Science Solitaire

[Science Solitaire] The very surprising thing about what makes you choose good or bad

Maria Isabel Garcia

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[Science Solitaire] The very surprising thing about what makes you choose good or bad

David Castuciano

Studies have shown that the choices you make in your life are strongly tied to who you think you are

What if there was a “Find Yourself” app version of “Find your phone”?  Where would it say you will find yourself? Given that a lifetime has had “yourself” in many different places, circumstances with many different kinds of people, where do you start? 

I got to thinking about this when I read an article about a study that says our moral compass – meaning the good or bad choices that we make, depend on what we remember about who we are. Note – it is not “who we are” but what we remember about ourselves.  

Who we think we are, are all bundled up in memories of ourselves which are woven to give rise to a picture we have of ourselves to ourselves. You know who you are and you remember this when you are about to sleep. You can sleep soundly because you did things consistent with what you remember about who you are. And vice versa. That picture of yourself is like an “earworm” – the song that won’t get out of your head. 

Studies have shown that the choices you make in your life are strongly tied to who you think you are. This means that you usually exercise self-control on the things that violate your own self-concept. In my case, being a writer is part of my core so I am very deliberate about the worded ideas I make known to others, published or even in conversations. That is why I am not in social media because I have not been able to wrap who I am around the idea of digesting an infinite amount of opinions on anything, knowing and valuing how much it takes for an idea to form and release in coherent and defensible form outside myself.

“It is just a post you made. You will forget it. It does not define who you are.” But it does. What you choose to do AND not do (not only social media posts) – of course define who you are – not in one sweep, but in, Leonard Cohen’s words “twisted parts that fit”. Otherwise, there would be no point in why a life, any life, runs across time if who you are is defined only at birth or by some place or creed or by your own floating notion of yourself independent of your choices and the impact of those choices on others and the world.

BUT if you think or are made to think you will anyway forget that you stand against cheating, lying, stealing, murder (add your own negative virtue) – then you will more likely choose to cheat, lie, steal and murder. If you think you will just forget that you refused to help someone when you could have easily done so, then studies have shown you will not help that person. It does not matter if you will really forget it or not, as long as you think you will, then you will not help anyone.

Imagine this in scale – companies made to think that they would not be bothered by a collective memory of having overdeveloped an area they could have left to flourish or recover. If institutional memories were all about the successes or what people are made to think are “successes,” then forgetting about the better choice becomes institutionalized as a “virtue.”

And societies – a society that convinces itself that they will collectively forget a failed leadership will never fight for a leadership that genuinely works.  

So I think the “Find yourself app” – should just point to a corner – metaphorical or real. It should lead you to a place where you can, not ONLY remember yourself but know that you always have a path to your genuine yourself if you pause before and after you make a choice. That will clarify in your brain the space where you cannot hide from your own self. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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