“Why I” Delusions

We all have dozens of “Why I …” stories which we use to repeatedly explain who we are.  We become secure in these stories as people have nodded to them in agreement over the years.  Here are just a few examples of “Why I” scenarios for which a person may have wonderful stories to explain away:

  • Why I am shy
  • Why I am afraid of spiders
  • Why I take charge in most situations
  • Why I don’t like my food mixed
  • Why I like slow movies
  • Why I don’t like country music
  • Why I think it is important to be neat
  • Why I think it is important to state your opinion strongly
  • Why I think we should guard other people’s feelings
  • Why I think logic is so important
  • Why I am suspicious of others
  • Why I feel we should learn to trust people

But with a little introspection, it becomes clear that many of our “Why I” stories are false.  To illustrate the potential self-delusion on such explanations, let me give an example from the famous 1990 Minnesota Twin Family Study.  Part of the study examined identical twins who were separated at birth and raised in different families so as to help tease out the role of genetics and environment in trait development.  One trait they examined was “fastidiousness”–how neat and organized a person is.  Here is a case study:

Two twin boys were adopted out to different families and never had communication with each other.  Both of the boys (now adults) were fanatically fastidious.  When asked to explain their fastidiousness, their “Why I …” explanations varied immensely:

Boy 1: “It is obvious.  Just look at the parents who raised me — they are sloppy pigs.  I became fastidious to compensate for all the messy chaos in my life.”

Boy 2: “It is obvious.  Just look at the parents who raise me — they are neat freaks.  I simply imitate them until it is now my habit too.

Question to Readers:  Can you share a “Why I …” story that your brain fabricated for you but that you now realize is contrivance to explain basic inborn traits?


  • I understand that personality theories which look at traits are fraught with challenges.  But this example has been useful to me in understand my own mind and those of others.
  • I wrote that many of our “Why I …” stories are false but I wanted to say “most” and another part of me wanted to say they are “ALL” are false.  But I was modest in my claim in order to appear reasonable to my readers and to assure that they stay open to the possibility that some of their self-stories are false. 😉
  • I considered “Our Bull***t” as the title for this post, but decided to keep it kid friendly.


Filed under Cognitive Science, Critical Thinking

18 responses to ““Why I” Delusions

  1. First, in regard to your footnotes, I appreciate your efforts to be polite and respectful, especially on blogs. Efforts to be modest and reasonable, I think, do indeed promote more useful exchanges of ideas.

    I would agree that “Why I” stories are inventions. Further, even the “I” is a conjuring trick of the mind.

    “I” is without any shred of permanent, independent, or self-existing nature. So the whole thing, the story and even the “I” who tells the story is conjured. That said, “I” stories are subject to revision, and, skillfully spun and skillfully understood (as stories, not facts) they can be quite useful here on earth.

    I agree with your point that genetics has a lot to do with our personality. As a teacher I have stayed put long enough (30 years) to see generations of kids grow up. Genes do play a big role in who we are, it seems to me.

    My “Why I” story? Since my own childhood, I’ve been drawn to teaching. I’ve told lots of stories about early experiences that got me started in teaching. But I notice how many of my family have been drawn into teaching as well. There’s probably some inborn genetic predisposition to it. Now my adult son is applying to colleges of education after a stint in the Peace Corps.

  2. @ Dan :
    I love the teacher story — that is exactly what I meant. BTW, I taught for a total of 12 years in Universities and I still love teaching. My Mom was an elementary teacher and so was her father.

    Concerning “I”. I totally agree that the notion of a constant, lasting “Me” is totally a conjuring trick. I write about that on several posts. I even think that illusion can serve purposes. I do not, however, feel that most of the “Why I” stories are helpful — they are merely reflexive and we can get along perfectly fine without them. IMHO.

  3. I like your ‘why I’ footnote. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say ALL our (why) I stories are false. As Dan said, ‘I’ is entertained, useful for getting around in the world, perhaps, but ultimately false.

    About the fastidious twins… fear of parents is a pretty strong motivator – wanting to be like them or not like them defines so much (all?) of who we think we are.
    This reminded me of the saying ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’… another strong ‘why I’ story for keeping things neat and tidy! 😉

  4. @ alywaibel

    Well, you, Dan and I are helplessly Buddhist in our perspectives. I have much more sane readers of this blog that I need to respect!😀

    Also, in my family, I am the slop and my wife is very neat. Thanks to you, I now have a fantastic “Why I” am sloppy story. Since “cleanliness is next to godliness”, it only makes sense for an atheist to be a pig. Thanx😉

  5. This topic reminds of the classic Gazzaniga experiment on split-brain subjects (corpus callosum cut in cases of severe epilepsy). One side of visual field/brain — non-language — given instruction to walk into hallway. Person later asked why walked into hallway. Language side would basically fabricate an answer – “To get a soda.”
    We love stories and reasons for everything. A “don’t know” answer just doesn’t cut it.
    Recently a relative visited our house and speculated that the initial owners of our shelter-adopted pitbull mix must have abused the dog. Seeing she was jumpy and much less child-friendly than other dogs. I almost laughed. Entire breeds are known for their temperamental qualities. Genetic. Yet a single dog’s temperament must be chalked up to early puppyhood experience. That dog is just jumpy by nature, seems to me. Certainly learning experiences can shape that jumpiness, but won’t cause it whole-cloth.
    As for me, I have a tendency to eat fast. I recall telling others, years ago, that I grew up in a family of eight children. Which is true. If you didn’t eat your dinner fast enough, you might not get a second plate.
    That, of course, doesn’t explain why I tend to walk fast, etc.
    Just-so stories, that’s what they are.

  6. geoih

    You should read “Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker. It’s all about the nature versus nurture debate.

  7. Ed

    @ Sabio… Your posts most always make me think of something… This time I remembered these two relevant quotes: from Byron Katie; “Who would you be without your story (about yourself)?” … and from Carlos Castaneda; “Give up your personal history.”

    As I traveled around the country the past year, I experimented when I got to new places. At some I would tell them my real name, what I used to do for a living, what I was into and all that. I gave them my story. Then at others I would either keep totally to myself and not mingle or I would make something up. Be somebody else. For sure the best times were had when I left my personal story in the RV!

  8. @ Andrew
    (1) Could you always add your last name so I can keep you Andrews straight !🙂
    (2) I love the dog and the eating story.
    (3) I don’t think split brain is a good parallel but I haven’t thought it out. But the notion of a divide self is interesting. I love Gazzaniga’s works.

    @ geoih
    I read “Blank Slate” a while ago and have referred to it a lot and recommended it to many people over the years — as you are.

    @ Ed
    Wow, I have to put up a post about this — you will see that at times we seems like twins separated at birth. Thanx for the story — mine is the same.

  9. As a teenager, I read a copy of Wayne Dyer’s “Pulling Your Own Strings” that I found at a garage sale, and was really impressed by this point. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s where I heard it first — he was using examples like, “Of *course* I’m excitable; I’m Italian!”. Ever since then, I’ve been careful to seek out and cultivate “why I” stories that are helpful, rather than harmful, to me. That’s “Why I have lots of ‘why I’ stories”🙂

    I also read a lot of Castenada, before learning about his past. I remember liking Castenada’s ideas about letting go of your history, but the ideas took new meaning when I learned how he really lived. IMO, Castenada went a bit too far — losing his anchor with reality.

    One of the more extreme cases of losing “why I” anchor from reality was Richard Bandler. Like Castenada, I was a huge fan of Bandler; reading every book he wrote, paying for seminars, etc. In addition to his clever line, “all generalizations are lies”, he had this clever quote I liked to repeat, about “if your history doesn’t help you, make a new one. Nobody should have just one”. I believe it was first said in his “Structure of Magic” seminar, but I heard him repeat it elsewhere. I assumed that he wasn’t talking about outright fabrication; but instead talking about going out and seeking new experiences you could use to enrich your “why I stories”. But then I later found out that he was a lot like Castenada in having some skeletons in the closet, too. As MJ says about his “losing your history”:

    Despite his success, Bandler never trusted the truth to provide the sense of importance he so deeply desired. Parallel to his real life grew a legend, one he cultivated assiduously; his life story became a blur of fact and fiction, obscured by cocaine and gin, distorted by an ideology that provided intellectual justification for reimagining the past. “If you got a bad [personal history] the first time around,” he and Grinder wrote, “go back and make yourself a better one. Everybody really ought to have several histories.”

    So the examples of Castenada and Bandler, for me, are cautionary tales about drawing an appropriate boundary. We can’t let our “why I” stories harm us, but we can’t let them lose anchor with reality. At least, that’s how “I” see it!🙂

  10. Wow, I had never heard of Richard Bandler.
    And I still don’t know anything.
    I get that you are saying, look, people may have cool sounding ideology, but if their lives suck then …
    I tend to agree.
    But “Why I stories” that are lies may not harm us, but it is important to understand the lie. Making up another lie and falling for it is no solution either.

    It is hard on how to judge what someone says by their life too.
    Francis Schaefer — a Christian favorite — stern, harsh, depressed.
    Luther — same
    Jung was apparently harsh but Freud very gentle
    Chogyma Trungpa — people forgive his alcoholism and womanizing for the “wisdom”
    FDR, Clinton, Lincoln — lots of foibles but liberal love love
    Bush, Reagan , Jefferson — lots of foible but conservatives love them

    I am not sure about how to separate life philosophies from life philosophers. Do you have an algorithm? A person’s life is long, lots of time for major mistakes, lots of times to say something right and not follow your own advice or even change your mind. But the genetic fallacy does have some value but it is also a problem — thus “fallacy”.

  11. Ed

    Your life is your truth.

    Your life is screaming so loud that I can not hear what you are saying.

  12. @ Ed:
    Yoo, who is your comment directed towards? And could you pls elaborate. Thanx.

  13. Ed

    @ Sabio and everybody… my comment of just two short sentences, was directed to all readers and commenters. It is what it seems. Mostly I try to see a person’s life and actions and all that and let what they say sit as secondary. We can say anything or put on any front. But what our lives actually are is really the truth. And it is so loud it drowns out the BS we are trying to perpetrate as reality.

    And you have never asked me to elaborate or write more! :-}} I am honored.

  14. I get that you are saying, look, people may have cool sounding ideology, but if their lives suck then

    That’s probably a good point, but I was saying something different, which was kind of tangential to your original post. Prompted by the Castenada reference, I was just saying that we need to exercise good judgment when selecting our own “Why I” stories.

    The way I see it, we build our entire lives and personalities around the illusion that we have some stability of character. All of the “why I” stories are one of the major tools that we use to reinforce our sense of having a stable character. Through repetition, these stories mold our behavior to be consistent with our self-image of our character.

    At some point in our lives, we may become aware that we’ve been doing this automatically our whole lives. Once we become lucid about it, we can control the process . We can get rid of the “why I” stories that sabotage our happiness, or which are no longer useful to us. We can seek out experiences that will become the material for the kind of person we want to be, and enrich our store of “why I” stories, and so on.

    There is a lot of wiggle room in how “real” these stories are, and how we interpret them. But people hurt themselves when they start allowing themselves to fabricate “why I” stories out of whole cloth; like Castenada and Bandler both eventually started doing.

  15. @ JS Allen

    Unfortunately I feel the comments turned the meaning of my post around a bit.

    I was simply speaking about the stories our minds make up to explain ourselves to ourselves. I was not discussing intentional fictions that people make up. That is another phenomena equally important. Maybe they are related, though.

  16. Well, they’re all fictions, though some people doing it more instinctively than others.

    And, of course, saying that something is a “basic, inborn trait” is often as much a contrived “why I” story as anything else.

    Just yesterday, Ben Casnocha had an interesting observation about George Bush’s “Why I” stories.

  17. Though not exactly what you mean by “Why I” stories, this is similar to something I’ve been pondering from the viewpoint of writing. In a post on my blog in September I touched on the fictional nature of our personal stories – and how certain writing methods utilize that quite productively. I enjoyed reading your take on this as well – and agree that there’s appropriate utility in recognizing the inherent un-Truth of our personal stories while at the same time seeing that creating and “truthifying” false stories in order to achieve something with others is potentially dangerous and unhealthy.

  18. JS Allen :
    In this post I am trying to discuss looking-back at a past childhood event (post-hoc) to falsely explain our habits or temperament. A fictional story of Who I Am can be used, as you point out, be construed to help us motivate future (pre-hoc) actions. And as you rightly point out, both pre & post hoc explanations can obviously be connected and they both can be very fictional.

    @ neighbor :
    Yes, you seem to understand my main point exactly. Thank you. Great to have you drop in. Your blog is interesting!

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