The Psychological Trait That Will Help You Brush Off Criticism

Photo: Kazunori Nagashima/Getty Images

In a piece this week for The Atlantic, health reporter Olga Khazan writes about the psychology of hypocrisy: Why do hypocrites bother us so much? And how is it that some hypocrites seem to be blind to their own behavior? These are complicated questions, but she finds an intriguing answer for the last one in the scientific literature on “self-complexity.”

The psychologist Patricia Linville is credited with coining the term while she was at Yale (she’s now at Duke) in the mid-1980s. “The basic hypothesis is that the less complex a person’s cognitive representation of the self, the more extreme will be the person’s swings in affect and self-appraisal,” she writes in the abstract of a study published in the journal Social Cognition in 1985, though the paper’s subtitle gets the point across a little more succinctly: “Don’t Put All of Your Eggs in One Cognitive Basket.” It’s the idea that if you have many different self-definitions, you’ll be more psychological stable than if you have only a few, or only one, way of defining yourself. As Khazan puts it:

“Are you a spouse, mother, sister, and employee? Or just an employee? People who are lower in self-complexity have have fewer self-perceived roles, and their defining qualities in those roles are pretty similar—they might be a serious wife, for example, and a serious boss. These individuals tend to take criticism more to heart. They see negative feedback in any one sphere as a reflection on their whole self, as opposed to a just a small part of themselves.

It would at first seem like a clear argument toward increasing your self-complexity — who wouldn’t want to be better at brushing off criticism? And yet it’s not all good news:

In a 2010 study, Allen McConnell, of Miami University, and Christina Brown, of Saint Louis University, asked college students to write about how much they valued study skills, then to describe all the times they slacked off. When the hypocrisy was pointed out, the students who were lower in self-complexity were more likely to change their attitudes to match their behavior: They acknowledged studying was not very important, after all.

Maybe, Khazan muses, this helps explain why some politicians don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that they say one thing, and behave another way. It’s possible that they view their public comments as a representation of their Politician Self, which is separate from their Family-Man Self, or their Former-Business-Owner Self. An intriguing theory, and in and of itself an example of self-complexity’s inherent complexity.

The Psychological Trait That Helps You Brush Off Criticism