top of page

Interview with Dr. Roy Baumeister

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Journalist: Timur Begaliyev

Timur Begaliyev: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Timur Begaliyev, and I am the journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with one of the most cited social psychologists alive: Dr. Roy Baumeister. Dr. Baumeister researches subjects about the self, and he recently summarized his career of research into his self-described magnum opus, which is a book titled The Self Explained. Thank you for coming on here, Dr. Baumeister!

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Thanks for having me.

Timur Begaliyev: In your book, you describe the self as a process rather than a thing. For the viewers, can you describe what the self is and its purpose?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Self is a word we use every day, but it's remarkably difficult to define exactly what it is. Some have begun to say, well, “There's no such thing as a self, it's an illusion”, particularly brain researchers who can't seem to find a single spot in the brain. But the self is the construction of unity. It's imposing a system to unify the whole organism. An intuitively obvious step forward in evolution was walking. I have a brain that organizes the movements of the different legs, or whatever if it's a snake or a fish, but the brain uses the system to move the body so that it can move itself from one place to another. In a more advanced way, human cells are constructing unity not just in the present, but across time. One of the big evolutionary innovations is that humans have a sense of the future and the past. And so, the self is seen as acting in there, and nobody's completely consistent. So, I say it's the construction of unity. It's a project that never quite gets all the way there, but it gets far enough. The self comes into being as the brain learns to operate a role in the social system. The human self takes shape because of the requirements of the social system, this is something we don't appreciate well enough. Even in psychology, we tend to think of the single mind. But humans evolved to work together, to communicate and cooperate in ways that other animals don't. And ultimately, to create a society with a culture involving shared information. These systems work really well: evolution is driven by survival and reproduction. So, these social systems have enabled the human population to increase magnificently, up to 8 billion people on the planet, whereas almost all the other mammals populations are declining, partly because of us. These systems work very well, but you need advanced psychological properties to take part in them, like moral responsibility. You have to keep your promises, otherwise even that aspect of society breaks down. So, it's better for the social system if you have continuous roles: you have a job you have moral responsibility, you have obligations to others, you occupy a place in society. None of that is built into the brain as the need for it. But social systems work better with themselves. In one place in the book it goes through if you live totally alone, you somehow were on a deserted island and never met another human being, you really would not need much of the self. You wouldn't even need a name. You wouldn't need the ideas of ownership. You wouldn't have roles in society. You wouldn't have a reputation, and again, moral responsibility and on and on, so much of it constitutes the self. The need for the self is rooted in the social system, and so the brain learns to perform this role because that's how it survives and reproduces. That's where the self comes into being.

Timur Begaliyev: How do we develop our self-identity, and does self-identity come from genetics or is it more of a product of socialization?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Certainly genes have an influence on behavior in many respects. Again, the self is the brain operating a role in the social system, that's more the individual adapting and learning through socialization how to do it, what you're supposed to do. We learn what are the rules for sharing, for respecting the property of others. We learn how to get along, we learn language, and we learn concern about our reputation. The self is more constructed socially than genetically, but of course it rests on a strong basis of genetic tendencies. But the genes affect things more like your basic wants and needs and your temperament. I'm a professor, and you could probably hunt through my genes at great length and never find that there's a professor gene that's in there, but because perhaps of genetic tendencies, I have a preference for certain kinds of work better suited for certain kinds of work than others. But becoming a professor was very much a process of working in society and learning the roles that are available, like doing well in school to become a professor. So all those things are happening together. It's the brain learning to perform the role in the social system. The genes certainly help. If genes that suited me better to be, I don't know, a pirate on the high seas or a manual laborer or a painter or something like that, well, it could have gone in a different route. And some people end up in roles that they're not so genetically suited for. They find life stressful. Choosing your self-identity and building the self is more a process of working in society, not something that your genes made together. I should say too, much of the research as I read it, I don't really follow the genetic stuff that closely, but there's a big shift for gene-environment interactions, that the environment turns genes on and off. Genes predispose you to seek out certain kinds of environments, so there's relatively little in human behavior that's purely the product of genes or purely the product of environment, rather that they work together. But with the self, the genes don't dictate who you are, rather than belong to a particular family because they gave birth to you and so you have you have their genes, sort of basic desires we naturally associate with our family and you have certain sexual desires for certain kinds of people. So, the genes are the foundation there, but again the self comes into being more through social interaction.

Timur Begaliyev: I heard a quote, I think it was by Skinner. He said that if he had children on an island, then he can socialize them to become whatever profession he wanted.

Dr. Roy Baumeister: OK, that is a famous line but I don’t think it was Skinner, although it might have been. It was one of those early animal researchers. That was a century ago. Back then, they really believed in the endless power of the environment and minimal influence of genes and heredity. The spirit of there is that yes, people can be shaped to do different things. That much is true. The idea that this is unlimited and you can make anybody into anything, that's almost surely overstated. But no, it's not like you could pick any random baby and make it into any sort of person or any sort of role in society. We continue to see very well that different people have different abilities and different tendencies and different temperaments. And so, different people are suited for different kinds of jobs.

Timur Begaliyev: How do people choose their identity? Can you predict or influence someone to identify more as one identity than another? Like maybe for parents trying to influence their children?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Well in my book, this is one of the basic arguments: who makes the self? Do you make your own self? Do you choose who you are, or are you just the product of circumstances and you were born? Circumstances certainly vary in how compelling they are. I mean, through most of history, not prehistory, but through most of history, most people were farmers and there was very little chance to be anything else. So, you may have the genes that would suit you temperamentally to be a professor. There were no professors until 10 centuries ago, and very few positions, and so on. And you couldn't just be born in a farming village and say “Yeah, I want to go be a professor”, or astronaut, or all kinds of other things. So the image I've kind of settled on to present this is it's a bit like a buffet. Society lays out the options, and the person can choose what's on the table. If the only thing on the table is being a farmer, then you're going to be a farmer in modern life. In the West, the buffet is so vast that people can go to university and choose any of a couple dozen fields to major in and develop their education and expertise in those. And then often those lead to multiple different careers as well. The range of options is much greater now than it was in the past. But what I'm trying to get at with the buffet analogy is there's both some influence of society expanding or limiting the options, and the individual does have some limited choice within those. People prefer to have more choice, that's certainly one of the advances of modern life that we don't all have to be farmers. I'm really glad I didn't end up being a farmer. No disrespect to the farmers, I'm just not suited for that kind of life.

Timur Begaliyev: Do you have any research that on how someone might pick from the available options on the buffet?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: People pay attention to their unusual talents. Ultimately, the job of the self is to integrate you into the group and enable you to thrive, to live well as a member of the group. So you want to first get the group to include you, to accept you, and then you want to perform well in it. Knowing what you could do better than other people helps you find a position where you're more valuable to the group. Economists talk about this in some respect as the law of comparative advantage. Say, for example, I have ability of eight as a farmer and five as a blacksmith. Well, you might think I'm a better farmer than a blacksmith, so I should be a farmer, right? But suppose I live in a village where everybody is an eight or a 9 as a farmer, and everybody else is only a two as a blacksmith. Well, I'd be a better farmer than a blacksmith comparing like that, but I'll be more successful in this group if I'm the blacksmith, because I'm way better than anyone else at that, whereas I'm just average as a farmer. And there is evidence that people do pay attention to this kind of thing. They look at not just their good traits and you know, everybody knows people like their good traits, but which of their good traits stand out in their social group? Because that's what gives you a better chance. You want to belong to a group. Recall, back when I was a musician and if you wanted to play in an orchestra and you're not going to have much musical talent, learn to play the harp and buy a harp. You know, it's not going to get you into the Cleveland Orchestra or the New York Philharmonic, but there are a lot of orchestras that just need somebody to play a decent harp. And harps are expensive, most people don't have them. So if you could get by, you could get accepted there. I was more of a rock and jazz kind of person, and for us it was bass players. If you wanted to be in a rock band or jazz band, learn to play the bass. There are a million guitarists, keyboardists, and singers, but every band needs a bass player and there aren't that many of them. So you can find your way in and then reach your dream by doing that, but it's cultivating your unusual strengths and abilities.

Timur Begaliyev: I also played saxophone in high school, and I was also a swimmer. I remember when I had a bad performance, or when I was struggling with a song, in my head I justified, maybe in an ego-defensive way, where I said “I'm not a musician, I'm just a swimmer”, or an athlete. And then when I had a bad athletic performance, I'll say, “Well, all these guys can't play the saxophone as well as I do.” So yeah, I think it really speaks to your point about comparative advantage.

Timur Begaliyev: What is the impact of having more buffet options when you're choosing an identity?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Well, it makes the business of constructing and maintaining the self more complicated. I had a paper several years ago on how the self became a problem. This paper was published in the 80s, but people were still talking about identity crisis, struggles to know yourself, and finding yourself and all these things. There's this view in the culture that the self is some kind of difficult, elusive thing, and it's a struggle to do. And it was also clear to me that this sort of struggle was not there in antiquity. They did not have these sorts of things. So, there's clearly been some sort of change. Not chalking it up to any kind of genetic change; the time interval is probably much too short for that. We're the same sorts of people as were born a few thousand years ago. But they didn't struggle to know themselves and find themselves and all that. Part of that, though, arises from what you mentioned in your question. Having so many more options that you need to find something inside yourself to help you choose among them as to which one you're suited for. As said earlier, through most of history most people have been farmers and did not have other options. It's mostly a blessing to have so many more options, so many more different kinds of lives and careers that we can have today, and you can find something that suits you much better than being a farmer. But it does come at a cost: greater freedom poses greater burdens to find the answers to sustain them.

Timur Begaliyev: What is the impact of choosing an identity later in life rather than earlier, as we were talking about historically?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Well, this too is something I think people want. I mean, is it a general desire for history for greater freedom? Does the individual want more options and more control over how your life turns out? The movements for that have been pretty much one way. I remember one of the comedy movies where there's a crowd demonstrating and they're chanting “Down with freedom!”. And it's just silly. there has never been a “Down with freedom!” demonstration. No, people want more freedom. But exercising freedom puts more strain on the self. Most people, I think, would say it's worth it because they want to have the options to choose their career. If you wait a little longer to make the decision, you're perhaps more grown up and have a better idea of what your capabilities are and what will enable you to have the sort of life that you want. So, choosing later is probably beneficial to the individual, and it really doesn't seem to cost society much except in extreme cases where suddenly we need a lot of farmers or need a lot of soldiers or something like that. Even the need for soldiers tends to be a temporary thing or responding to a crisis.

Timur Begaliyev: Yeah, I would rather be able to choose my major than have it be given. But I was also reading some literature, I think it was about cognitive dissonance, where people justify the choice that they made so that before they make the choice, people would much rather have the choice, but once they've already made the choice, they justify their decisions and they're much happier after.

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Yes, of course. I think right now they're doing one of these giant replications to see if they can reproduce the finding, even though it's been reproduced in many different laboratories. Trying to get it all at once on a particular occasion. Unfortunately, those things have not worked very well in social psychology, but nevertheless, I do believe in the effects. Certainly, people justify things after the fact. When you have awareness of multiple options, when you have to make a choice, the ideal thing is to think them through and evaluate them carefully and rationally. Once you've made your choice, then it helps just to say, “Oh, this is the right thing”. To continue questioning “Maybe I should have chosen to be a dentist after all” or “Maybe I should have done something else”, that's really not helpful, especially once that door is closed. So technologically, it's probably beneficial to make your choices as best you can, and then settle into it, commit yourself to it and identify it, and persuade yourself that you did the right thing and a little positive confidence in yourself and your choices helps you carry through them. Carrying self-doubts about doing the wrong thing for 20 or 30 years is not really going to be all that helpful. I suppose we can see it even more obviously with getting married. You know, you're only allowed to marry one person, so you might have a couple of options and you think about it carefully and then you make the choice. Then, it'll be better for the marriage if you just persuade yourself that this is the perfect choice. To go on and continue looking at your husband or wife and saying, “Oh, I don't know if I made the right choice, maybe I should have picked the other one” and to continue doing that for 20-30 years is probably not going to accomplish anything positive. The other person is long gone anyway and having the doubts will just weaken your commitment and your positive relationship with the one you chose. So yeah, I certainly think cognitive dissonance is a helpful way to adapt to life with more positive than negative effects by far.

Timur Begaliyev: Do you think that effect could also extend to choosing an identity where if you have an identity laid out for you, I think it was before the Renaissance or before the Gutenberg Bible was published, knowledge wasn't transmitted through books or through any electronic technology. So people just followed in their family's footsteps and they already had a career laid out. Do you think that people then might have been happier? Or do you think that people are more happier with choice?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: People certainly want more choice, and I suspect happiness is there. But as we mentioned, with limited options you don't consider other possible options, or you make a limited choice and then rationalize it. That probably doesn't have that big an effect on happiness. One of the mysteries, getting away from the self, is that levels of happiness don't seem to change much in the modern world, even though objectively life gets better and better. People born today versus born a century ago have so many options and opportunities. But are they happier overall? I don't really know. It looks like the emotion system just responds very locally, it responds to small differences and small changes in your environment. Even though your life is objectively much better, you don't feel much happier about it. I think it was Ben Franklin who remarked once that if society could ever solve the toothache, everyone would just be happy all the time. And you think what it must have been like before modern dentistry? You got a toothache and there's just this pain in your head, and it goes on for weeks at a time and as it's happening, it interferes with eating and kissing and everything else. And it must have been awful. Yet, that's gone. People just had toothaches, it was part of life, and you expected it. And now, I don't know anyone who's complained about a toothache in years, it has become a small thing. You go to the dentist and get it taken care of right away. We've solved the problem, but is everyone happy as Ben Franklin predicted? No! We find other things to be unhappy about. If you had toothache for a couple of years, and then suddenly it was solved and it was gone well then you'd be happy, but probably not forever. Probably just for a while. It's the same with the salaries of, you know, say you make $50,000 and that's a lot more than your ancestors made and you have so many more nice things like different kinds of food, better shelter, cars, and appliances. You know, then it’s a struggle to make ends meet. Then your salary goes up to 60,000. And wow! That's great, you're happy. But after a while that wears off too and so you cease to be happy about it and you think, well, if only I had 70,000, then I'd be happy. So the emotion system responds to the changes. The emotion system also responds to what other people get. I remember that social psychologist Michael Argyle wrote a book on money, and looked at people's motivations, feelings, and what's the influence of money on happiness and so on.

Well, what people really want is to have more money than other people. It's not any exact amount or what it will do for you. It's just if you have more money than others, you feel good about that. If you have less than others, then you're unhappy even though you have more money and could do more with it than most people who ever live, they don't count. It's the other people around you at your time. So that's my take on the happiness issue.

Timur Begaliyev: Yeah, that also reminds me about Brickman's lottery study where he found that people were initially happy after they gained a lot of money and they won the lottery, but over time it evened out, so they were as happy before winning the lottery as after.

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Yes, that is a classic study and has had a big influence. He studied people who won the lottery, and also people who had severe crippling accidents and became paralyzed. So, life got abruptly much better or much worse. Initially, the ones who won the money were much happier and the ones who were paralyzed were much unhappier. His point was both of those tended to wear off over time. That's a fair point, but in the subsequent work I wrote a paper on another topic, it’s called Bad is Stronger than Good (2001). The mind overreacts to bad things, I have another a recent book on it called The Power of Bad. So you get over winning the lottery a lot faster and more thoroughly than you get over being crippled or paralyzed. And it's the same with other things. Yes, the mind adapts to everything. But, it seems to get over improvements in life much faster than deteriorations in life.

Timur Begaliyev: Do you think that there is a youth culture today?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Certainly, the idolization of youth has increased in modern life and people seek to be young and look young and act young. For example, the changed attitudes towards sexuality, well, fairly young adults are the most sexually attractive, and so people want to be sexually appealing and being old is a turnoff in both genders, especially in women, probably for biological reasons. So the worship of youth goes partly with the desire to have sex appeal. Another really crucial thing that I think we don't appreciate is that the wisdom of age becomes obsolete much faster. We've talked about living in medieval farming villages and so on. And well, you were going to just follow in your parents footsteps and take over the farm from them. Or in a few cases, if your father was the blacksmith then maybe you would become a blacksmith too. In all these cases you have a lot to learn from your father, and if you’re a girl, a lot to learn from your mother as well. Parents hold the best information that you can get as to how to make these things work. That's just not true at all anymore for multiple reasons. For one, we don't follow in our parents' career footsteps. In the few cases where we do, then the kids probably do rely somewhat on advice from their parents, but also the world changes faster, and so the parents' advice on what worked for them probably doesn't work as well anymore. I recall my father was a businessman, and my sister was going into business as well. Well, he would give her advice and stuff like that. And my sister would talk to me and kind of roll her eyes and say, “Yeah, well, that's what works back in the 60s or 70s or whatever.” But things have changed and the organizations have changed and so all the hard earned wisdom that he built up over a career of interacting with people in business and learning how to get things done, most of it's obsolete and irrelevant. So, old people really have a lot less to offer than they did in the past. One of my colleagues in Australia who studies getting old said there's a recent survey asking young people what is the best thing that old people can do for young people, and the most common answer was give them money! So wisdom, care, and mentoring relationships was not all that salient to young people, and you know, you can see that cynically, or just realistically. What does a young person have to gain from an old person? On average, money may be one of the only things.

Timur Begaliyev: So my next question is, what is a healthier coping mechanism when we fall short of our own expectations or we violate our concept of self like virtue and other positive aspects?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: People have different sorts of coping methods. The first thing is, when you fall short of expectations, I emphasize throughout the book (The Self Explained) is that the need for the self originates in social life. It's one thing if you disappoint yourself and nobody else cares, how do I cope with it? Well, rationalize it. I can just resolve to do better tomorrow. I can work better and so on. When you let down other people or disappoint them, then you have to deal with the social consequences, and so there coping is not just a matter of straightening things out in your own mind, but dealing with the impact on your social world and undoing the damage that other people think less of you because you failed to live up to their expectations. Well, you may have to repair the relationship. You may find a new relationship, you may have to help them reset their expectations, or you may just have to apologize and do better the next time.

Timur Begaliyev: Based on your research on the self, do you think it's more virtuous to control bad thoughts or to not have bad thoughts at all?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Well, this is one of the classic philosophical dilemmas, I believe going back to Aristotle, who said that the truly virtuous are the people who are never tempted to sin. In my research on self-control and so on, I admire more the people who are tempted to do something bad and overcome it. I know several colleagues have gotten into doing research on this as well, and on what people assume is more virtuous and who they rather be with, I think you'd rather be with a person who has no temptation to do it, whether you know so a spouse who has no temptation to leave you for somebody else, or a worker who has no temptation to cheat you or betray you or something like that. People would prefer to have that kind of person, but they do in a way admire the person more who overcomes it because that's more real. In most cases of virtue, and that's what morality is for, is to overcome things that people want to do but shouldn't. I think Freud pointed out there are no moral rules to tell people not to eat stones or not to burn up all their money because nobody wants to do those things. The rules are for things that people are strongly tempted to do. But it's better for society if people refrain from it. You know, like helping yourself to steal other people's positions. The society where that becomes the norm cannot really function very well for very long. So I think in reality the operation of virtue is more about having the selfish impulses, which are often natural and understandable, but overcoming them to do what's right to enable the group to function. You know there's a further complication, which is if you just make yourself do the right thing over a long period of time, things become more automatic. So, the desire to do otherwise does gradually fade away. So yes, you can modify yourself by not acting on a certain kind of sinful desire. Overtime, the desire will dwindle. Grappling with this for example, and I've been reading research on addiction. Addicts think that if they quit that their desire for the cigarette, or whatever they're addicted to, will just increase more and more until it will become irresistible. That's not actually what happens when they quit! The desire goes down, but it does keep coming up from time to time. But you know, people who have quit smoking by not smoking for years, aren't feeling as many daily impulses for a cigarette as they did back when they were smoking or even after they first quit. They do point out that it's still there in the brain. I have a friend who had quit smoking for years and she had to celebrate something, so she had one cigarette. And then was hooked for another five years. One cigarette just brought her back to how wonderful smoking was, so it is there. But again, the desire to do the sinful thing does diminish a lot as a result of resisting the desire steadily and consistently over a period of time.

Timur Begaliyev: In your book, you also say that the unconscious is still part of the self. If the unconscious is still part of the self, and your unconscious is less virtuous compared to another person, would that person be less virtuous because they're unconscious is non-virtuous?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: The way people think about the unconscious has changed a lot in over the past century. Freud made it famous as this sort of dungeon of thoughts that are wicked and an association of the unconscious with all these antisocial impulses, you know to have sex with your mother and to do violent actions and so on. The modern unconscious researchers see that it’s more like your support staff working behind the scenes to make things happen. For a long time, there were arguments between the conscious and the unconscious, which one is the self? Instead, I've been pushing to understand that they're basically working together more than against each other. Sure, we can find a conflict occasionally. Now and then we unconsciously have an impulse and consciously you know you shouldn't do that. But again, mostly the conscious and unconscious work together. And as I said in the previous question, you can train your unconscious to be more virtuous by making yourself do good things than the desire to do bad ones, and these particular bad ones tends to diminish, maybe doesn't entirely go away.

Timur Begaliyev: In your book you mentioned that people lose their definition of themselves when they're separated from others. And what is the impact of social isolation or social rejection, especially early in the developmental period on the self?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Being isolated and socially rejected, seems to have a negative effect throughout life. I can only assume it's more harmful when it happens to the child than to an adult. There are critical periods when you need to be internalizing or learning how to act, others accepting the rules and the morals of the group, and this is how we do things. So, to be deprived of that is long-term damaging to a child. Nonetheless, it's not good, and you know bad parenting has a bigger effect on the child than good parenting. In our book, The Power of Bad, we cover that research on recent competition in America where people want to be the perfect mother and the perfect father. However, some of the experts on child psychology say “Don't drive yourself crazy trying to be the perfect mother. If you're in the top 95% the impact of any differences in there don't make that much difference.” The bottom 5% you really can mess up your kids up leading to them being rejected. Now to get to your question about impact on the self of rejection. Well, remember the purpose of the self is to enable the person to connect with others, and if you're denied that, the self cannot grow and develop properly. Even if it has, when it's cut off from others and isolated, it ceases to function in the same way. The sign of this was the research on brainwashing it back in the Korean War, and the Chinese would capture American soldiers, think, well, let's train them to be communists. They used some of the same techniques they used in their own ideological reeducation camps in China, but they didn't work as well. They would bring this soldier in, you know, maybe they torture him and maybe not, and they give him propaganda and tell him capitalism is bad and communism is good. Do that to him all day and then send him back to the barracks with his buddies at night. And they were not getting anywhere and not successful. What they finally realized is that when they go back to the barracks with other Americans and that reinstates the American identity and self and all our other attempt to brainwash them is wasted. So they changed the procedure. They started isolating the Americans and did not let them go back to interact with their friends. So they only got the input from the Chinese captors and then they were much more successful at brainwashing and changing people's views. So again, the self exists there partly in the mind of others. As other people know you and it's there to interact with them on that basis. So when you take all of that away, people become much more malleable. Research on children, looking at even their self-concept or their self esteem, and how does it change over time. Well, it changes rather slowly, except when the child moves to a new home or goes to a new school, say leaving middle school and going to high school. Those are times of much greater change, but why? Well, it's the change in the social world. It's not that at that particular age something magical happened. The self is up for grabs, but the people who know you have expectations for how you behave. They like you for certain reasons and so on. And all this operates as an effect to slow down your change to keep you the same. So again, when you move to a new social environment, you're particularly malleable. A lot of students know this when they go away to the university for the first time. They live with their parents and of course they have their friends. And in high school too. And suddenly, that's all gone and they're with a different group of people. So they notice today, the first year, the middle of the year or maybe Christmas holidays or whenever they go to visit their parents and suddenly “Whoa, my parents are still treating me like I was five years ago.” And anyway, people are sensitive then and they noticed that they themselves changed. But the people who know them are kind of pulling them back, and they sort of feel the pressure to drop back into the roles and styles of selfhood that they that they had for a long time. That illustrates your point, cutting people off from their stable social environment or giving them a new social environment is a huge opportunity for the self for the self to change. As I mentioned, I think in the book there's several cases where people went off to live by themselves for years to get away from everyone else, and they thought they would find themselves. There was the book, I think it's called Deep Country, where a guy spent five years out in some remote log cabin with no electricity, no communication, no neighbors or anything. He kept a careful log of all his experiences. He thought he'd find himself, but no, he sort of lost himself. It seems you don't need much of a self when you are interacting with other people. To write his book on it and he started reading his notes and well, first he talked a little bit about himself and then by the 2nd year he stopped mentioning himself so the self thrives in interaction with others, and you don't need much of a self as a solitary being.

Timur Begaliyev: Thank you Dr. Baumeister for coming on. Is there anywhere that students can look to find out more about you?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Oh, there's a web page, I don't quite maintain it myself, but we keep it more or less up to date with the various books I've written. You can just Google my name, and some books are research oriented and I always try to write for a broad audience when possible. And there was the one that was a New York Times bestseller of self-control and willpower. So, if people are interested in that, that kind of thing is easy to find.

Timur Begaliyev: In popular culture I hear a lot of people saying willpower is like a muscle. Does that originate from your research or earlier?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: Yes, yeah. I and a cast of very talented other people, and certainly I don't want to take all the credit myself. I was fortunate to work with a very nice group of researchers. But yes, like a muscle, after you use it, it gets tired. So, when there are multiple demands on the self or on self-control then you tend not to be able to do as well on all of them. But, also like a muscle regular exercise makes you stronger. It’s been well replicated on multiple continents and multiple laboratories. That sort of goes back to the Victorian idea of building character, that you force yourself to do good things, and then you become a stronger person and better able to deal with the more serious challenges of life that come along.

Timur Begaliyev: If you wanted someone to remember three key points from this episode, what would they be?

Dr. Roy Baumeister: All right. Well, first point is that the self is not a thing, but more of a performance or a process. The second, the self is mainly there to help us relate to others, both individually and collectively in society and operate a role in society. And you have a name and address and reputation. And third, one of the great debates is there no self? Is the self an illusion? Do people have one self or do they have multiple selves? But the answer is one, even though the unity is incomplete, it's the process of constructing unity and it is real. Again it takes shape based on the demands of the social system.

The self is not something that the brain has to do on its own, but the demands of the social system for moral accountability and credentials and qualifications and reputation and things like that. That's the process, and it's basically the construction of unity.

Timur Begaliyev: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me, Dr. Baumeister, and that's it for this week of SciSection! Make sure to check our podcast available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


bottom of page