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Book Review - Psychological Dimensions of the Self
Psychological Dimensions of the Self
by Arnold H. Buss
Sage Publications, 2001
Review by Lisa Bortolotti
Jan 16th 2003

The book is intended as a comprehensive review of influential psychological data about the self, and in particular about gender and cultural differences in the perception of the self; private and public dimensions of the self; emotions like embarrassment and shame; identity and self-awareness. It would appeal to students and researchers in psychology who have an interest in the concept of the self and its relation with character traits and emotions, and who would like to see these issues developed from the point of view of social, developmental and evolutionary psychology. However, psychologists and philosophers who are interested in an in-depth analysis of the concept of the self, or a critical assessment of the empirical literature might find Buss's book a bit frustrating and superficial.

The introduction that opens the book offers a very simplistic historical summary of the notion of the self and its development. Authors' views are reported without being properly introduced and there is no attempt to contextualise and structure the discussion.  Some apparently controversial claims are taken for granted and not independently supported, leaving the reader unsatisfied. For instance, on page 21, Buss claims that "we share with animals a primitive sense of the self, which includes body boundary, double stimulation, and mirror image recognition" and that this 'primitive sense of the self' is part of our sensory and not cognitive capacities. These claims are not entirely correct. Very few non-human animals can recognise themselves in the mirror. A chimpanzee can but has to play with the mirror image for hours before it realises that what it is seeing is its own reflected image. This seems to be a great cognitive (and not just sensory) achievement that should not be overlooked, since human adults can lose that capacity when affected by some psychotic disorders (e.g. delusion of mirrored self misidentification). I am sure the author is aware of these complications, but the formulation of his statements is imprecise and can be misleading.

Most of the argumentation in the book is characterised by a lack of precision and by the failure to convincingly support claims that are all but obvious. In chapter 3, on self-esteem, Buss claims that the self-esteem that originates in morality is mainly to be identified with religiosity and belief that a compassionate deity has the power to restore the self-esteem of those who are sinful. No evidence is offered in support of this claim. In chapter 5, on self-consciousness, Buss attempts to explain the results of some experiments according to which the presence of a small mirror in the room makes participants focus more on private self-examination. Buss argues that we are accustomed to seeing our image reflected in the mirror, and so that reflected image loses its impact on us as social objects. This is what he concludes: "If the public aspects of the self have habituated out, what remains as the object of self-focus when a mirror is reflecting one's face? Presumably, the private aspects of the self" (page 127). Now, it seems to me that this interpretation of the results is scarcely convincing and depends both on assumptions that have not been made explicit and on questionable empirical claims that have not been defended. For instance, is it true that when we do not focus on the social aspects of ourselves, we necessarily end up focussing on the private aspects? And why should we believe that, as an effect of being used to our reflected image, we do not perceive it as an indication of our public self?

There are very informative sections in this book, such as the discussion of the experimental results on body image in chapter 2, and the explanation of how individualism and collectivism contribute to the formation of our identities in chapter 4. But I believe a more critical attitude would have benefited this book, even if its most likely readers are undergraduate students who have just started studying the self.


© 2003 Lisa Bortolotti


Lisa Bortolotti studied philosophy in Bologna (Italy), London and Oxford (UK) before starting her PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra. Her main interests are in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, rationality, mental illness and animal cognition.