Who am I? Who are you? The answer depends on your theoretical goggles. Here, I consider the big three, in a nutshell. 


The currently dominant view in psychology construes personality (and the self and identity) as a matter of difference and distinction. Trait theories locate personality in the quantitative score on a dimension of individual differences. To say that Eric is high on extroversion and that Carla is low on conscientiousness means that Eric is more extroverted than the average person and that Carla is less conscientious than the average person. These scores have no absolute meaning, only a relative or social one. One cannot say that there is overall more extroversion than conscientiousness in the world because the averages of the two sets of scores are defined to be zero (or 50, or whatever arbitrary number is convenient). This is not a bad scheme, if its assumptions are respected. It is like the measurement of intelligence, where a score of 100 means that every other person is smarter than you.

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If trait psychologists approach the study of personality in this relative, social-comparison fashion, this does not mean that you have to. Yet, some theorists suggest that this is precisely what you do. Rachel Karniol (2003) proposes that the self-concept is a self-as-different concept. She assumes that people have a sense of what the average person, or “protocenter,” is like and that they also know where and how they differ from it. These differences become tagged as diagnostic and important, and together they compose the self-concept.


I doubt that the self can be defined exclusively in terms of differences (Krueger, 2003; Krueger, Freestone & MacInnis, 2013). I find it strange that according to protocenter theory the protocenter itself is selfless. A person who is exactly like the aggregate of all others would be a non-individual, an un-person. Such a person would find no attributes that set her apart from the statistical baseline to support a claim to identity. However, if we refer to such a person as a protoTYPE instead of a protoCENTER, a new picture emerges. Perhaps the mark of this person is that she is the ideal representative of the group. Could this kind of representativeness not be a distinction of a higher order? If so, could it not support a sense of self and identity?

Hermann Hesse gave voice to the prototype’s point of view on the second page of the Glass Bead Game. Here is my rough translation: “What we regard today as personality happens to be something entirely different from what the biographers and historians of earlier times had in mind. To them [. . . ] it seems that, one might say, the essence of personality was what was deviant, norm-violating, and unique, even pathological, whereas we contemporaries do not even recognize important personalities until we encounter individuals who have, beyond all originality and peculiarity, achieved a perfect submission to what is general, a virtually perfect service to the super-personal.” Hesse notes that from the Ancient Greeks (Socrates) to the Early Roman Catholic Church (Thomas Aquinas), the perfect representation of the typical was essential to personhood. “Their greatest figures [appear] more as classic representations of types than singular individuals.”

Viewed from this perspective, personality development and refinement lies in the cultivation of the common human nature. The 14th Dalai Lama is a champion of this idea in our time. He tirelessly reminds his audiences that their shared humanity is their most essential characteristic. Most experimental psychologists agree, taking this characteristic as their object of study. Those individuals who represent this common ground to the fullest have, as in ancient times, the distinction of being seen as attractive and they are expected to lead (Ullrich, Christ & van Dick, 2009). 


According to a third view, the first two approaches are Procrustean. They try to lock personality, the self, and identity into a confined space. By applying the norm of the average or a fixed deviation from this average, both approaches seek to make the individual consistent, predictable, and comprehensible. The price they pay is that the person becomes exploitable and boring.

Geoffrey Miller (1996) breaks with the doctrine of consistency. He suggests that humans have the potential to be Protean. Like a river in flux, they refuse to be pinned down, measured, and categorized. If their behavior is fickle, chaotic, and random, they are hard to figure out and hence are a step ahead. Miller suggests that there is an evolutionary advantage to being Machiavellian in this way. The absence of detectable invariances of behavior does not deny the presence of personality (or self or identity). It only means that the person’s center gravity lies in her desires and goals (especially the appetite for power); it does not reside in a trait-like concept of the self. Those who take this road should expect a wild ride. They will find that the only way to guarantee that others cannot predict one’s moves is to be unable to predict them oneself.


Let’s consider what has been said. Each human being brings the basic characteristics of the species (or the group) to the table. Yet, no two individuals are alike. We all have our differences from the grand mean, and these differences often look like a bell-shaped curve. Finally, there is short-term variation to our behavior that frustrates even the most determined observer with irreducible uncertainty. A psychologist with a statistical bent might say that the three approaches to personality can be jointly modeled as a grand mean tendency (averaged over people), a consistent idiosyncratic deviation from that grand mean, and random fluctuation. In other words, a psychometric equation consisting of a true score, a bias term, and a random error term can describe the behavioral data. This works reasonably well for the quantitative scientist, but it leaves the person stranded with the question of what the self is. Does it reside in the equation? Is it perhaps a mere simulation?

I prefer to think that for each of us there are three sovereign lenses through which we can regard ourselves. To be human is to be everyman, to be a distinctive individual, and to be a series of chance events all at once. Which of the three lenses will dominate in a particular moment is a matter of perception and probability, and that’s the fun of it.

Karniol, R. (2003). Egocentrism versus protocentrism: The status of self in social prediction. Psychological Review, 110, 564-580. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.110.3.564

Krueger, J. I. (2003). Return of the ego—self-referent information as a filter for social prediction: Comment on Karniol (2003). Psychological Review, 110, 585-590. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.110.3.585

Krueger, J. I., Freestone, D., & McInnis, M. L. (2013). Comparisons in research and reasoning: Toward an integrative theory of social induction. New Ideas in Psychology, 31, 73-86.

Miller, G. (1996). Protean primates: The evolution of adaptive unpredictability in competition and courtship. In A. Whiten & R. W. Byrne (Eds.), Machiavellian intelligence II: Extensions and evaluations (pp. 312 – 340). Cambridge University Press.

Ullrich, J., Christ, O., & van Dick, R. (2009). Substitutes for procedural fairness: Prototypical leaders are endorsed whether they are fair or not. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 235-244. DOI: 10.1037/a0012936


Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.


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