Beyond the essential moral self: the importance of social relationships in judgments of first- and third­person identity change

Project Award: $30,240

Clarifying the nature of the self and identity has wide ranging implications for a number of issues in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. This project aims to better understand the nature of self and identity by examining judgments of identity change and the mechanisms that underlie them. Well worn arguments from the history of philosophy suggest that memory is at the core of personal identity, such that switching out memories is akin to switching out identities (Locke 1690/2009). Recent empirical work, however, suggests that morality (Strohminger & Nichols 2014, 2015), and more specifically, social relationships (Heiphetz et al. 2016), are at the core of personal identity, but the underlying reasons remain unclear.

Our project aims to replicate and refine this Moral Self Effect and, for the first time, examine the neural underpinnings of the essential moral self. Specifically, we investigate whether moral traits may be tied to values, in which case we would expect the effect to hold more strongly for domains that people value (e.g., self; community). In our behavioral studies, we will first examine whether there are asymmetries between first and third person judgments of identity change that is, whether people think differently about changes in themselves vs. others. Drawing on intergroup social psychological research, we will then further refine the Moral Self Effect by: 1) examining whether the valence of moral traits affects judgments of identity change; 2) examining how changes to social relationships affect judgments of identity change; and 3) examining whether the dimensions of warmth and competence might better explain perceived identity change. What will emerge from this suite of behavioral studies is a more refined answer to the question: which parts of the self and community are perceived as the most essential?

Our behavioral results, in turn, will drive our innovative theoretical approach to questions of how perceptions of identity change are represented in the brain, which will help to clarify reasons why certain aspects of self and community might be perceived as most essential. A traditional view in the neuroscience literature is that cortical midline structures track the degree of similarity to the self in a ventral to dorsal fashion (Mitchell, Macrae, & Banaji, 2006), but more recently it has been suggested that these structures track personal value rather than self reference (Kim & Johnson, 2015). We will employ the fine grained and philosophically informed research on the moral self effect in an fMRI task to shed new light on this debate and determine whether distinct neural architectures support first vs. third person judgments of identity change or whether they track something deeper, such as value. Together, this suite of experiments will refine and extend the moral self theory to explain those aspects of identity that are perceived to be most essential.

Team members:

 Jim A.C. Everett, D.Phil Candidate, University of Oxford

Jim A.C. Everett, D.Phil Candidate, University of Oxford

 Michael Ferguson, Postdoctoral Fellow, Cornell University, Human Development

Michael Ferguson, Postdoctoral Fellow, Cornell University, Human Development

 Jordan L. Livingston, PhD Candidate, University of Oregon, Department of Psychology

Jordan L. Livingston, PhD Candidate, University of Oregon, Department of Psychology

 Joshua August Skorburg, PhD Candidate, University of Oregon, Department of Philosophy

Joshua August Skorburg, PhD Candidate, University of Oregon, Department of Philosophy