Self-conscious, self-aware, self-important… selfish! Though it may be obvious what we mean when we use the word self, there are differences in how people use the term and also how they see themselves. In a series of experiments, Rice University researchers explored concepts of the self. Generally, most people locate the self in the brain rather than the heart, the researchers discovered, and this common self-perception has very real consequences in people’s lives.

Commonly, social psychologists say Westerners have an independent self-construal, while East Asians possess an interdependent self-construal, where self-construal is defined as the underlying basis for self-definition.

An independent self-construal suggests people believe themselves to be separate from others and so they naturally place individual goals above those of the group. Interdependent self-construal implies people see themselves as connected with others and so they commonly place group goals above individual needs.

Yet, a third vision proposed by psychologists is relational self-construal, which expresses a self-definition based on close relationships. And so, while self-construal originally addressed cultural differences, psychologists commonly use the three terms — interdependent, relational, and independent — to describe three dimensions of perception as they vary in strength across cultures and individuals.

As the current study reveals, different levels of these three dimensions exert an influence our personalities and ultimately our lives.

Brain or Heart?

The study began with a simple question: Where do you locate your sense of self? To explore this question, the researchers created various groups ranging in size from 95 to 156 people between the ages of 20 and 40. While half the participants were women, the majority were Americans (though the study also included a group of Indians).

A person's identity is essential, the participants were told, and so some areas or parts of the body may seem more connected to the sense of self. After offering this explanation, the researchers asked participants to indicate which part of the body is most connected to their understanding of who they are. Next, the researchers conducted a variety of experiments to see how ideas about the location of the self might impact participants' decision-making.

So what did the researchers discover?

The majority of participants located the self in the brain. Some, though, were more likely to favor the brain than others. Men more than women, Americans more than Indians, and independent self-construal participants more than interdependent self-construal participants chose the brain. Importantly, the researchers also learned the location of a sense of self affected participants’ decision-making.

Clones and Charities

In one experiment, participants imagined they were about to be cloned and they were given a choice about where in the body their cloning cells would be harvested. Here, the researchers told participants when cells are taken from a body part connected to the sense of self, the clone is identical not only in appearance but also in terms of identity. Here, participants more often wanted cells harvested from the brain (44 percent) than the heart (25 percent). As expected, men and Americans chose brain cells more than women and Indian citizens.

Finally, when asked whether they would give to a charity that supported either heart-related illness or brain disorders, people who located the self in the brain contributed more than twice as much money to a charity fighting Alzheimer's than the other participants, while those who believed the self is located in the heart contributed more than twice as much money to a charity fighting heart attacks.

The results of this study, the researchers say, shows how people’s understanding of self has important implications for their opinions about medical issues while also impacting their general decision-making process. And this has many practical implications. If you wanted to persuade someone, for example, you would do best by targeting either the head or the heart based on that person's self-construal. “Your head is telling you to rent this apartment,” you might say, versus, “You feel it in your heart.”

Source: Adam H, Obodaru O, Galinsky AD. Who You Are Is Where You Are: Antecedents and Consequences of Locating the Self in the Brain or the Heart. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 2015.