Woody Allen and Multiple Selves

27 Jul

Woody Allen Zelig movie posterBefore starting his long career writing, directing, and starring in movies, Woody Allen was a stand-up comic.  And, by chance, I happened to catch a snippet from his act on the radio where he made a joke that has stayed with me for several decades.  True to his neurotic persona, the joke went something like this, “I went to college, briefly, but I was kicked out for cheating on a metaphysics exam… I was caught looking into the soul of the guy next to me.”  His delivery was much better, of course, but this simple quip emphasizes the reality that we all look to others to help shape our concept of ourselves.

Social psychologists have performed numerous experiments to study this condition of human nature, and they have shown that others can influence our self-concept either directly through their behavior towards us, or indirectly as we compare ourselves to those that we observe.  In the first case, who hasn’t had their self-esteem boosted or dashed by a comment or facial expression from a parent, spouse, teacher, boss, etc.  As an example of the latter, I feel emasculated in the gym when I see some buff macho man bench press 300 pounds, but later I will stand with my chest out and my hands on my hips like superman after swinging my 3 year old grandson around in circles.  When we walk into a bar, each of us evaluates how we will be perceived.  Men check out the women to determine if they have a chance.  Women check out the women to determine if they have a better chance.

Woody Allen's Zelig as an IndianTaking this further, it seems that we also exhibit different personal characteristics depending on our environment.  Apparently, our self-concept is different at home than it is at work, or when we are on a date, or playing sports, and so on.  I know this to be true since I am generally a very quiet person in most social situations.  I was the youngest of four boys, so I found it difficult to get a word in growing up, and, being less experienced, had less to contribute anyway.  However, in a few situations I find that I cannot shut up.  This is usually when I find that I am viewed as the expert in the room on a particular subject, or when I am among good friends, with whom I am completely comfortable and feel to be of equal standing.

The accomplished Mr. Allen again provides insight into this phenomena, as his 1983 film Zelig addresses this subject in a very humorous manner.  The movie is a mockumentary about a man that has the ability to change his appearance, speech, and demeanor to fit in with whomever he is interacting with.  Through hypnoses, his psychiatrist, played by Mia Farrow (yes, this was a long time ago), reveals that this disorder is the result of his strong yearning for approval from those around him.  If you haven’t seen the film, please give yourself a treat and watch it.

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