Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

You Are What You Have Done—Not What You Own

Experiences play a bigger role than objects in self-concept

In the movie Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is chastised by his friend Rachel Dawes. He claims to be a good person deep down, even though he is acting foolishly. She tells him that his actions define who he is. Later, as Batman, Bruce saves Rachel from an attack. She asks who he is, and he says “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” 

This line can be read in two ways. One is that the best way for other people to measure your character is by what you have done. The second is that people’s actions have a big influence on people’s self concept—that is who they think they are. 

This issue was explored in a paper in the June, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Travis Carter and Tom Gilovich. The work jumps off from research by Gilovich and his colleagues that I have described in previous blog entries showing that people enjoy things they have purchased more when those purchases provide experiences than when they are just material goods. 

Carter and Gilovich were interested in whether people felt that people’s experiences played a larger role in their self-concepts than the material products they have purchased.

In one study, they had people think about five significant purchases of material goods they had made and five significant purchases of experiences. A material good might be a television or a piece of furniture. An experience might be a meal or a vacation. After thinking about these purchases, people were asked to summarize their life story, writing out what made them who they are. They asked people to incorporate some of the purchases in their story. Overall, people included about twice as many experiences in their stories than material purchases.

This study suggests that people feel that their own self-concept is influenced more strongly by what they have done than by what they own. Another series of studies in this paper explores perceptions of self by others. 

In one experiment in this series, people were asked whether someone else would have a better sense of their true self if they knew about the experiences they had purchased or about the material goods they had purchased. People rated that others would know them best from their purchases of experiences.

In another experiment, people were asked whether they would know someone else better from their purchases of material goods or from their purchases of experiences. Again, people rated that they would know someone else better from their experiences than from their material purchases.

It is important to note, of course, that many purchases that we make have both the character of material goods and experiences. Someone might buy a car in order to own the physical object, but they also might buy it in order to have the experience of driving it. The authors recognize this issue.  In another experiment, they had people think about the purchase of a 3D television. They were asked to think either about the material characteristics of the TV or the experience of watching it. People who thought about the experience rated that it would play a larger role in their self-concept than those who thought about the material aspects of the TV.

Putting all of this together, then, it appears that Rachel Dawes was perceptive. We do tend to think of ourselves in terms of the experiences we have had. We also judge other people by the things they have done. That is an important reason why we are happier when we spend our money on experiences than on things.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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