ok... it's added even more credibility to the claims of my utter geekage. but here is the essay that won me 5th prize in the Heythrop college psychology essay award... and yes, more than 5 people entered (i hope) cos I've heard that joke a million times since! And I won real life money which as my mum pointed out "they don't hand out with a packet of crisps". I think that might be one of her strange scottish sayings... or maybe just one of her stange sayings. So yea, im thrilled i got 5th even though it does mean 4 whole people wrote better essays :P
How does psychology help us answer the question ‘who am I’?
One of the most enthralling aspects of psychology is the never ending scope of questions which can be examined and, in our highly narcisstic society, identity is a theme to which many of these questions can be attributed. Psychological research has focused on many complicated issues such as ‘why do we get stressed?’, ‘why do we find it so hard to obey our parents?’ and even ‘why are some people so strange?’ The repeated conclusions of many studies have provided numerous biological and psychological theories to help us understand our behaviour better. These findings provide possible bridges between the questions of ‘who am I?’ and the complicated, as yet unsolved, and fragmented answers.
In order to find answers to the question of who we are, psychologists have looked at the minds and behaviours of people during their first years. This helps psychologists to find the origins of people’s behaviours which can then answer questions about their identity. An example of this is Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis. He believed it was important that there is a positive and continuous relationship between an infant and its primary caregiver. In his study on the juvenile thieves (1944) he concluded that the lack of this positive and continuous relationship caused delinquency and emotional problems later in life. In this instance, psychology helps us answer the question of who we are, as we can learn about the way our past experiences shape our personalities and from there we can have deeper insight into people’s characters.
An important aspect of who we are is our level of intelligence. Therefore, it is key in self- examination to focus partly on intelligence. This is what Piaget did through his studies into the development of thinking. He proposed several stages through which each person goes before they reach their adult level of thinking. The last stage he named “the formal operational period”. Having reached this stage at around 12 years, a person is able to think logically and abstractly. This leads to a person developing their own individual morals and beliefs and therefore a person forms a strong identity. This can explain the strong presence of self-analysis during adolescence, as the individuals have entered the stage in which they learn to fit in with the world (by becoming less egocentric) and when they learn to think about their lives in terms of understanding consequences through hypothetical reasoning and so are able to make decisions on which their future is dependent. Piaget’s theory allows an understanding of why personalities can vary so much at different ages, for example why a toddler sees the world with different eyes to a teenager.
Psychology provides credible theories for why certain behaviours may be displayed in an individual. This helps a person to learn more about themselves and creates a capacity for change as people are able to objectively see what is causing their behaviour and are therefore able to makes changes at the root cause of the behaviour. An example of where psychology achieves this is the Cognitive Model of Abnormality. A psychologist called Beck believed that in order to understand behaviour the thoughts behind the behaviour must be examined. Beck believed that negative views about the world, the self and the future could lead to depression. Therefore a depressed person can be treated by appraising their thoughts (i.e. going back to the root cause of behaviour). Through this thorough therapy, a person is able to understand their behaviours in a way that other therapies, for instance drug therapy, can not achieve and therefore the treatment can be seen as more effective since the origin of the problem is eliminated, not just the consequential behaviour. This is a good example of how psychology can provide understanding of humans in a way which biology can not.
Psychology can explain how behaviour is inherited and can therefore account for the diversity among the attitudes and actions of people. Albert Bandura (1973) studied the foundations of aggressive behaviour. He proposed a theory entitled “Social Learning Theory” in which he described people’s behaviours as deriving out of their observation of others. He believed that young children would imitate observed behaviours of role models and would therefore inherit certain personality traits, e.g. aggression. Psychology therefore shows us more of who we are as we have tangible experiences to which we can attribute our behaviour and therefore gain a larger picture of our lives.
Psychology also looks at debates such as ‘is our personality a result of nature or nurture?’ This can answer the question of whether the person we are is a direct result of our genes or whether we have the capacity to be influenced and transformed by the environment in which we dwell. Through the theories of psychologists such as Watson (1914) and Skinner (1938) the behaviourist approach contested with the previous theory (as influenced by Darwin) that personality was a direct result of our genetic makeup. However, these empiricists were at the other end of the spectrum and denounced any participation of genes in the personality of a person. As a result of these conflicting views, a middle ground has been established. An example of an intermediate belief is the diathesis-stress model. This states that a person can be genetically susceptible to a certain personality trait (or disorder) but it is only through environmental occurrences that these traits are developed. We can link this back to the way psychology aids our self understanding; because of psychology, we are able to acknowledge that our personality is a result of more than our genetic makeup and this provides us with broader insight of our character.
Many psychological studies have also focussed on culture and the collective identities of people within these cultures. A good example of where culture affects who we are is the study by Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988).  A secure attachment seemed to be the norm in Western societies, however Germany, for example, deviated from this norm as the majority of participants had an insecure- avoidant attachment. A reason proposed to explain this was that Germans tend to discourage the ‘clingy’ relationship present among securely attached children. The result of an insecure- avoidant relationship can be difficulty with close, intimate relationships later in life. Through this, a German who has a personality trait of distance from others can find answers to why this is, through not only psychological theory, but the discovery through psychological research shows it also has cultural basis. Therefore psychology once again provides answers about identity.
Another component of personality which has also been studied is memory and its role in defining our character. Psychology has shown us how our long term memory is of infinite capacity (or full capacity has not yet been reached by any individual) and in general stays a memory throughout life. A study by Bahrick (1975) showed that 90% of people could remember the names and faces of their classmates after 34 years. The importance of this is that, as shown by the Social Learning Theory, our experiences shape who we are and therefore our memories form part of our identity. Psychology has therefore helped us know who we are due to the way it shows memory is a consistent component in a person’s life.
Overall, if a person were to, at any stage in their life, take time to ask themselves “who am I?” then psychological theories and studies would aid their exploration as psychology provides a broad range of approaches towards the explanations of behaviours. The vast scope of psychology encompasses biological, cognitive, behavioural and psychodynamic explanations and this is integral to the solution of the question “who am I?” as the question itself elicits a multi-dimensional answer, one which can be achieved through the magnitude of psychology.