We often hear someone claim that a friend, lover, parent, or co-worker seems to have multiple personalities. For example, we may find ourselves asking why is Sarah assertive at work but so subservient to her boyfriend? Or we may think, how can Mike be meek around his family but so brazen with his college buddies? What should we make of people like these and what are the implications?
People with many and diverse self identities are typically not "schizo" (the often inappropriately applied term for dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder). Instead, people with many different selves, known in the scientific literature as self-aspects, are common, and these people can often benefit from their diversity of selves.
When people have many self identities featuring distinct behaviors and traits, these individuals are called highly self-complex people. People greater in self-complexity report having many self-aspects (e.g., a spousal self, a professional self, an athletic self) with different attributes in each self-aspect (e.g., cooperative as a spouse but competitive as an athlete). On the other hand, people lower in self-complexity report fewer self-aspects that are more similar in their attributes (e.g., creative as a worker and as a spouse).
Why does this distinction matter?
Research suggests that when facing stress, those greater in self-complexity often fare better. Consider the challenging economic climate we all face, where one might experience being laid-off or downsized at any moment. For someone with many different and diverse self-aspects, a negative event such as being laid off will certainly hurt one's "professional self" but a highly self-complex person will have many other selves to draw upon that don't share the same core values and traits as one's professional self. On the other hand, low self-complex people will experience being laid off more harshly because they have fewer alternative self-aspects to draw upon and the qualities associated with one's professional self will be important for other multiple selves as well. Thus, if losing one's job makes one feel less creative, and creativity is critical in other self-aspects, then losing one's job will have broader implications. In other words, the bad news will spill over onto other self-aspects, resulting in greater impact such as lower self-esteem, greater depression, and more stress-related illnesses.
Does this mean that highly self-complex people are simply happier?
Not necessarily. Indeed, being low in self-complexity is a double-edged sword. In bad times, the emotional spillover will be more damning as illustrated in the lay-off example above. But in good times, the positivity spills over onto other self-aspects for those lower in self-complexity, making them happier people. Thus, getting a promotion (instead of a pink slip) at work will make the person lower in self-complexity not only feel better as a professional but in their other self domains as well.
The upshot is that "the self" is not usually a single self-concept. In research conducted in our laboratory, we find that most people list 4 to 5 important self-aspects and only about 5% say they only have one self identity. This is especially striking when one considers our cultural context. That is, in the United States, the prevailing perspective on the nature of the self is that people have a "true self" comprised of traits that transcend time and context. We like to think that people are "honest" or "sincere" or "competitive" across the board, but in actuality, people can show variability in how similar they are across different roles and context. The research literature shows that such variability is common, and that the extent to which people's self-concepts vary in their complexity has important implications for their happiness and health.
Interested in learning more? You can visit our lab's research website for details and citations.