Reading 5.1 – How do you know who you are?

Chapter 5 – Seeing Yourself

Reading 5.1 – How do you know who you are?

“Solitary confinement is not a head banging against the wall in terror or rage. Sometimes it is, but mostly it’s just the slow erasure of who you thought you were. You think you are still you, but you have no real way of knowing. How can you know if you have no one to reflect you back to yourself?”

This was written by Shane Bauer, who was imprisoned in Iran with two friends in 2009 for allegedly crossing into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan while hiking. He was kept in solitary confinement for some months before being released two years later. The three friends later wrote about their experiences in a book titled A sliver of light, published in 2014.

A sense of self

Behavior analysts know that the short answer to the title question is “What you know of yourself is what your verbal community tells you.” How could it be otherwise? After all, much of our repertoire is the result of countless interactions with others. From them, we learn not only an endless variety of skills, but also a self-descriptive repertoire – our ability to be aware of our own behavior. We learn from others to label our own behavior just as we learn to label everything else, and the outcome is what we call a growing sense of self – who we are as an individual.

As we acquire the behavior of labeling objects and events, including our own behavior, we also learn to identify the fact that we are engaged in the act of observing. Unlike other species, we learn not just to respond to events, but also to respond to the fact that we are responding. So, we not only learn to note that our cat is chasing a chipmunk but the fact that we are engaged in the act of seeing our cat chasing a chipmunk. This skill of observing our own behavior is the root of what we call awareness. We say that we are aware of something not when we merely respond to it but only when we can tact it in some way. We respond to countless events every day, but we are aware of only some of them – those we can articulate or in some way recognize at the time.

When our own behavior is the subject of this awareness, we develop an evolving self-descriptive repertoire. It is always evolving because even once acquired this skill continues to depend on our social environment. Different verbal communities provide different contingencies. Our colleagues at work respond to us somewhat differently than our families, for instance, and our friends offer still other reactions. From these different social groups, we learn about ourselves in their terms. In one context we see ourselves as serious or smart or hard working, in another we believe we are fun loving, funny, or spontaneous, and so forth.

It’s easy to ignore where these assessments come from, in part because they blend together. Most people accept their personality as just who they are, never wondering how they come to know themselves as they do. We tend to ignore the hint that different verbal communities provide somewhat different reflections of us. Although we know we behave differently in different social circumstances, we assume that the same personality lies at the core of any variations. With this perspective, few are likely to consider that our sense of our personality is actually created by these communities. Although it may seem that we make our own judgments about who we are and how others see us, there is no independent self that stands apart from our social history that is available for this role. The repertoire we bring to what seems a personal assessment is the same one created by others. Our perspective may be unique, but it depends entirely on what we learn from others.

What if we lose our social context?

Take away our access to others, and what is the impact on our personal identity? If the idea of solitary confinement is, well, too confining, what if we were shipwrecked on a desert island? We would be able to roam around – presumably looking for food and entertainment – but without a friend or two, much less an even more flourishing social environment, our sense of who we are is going to change. It would take more than a week or two – that might be a nice little vacation from others – but months and certainly years without socialization would take a toll on our self-descriptive repertoire. Along with other facets of our behavior that lose maintaining consequences, it would weaken. Having never done the Robinson Crusoe thing (before he ran into Friday, of course), it’s hard to imagine the effects of completely losing the pervasive effects of our daily interactions with others, but we know what happens to behavior when maintaining contingencies are discontinued.

Although our verbal repertoire would likely remain intact in this desert island experience, given that we would continue to serve as both speaker and listener, it would certainly weaken in various ways. Among these, it would suffer from the absence of other speakers and listeners responding to our behavior. Over time, our ability to know ourselves would deteriorate. Lacking social occasions, we would not have the opportunity to observe how others react to us. We would not observe our behavior in social contexts. How would we know if we are serious or smart or hard working? Are we still fun loving, funny, or spontaneous? It would seem that we would remember who we used to be or perhaps still are, but this assessment has always benefited from ongoing feedback. Yes, remnants of our self-descriptive capabilities would probably persist, but as behavior analysts we should respect the effects of extinction contingencies on such a core part of our repertoire.
In sum, our verbal communities mirror who we are. Having taught us self-awareness, they continue to reflect our behavior throughout our lives. The personal qualities we attribute to ourselves come not from our own assessment but from how others react to us. If you were deprived of these reactions for a long enough period, you would experience the “slow erasure of who you thought you were.”


Bauer, S., Fallal, J., & Shourd, S. (2014). A sliver of light. New York: Mariner Books.