Self-Perception as a Strange Loop 16-07-2011

How we perceive our inner selves plays a critical role in our interaction with the environment that surrounds us. And this is not just emblematic of that old adage that asserts such ideas as attitude affecting results. "If you think positive, good things will happen for you!" That may or may not be true; I'm sure that it varies. More important, however, is the fact that both behaviors and characteristics are driven by the image of Self. Self is the internal reflection, perhaps most succinctly described as the symbol or archetype, that portrays and represents one's own being. Seemingly all choices, from large, visibly life-altering actions such as choosing a career to seemingly trivial decisions such as what book to purchase, are generated by a mental system which considers as input a sense of Self. Similarly, an individual will make alterations to physical and mental characteristics, be it consciously or subconsciously, with input from self-perception. Taken to the extreme, it may seem like false pretense run amok. The idea of an individual constantly preempting each miniscule choice with questions such as "What does this say about me as a person?" and "How does this fit with who I actually am?" may be an unsavory image of hyper-aware sensitivity. But it is simply natural for individuals to frame their actions and interactions with the external world from an internal perspective considering Self as symbol, at least on some level. To never consider Self would be to live in a state of perpetual unawareness.

So if self-perception is involved in basic, core interaction and decision-making, then the shaping of how one perceives one's Self is of incredible importance. The factors that develop this archetype are critical and numerous, including mental state, physical health, financial well-being, et al. These are the obvious ones, those that are directly related to the tangible Self. But the system is not closed; it accepts new information in the form of other individuals' perceptions. The internal representation of one's Self is colored by how one feels others view her/him as an individual. For instance, if it appears that a large portion of one's immediate circle of friends shares a common belief about that individual, then said individual is increasingly likely to share this same perception. Or to reject it. Something that is not net neutral. Or perhaps a particularly close friend informs a person that he disdains some particular trait, leading to this person actively seeking to eliminate it from his Self. But no matter how such perceptions may be interpreted, the information is accepted as input; it is not left in the void to languish. And yet, one cannot be completely sure of how others perceive his/her innate Self: knowledge about another's precise thought is impossible to know with certainty. So we are left with the conclusion that an individual's internal image of Self is affected by how one perceives others' opinions of that same Self. In more plain and direct terms: how you view yourself is affected by how you believe others view you.

Let us consider a population of two interacting individuals, A and B. Person A's sense of Self is affected by her interactions with Person B, particularly in that these interactions affect how Person A perceives Person B's opinion of her. When B compliments or admonishes A, it changes how A believes B views her and thus, on some level, how A views herself. And as Person A's self-perceptions are mutated by these interactions, her own behaviors and characteristics are influenced. As a result of the change in how A behaves and interacts with B, Person B's sense of Self is in turn altered: changes in A's actions color how B perceives what A thinks of him and, in turn, what B thinks of himself. This change in Self of course affects B's own behaviors and characteristics, which in turn feed back into A's system of self-perception the same way that changes in A affected B's self-image.

Confused? Me too. So perhaps this is a more direct explanation: as individuals interact, they constantly alter how each other believes the other individual views them as an individual, which in turn affects how each individual views their Self, resulting in further changes to the interactions (via changes to traits and behaviors) which perpetuate the cycle.

It is a cycle filled with self-reference and abstract jumps through the hierarchy. It is a strange loop: by drilling further into the system of self-perception, one arrives squarely back at the input stage, on the outside looking in. Perceptions of others' perceptions affect perception of Self, which in turn affects the interactions which cause shifts in others' perceptions of your own perceptions of their Selves, which in turn influence the interactions which alter your perceptions of others' perceptions of your Self which influence your self-perception, which in turn...

Like Escher's "Drawing Hands", how A sees A influences how B believes A sees B which affects how B sees B which influences how A believes B sees A which affects how A sees A. Back and forth we go, jumping around to different stages in the loops. Now expand this from two interacting individuals in a vacuum to a massive, fluctuating population like that which can be found in even the furthest reaches of human society. Continued interaction with the same individuals over comparatively big spans of time, like at, say, a college campus or an office environment, will spawn a massive, tangled network of co-evolving, self- and inter-referencing strange loops. The most minor interactions between any number of individuals in the network will cascade into arbitrarily complex and wide-reaching effects, effects from which cause will be impossible to determine. The social dynamics of this are mind-bogglingly chaotic. It is reminiscent of the squashed butterfly!

The consequences of the multitude of variables at play are inherently dynamic and sensitive. Each facet of how an individual views their own Self and the Selves of those that they interact with, in both immediate and extended environments, can affect the future development of interactions and perceptions, even at extreme scale. Individuals whom have only indirect, tenuous ties, and for that matter no "real" connection at all, can have non-trivial effects on each other through the cascading of altered perceptions through their social networks. And because each individual is unique in terms of sensitivity (with even a small percentage being wholly insensitive), particularly to emotional stimuli, it is impossible to prognosticate how interactions and subsequent changes in Self will propagate. It cannot be known exactly how an individual will be affected by his/her environment in terms of self-perception, nor how the same individual's perceptions of others in the environment will be affected. Furthermore, due to indeterminism, future actions and decisions cannot be predicted with much confidence, specifically in terms of how any two individuals will interact. And because perceptions and interactions feed into each other in the form of strange loops, their respectively inherent unpredictabilities ensure continuing unpredictability and chaos in their counterpart... and subsequently in their selves! In fact, due to the size/scale and growth of social systems over time, it is not difficult to conceive that the chaos actually accelerates.

Imagine being on the outside looking in on such a system and trying to trace how and why a given individual's self-image developed as it did. Starting from the first social interactions of the individual, one would discover almost immediately that the factors with an effect on this particular Self were shaped back before the individual was even born, due to the indirect, propagating effects of previous interactions that other individuals in the environment had had in years past. This outside observer would have to dig deeper and deeper into histories of interactions and individuals to determine anything in the present time; and as one dug further into the past, the scope of individuals whom must be observed would grow exponentially: as one descends the tree, one finds that it gets wider at an overwhelming rate. One would need a staggering amount of prior information to map out the development of the self-perception of the individual of interest--perhaps all prior information would be required. It would be the world's most daunting stack trace of all time. Eventually, the observer would just throw hands up in the air and conclude that it makes no sense, that it's all far too complex to completely understand. And that would likely be a fair conclusion.

But one conclusion that can be made with absolutely certainty is that something as personal and important as Self is at the whim of factors entirely out of one's control. Though a person can choose how to interact with the environment and can try to guide their reactions to the opinions and views of others, a person does not have control over all of the inputs into the development of their image of Self. The only way to gain control going forward would be to attain complete and utter isolation, to destroy all interaction and thus all external input into the system. But it would not erase the past. Instead, one might be well served to simply recognize this fact and understand that permanence and constant-ness are false notions, even in self-perception. Recognition of the fluctuation and chaos that swirl around and flow throughout intrinsic Self is valuable knowledge for the trek of life.

Everyone is connected and woven together through the intermingling of archetypes of Self. All individuals reflect and perceive; all individuals interact and respond. Taken together, it is an inescapable conclusion that how you view You is affected about how I view Me. On a self-referencing and abstract level, we are all tied together as a series of fuzzy, ambiguous heterarchies, and ultimately as a single, grand Strange Loop.

NB. from Eight Days Later: As pointed out to me by someone who knows things, this is relevant.