I have a confession to make.
In a recent essay, I suggested that the question: “What do you want?” is a key to understanding your favorites, yourself, and your choices.
What I didn’t mention is that “What do you want?” is a trick question.
Can you spot the trick?
The trick part is “you.”
As I pointed out then, the answers to the question are deeply contextual. If it’s asked at a restaurant, the answer is one thing, in a job interview, another answer entirely.
Well…of course! I want something to eat at a restaurant and I want to land the job in the interview. Duh!
What we don’t often think about is that the “you” being addressed by those two questions are actually not the same person.
We’re used to thinking of ourselves as a unified self, a consistent presence in the world. “No matter where you go, there you are,” the saying goes.
But, “you” is a highly dynamic set of thoughts, feelings, desires, ambitions, moods, behaviors and histories. Not only are “you” not the same person as you were five years ago, you’re not the same as you were five days ago.
Don’t believe me?
What’s it like to go back and look at photos or videos of yourself from five years ago? Are “you” the same person as the person in the images? Well, yes and no. Sometimes, comparisons with the way we were are cringeworthy. That cringe “present you” saying that “past you” is no longer someone that “present you” identifies with. “Present you” may no longer want the things that “past you” wanted…sometimes desperately! (How could I have worn that hideous shirt??)
We all recognize this. That’s what makes the phrase, “things change” such a truism. It’s just that we don’t take it seriously enough. We usually think we’re speaking metaphorically when we say “things change.” We’re not. The fact is, things literally change all the time. A Beanie Baby “present you” found at last weekend’s local flea market is not the same object as it was when “past you” bought one in the 90s. As poet Muriel Rukeyser put it: “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” It’s not the same object because “you” (and your ongoing story) have changed. (This is a clue about nostalgia, which we’ll take up another time.)
My grad school mentor used to say, “the most important question about any behavior is ‘when/when not’?” She meant, when we do something and when we don’t tells us a lot about the behavior and ourselves. When are you chatty and cheerful? When not? When thinking about what “past you” and “present you” might/might not want, we could modify the question to “what changed/did not change” to make those things more/less desirable?
While “present you’s” desire for Beanie Babies might have changed, your preference for breakfast cereal might not. “Past you” and “present you” still love Froot Loops! But, “present you” might not post selfies of you eating them on IG! “Present you” might not want too many people to know about the Froot Loops part! Why?
Some parts of ourselves are more socially and contextually influenced than other parts. Philosophers have used the terms “I” and “me” to denote different parts of myself. While “me” is often referred to as a function of my social context and the way people perceive me, “I” is the way my self has taken up current social norms and customs. I is who I am when I feel I am most “being myself.”
That means that the answer to “what do you want?” is not just a function of when/where it’s asked, it’s also affected by who’s asking. Think about that breakfast cereal question: maybe you’d say “Froot Loops” if your partner or a good friend asked, but “granola” if it’s posed by someone else. “Past you” might not have had a problem with eating multi-colored sugar bomb breakfasts, but “present you” has to be more careful about revealing this info! Put another way, “I” like sugar, but “me” eats healthy.
What does all this tell us? It says that our preferences, our favorite things, are a swirling pool of time, place, and social factors. Most of the time we don’t bother thinking about how we’re affected by those factors, but if we do stop and look at them, we’re likely to discover some interesting insights into how “you” are a lot more complex than even you might have imagined.
Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.
Header photo by Dominique Godbout.