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People, Things, and Our Sense of Self

In this piece Daniel Núñez uses the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away to illustrate Mead and Cooley’s classic theories of how each of us develops our sense of self.

In the hit movie Cast Away, released in 2000, Tom Hanks plays a plane crash survivor (whose name is Chuck Noland) who finds himself in the middle of the South Pacific, stranded in a small, uninhabited island, away from everything he knows and everyone he loves. During the movie, we see how Chuck goes through different psychological stages: from trying desperately to adapt to his new circumstances and almost killing himself in the process, to accepting his fate with stoic resignation and finding new strengths to endure in the face of complete opposition. His experience can be seen as an illustration of the classical psychological response to loss that psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously called “the grief process”.

At one point in the movie, we see Chuck struggling to build a fire, and cutting his hand while at it. His frustration is such that be begins to scream and curse at the world and to throw and kick things here and there uncontrollably. One of those things turns out to be a volleyball, on which Chuck’s bloody hand has left a blurry face-like imprint, with two eyes, a nose, a mouth and what could be dubbed spikey hair (formed from Chuck’s bloody fingers). Chuck begins to talk to the ball and eventually calls it “Wilson,” based on the name of the ball’s manufacturer. Over the course of four years, Chuck develops a relationship with Wilson: he takes care of it, talks with it constantly and even gets into fights with it. (In fact, in one scene, Chuck gets angry with Wilson and throws it out into the sea, only to immediately panic and blast out of his cave to look for it and apologize.) In what is without a doubt one of the saddest scenes in the movie, Chuck is seen sleeping on top of a small raft he has built (with the “help” of Wilson) to escape the island, visibly dehydrated and exhausted. The raft’s design included a small perch for Wilson to sit on, but the sea tide has knocked the poor ball off the raft and it is slowly drifting away from Chuck. Chuck realizes this and frantically dives into the ocean to try to save Wilson, while pulling the raft behind him with a rope. His anxious efforts are clearly unavailing, as we see Wilson disappearing into the horizon. The scene ends with Chuck lying on top of the raft, weeping inconsolably and desperately asking Wilson to forgive him.

Me, Myself and I

Chuck’s attachment to Wilson can teach us a lot about our sense of self from a sociological perspective. Because of its position as a mediator between the individual and society, the concept of the “self” has been an important subject in classical and contemporary social theory. One of the first direct treatments of the issue appears in Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, an influential work published by sociologist George Herbert Mead in 1934. Mead begins by developing a model to explain how children are socialized into the norms and values of their societies. Accordingly, children go through a process that comprises three different phases –the imitation phase, the play phase and the game phase– during which they develop the capacity to put themselves in the position of others and reproduce empathically the world around them. Hence, for example, children who play the classical game of cops and robbers are not only able to distinguish between the different norms and rules that regulate the lives of different real-life characters (“cops” and “robbers”), but also reproduce the symbolic realm that their society has built around the notions of good and evil. Mead argues that the completion of the socialization process occurs when the child internalizes the “generalized other,” that is, “[t]he organized community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self” (Mead, 1972/1934, p. 154).

Mead’s concept of the self consists of two basic elements: a pre-social element, which he refers to as the “I,” and a socialized element, which he calls the “me.” The “I” can be seen as the element that we all have when we are born: it consists of our impulses, automatic reactions to the environment, physiological functions, and capacity to act upon the world around us more broadly. This is the element that we all have before we internalize the “generalized other.” The “me,” in contrast, consists of our internalized views of society; it is the element that emerges when we are finally socialized into the “generalized other.” Through the “me,” we are able to navigate the social world without violating the norms of expected behavior that regulate its dynamics. In theory, both elements coexist with each other, with the “me” providing the awareness of society’s rules and expectations, and the “I” the reflective impulse to act in favor of or against those same rules and expectations.

Through the Looking-Glass

More than thirty years before Mead approached the issue, another prominent sociologist had developed a theory of the self that is still influential nowadays. In Human Nature and the Social Order, published in 1902, Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929) sets out to delineate the boundaries between individual and social life and develops his now famous theory of the “looking-glass self.” His basic argument is that, in social interactions, we develop ideas about how people perceive and judge us, and that these ideas lead to the feelings we develop towards ourselves and others. In his words, the looking-glass self consists of the “somewhat definite imagination of how one’s self […] appears in a particular mind, and the kind of self-feeling one has […] determined by the attitude toward this attributed to that other mind” (Cooley, 1922, pp. 183–184). The main point in Cooley’s theory is that our sense of self develops not only from the ideas and attitudes we have about ourselves as individuals, but also from the ideas and attitudes we believe others have about us. His theory is similar to Mead’s in that it recognizes the dual character (individual and social) of our sense of self and the importance of social interaction. Because of their emphasis on the symbolic aspects of human exchanges, both Mead’s and Cooley’s theories are now regarded as precursors to the sociological school of thought known as “symbolic interactionism.”

Wilson as Part of Chuck’s Self

Both Mead’s and Cooley’s theories can shed light on Chuck’s moving reaction to the “death” of Wilson. In an uninhabited island far away from civilization, Wilson became Chuck’s only friend and interlocutor. His loss made Chuck feel as any of us would feel if we suddenly found ourselves losing our only beloved friend in the entire world. And yet, we cannot get away from the fact that Wilson is, in the end, an inanimate object. Wilson never really talks to Chuck, it never really responds to his inquiries, and it never really feels sad when Chuck gets angry at it. In a way, almost everything we see in the movie happens in Chuck’s imagination. In fact, throughout the entire movie, Chuck talks almost exclusively to himself (although he directs his attention to Wilson when he is talking). From this perspective, the movie is really a monologue in which we see a bereaved man talking to a volleyball that has become his last clinging resort in a sea of sadness. But here lies the paradox of it all: Although Wilson never really responds to Chuck, Chuck believes he is engaging in a conversation with another living entity. He believes (or perhaps needs to believe) that Wilson has formed an idea about him, and reacts to it correspondingly. In this view, Chuck is not doing something that differs much from what we all do in our daily lives. Every single day, we all interact with dozens of people, form ideas about how they perceive and how much they value us, and respond according to the feelings we generate towards those ideas. In a way, then, we could say that we are all stranded in our own small, uninhabited islands, and that the people around us are all “Wilsons” who accompany us in a sea of solitude. Social life depends on all kinds of meaningful interactions, but it also depends on these kinds of daily symbolic interactions.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you think Mead’s separation between a pre-social “I” and a socialized “me” is accurate? Why yes or why not?
  2. What role do you think the millions of things produced massively everyday in our capitalist world play in our sense of self?
  3. If capitalism did not exist, how would we build our sense of self? Would you argue that a pre-capitalist sense of self would be better or worse for human societies? Why so?
  4. Do you think social media has changed the way in which we build our sense of self? Why yes or why not?

References:

  • Mead, George Herbert. 1934/1972. Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Edited and with an Introduction by Charles W. Morris. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.
  • Cooley, Charles Horton. 1922. Human Nature and the Social Order. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York.