The Transactional Self: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Social Mutuality, the Paradox of Privacy, and How Storytelling Shapes Our Sense of Personhood
“The components of the behavior … are not emotions, cognitions, and actions, each in isolation, but aspects of a larger whole that achieves its integration only within a cultural system.”
By Maria Popova
Few people have revolutionized our understanding of the human mind, its learning mechanisms, and its creative potentialities more profoundly than the great Harvard psychologist and cognitive learning theorist Jerome Bruner (October 1, 1915–June 6, 2016) — a man of warm intellect and largehearted curiosity, whose brilliant mind was matched by a radiant spirit, and who has done for cognitive psychology what Oliver Sacks did for neurology.
Beginning in the 1960s, Bruner pioneered the modern study of creativity and examined how we construct our identity toward “creative wholeness.” By the mid-1980s, he turned to the cognitive machinery of the imagination and the human impulse for storytelling.
In his magnificent 1986 book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (public library) — which gave us Bruner’s abiding insight into the psychology of what makes a great story and led me to philosopher Amelie Rorty’s tremendous taxonomy of the seven layers of what makes a person — he sets out to integrate the trifecta of emotion, cognition, and action that shapes our experience of life.
Long before Martha Nussbaum’s case for the intelligence of the emotions, he writes:
The components of the behavior … are not emotions, cognitions, and actions, each in isolation, but aspects of a larger whole that achieves its integration only within a cultural system. Emotion is not usefully isolated from the knowledge of the situation that arouses it. Cognition is not a form of pure knowing to which emotion is added (whether to perturb its clarity or not). And action is a final common path based on what one knows and feels. Indeed, our actions are frequently dedicated to keeping a state of knowledge from being upset (as in “autistic hostility”) or to the avoidance of situations that are anticipated to be emotion-arousing.
It seems far more useful to recognize at the start that all three terms represent abstractions, abstractions that have a high theoretical cost. The price we pay for such abstractions in the end is to lose sight of their structural interdependence. At whatever level we look, however detailed the analysis, the three are constituents of a unified whole. To isolate each is like studying the planes of a crystal separately, losing sight of the crystal that gives them being.
But if this tripod of being props up our individual personhood, the social and cultural ground upon which it stands is also of tremendous importance. In a fascinating chapter titled “The Transactional Self,” Bruner goes a step further and explores how our mutuality and interdependence with others shapes our sense of self. He writes:
If you engage for long in the study of how human beings relate to one another, especially through the use of language, you are bound to be struck by the importance of “transactions.” This is not an easy word to define. I want to signify those dealings which are premised on a mutual sharing of assumptions and beliefs about how the world is, how mind works, what we are up to, and how communication should proceed.
We seem to be equipped with a kind of inner radar for these social transactions. Bruner cites the results of one experiment in interpersonal perception, which tested how transparent people within small groups or cliques were to one another by asking each participant which other person in the group they would most like to spend time with, and who in the group they thought would most like to spend time with them. Bruner summarizes the partly intuitive, partly puzzling findings:
On average people are more accurate and more transparent than would be expected by chance — a not very startling finding. They know better than chance who likes them, or to put it inversely, people’s preferences are transparent.
But there is something very curious about how people operate in such situations that is not so obvious after all. For one thing, a person who chooses another will (in excess of chance) believe that the other person chooses him back. Or, since the direction of cause is never clear in human affairs, if we feel chosen by somebody, we will choose that person in return whether our feeling is correct or not. There is simply a human bias: feeling liked by somebody begets liking him back. To this add the fact that we know better than chance who likes us. Now, is this a matter of “accuracy” or of “vanity”? Are we “victims” of vanity or beneficiaries of our sensitivity?
Whichever the answer, this tendency of ours is more instinct than choice — in fact, Bruner argues, this “sense of mutuality in action” is so primal that it operates even before we’ve acquired language. Young children, he points out, have no trouble mastering dialectic shifters — a class of pronouns whose meaning one can grasp only by understanding the interpersonal context of who is speaking the pronoun and to whom it refers. In other words, when you say “I,” you mean yourself; when I say “I,” I mean myself, and although we are distinctly different people who use the same pronoun, even small children intuitively understand this shifting usage of “I.”
This intuition for intersubjectivity is how we’re able to experience the world as a shared reality. It is also essential to successful storytelling, from fiction to science communication. Bruner explains:
To create hypothetical entities and fictions, whether in science or in narrative, requires yet another power of language that … is early within reach of the language user. This is the capacity of language to create and stipulate realities of its own, its constitutiveness. We create realities by warning, by encouraging, by dubbing with titles, by naming, and by the manner in which words invite us to create “realities” in the world to correspond with them. Constitutiveness gives an externality and an apparent ontological status to the concepts words embody: for example, the law, gross national product, antimatter, the Renaissance… At our most unguarded, we are all Naive Realists who believe not only that we know what is “out there,” but also that it is out there for others as well… The private is rendered public. And thereby, once again, we locate ourselves in a world of shared reality.
Out of this shared context and the texture of our engagement with it, Bruner notes, arises our sense of self:
How we decide to enter into transaction with others linguistically and by what exchanges, how much we wish to do so (in contrast to remaining “detached” or “silent” or otherwise “private”), will shape our sense of what constitutes culturally acceptable transactions and our definition of our own scope and possibility in doing so — our “selfhood.”
And since our identity has an inherent narrative dimension — we are who we tell ourselves we are over time — this sense of selfhood is shaped by the storylines of our culture:
Stories define the range of canonical characters, the settings in which they operate, the actions that are permissible and comprehensible. And thereby they provide, so to speak, a map of possible roles and of possible worlds in which action, thought, and self-definition are permissible (or desirable). As we enter more actively into the life of a culture around us … we come increasingly to play parts defined by the “dramas” of that culture.
It can never be the case that there is a “self” independent of one’s cultural-historical existence.
But although the world might write some of the storylines for us, it behooves us to heed James Baldwin, who memorably remarked: “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”
Ultimately, Bruner asserts, language and culture conspire in framing the stories which we come to inhabit:
Our “smooth” and easy transactions and the regulatory self that executes them, starting as a biological readiness based on a primitive appreciation of other minds, is then reinforced and enriched by the calibrational powers that language bestows, is given a larger-scale map on which to operate by the culture in which transactions take place, and ends by being a reflection of the history of that culture as that history is contained in the culture’s images, narratives, and tool kit.
Whether cognizant of Bruner’s work or just intuitively attuned, Toni Morrison would come to write nearly two decades later that “being your own story means you can always choose the tone.” But empowering as this truth may be, Bruner points out that it is incomplete and rooted in the limiting Western notion of the self as an artificial monument to individualism amid the inescapably social fabric of culture. That artificiality, Bruner argues, culminates in our fixation on “privacy.” He writes:
The notion of the “private” Self free of cultural definition is part of the stance inherent in our Western conception of Self. The nature of the “untold” and the “untellable” and our attitudes toward them are deeply cultural in character. Private impulses are defined as such by the culture. Obviously, the divide between “private” and “public” meanings prescribed by a given culture makes a great difference in the way people in that culture view such meanings… How a culture defines privacy plays an enormous part in what people feel private about and when and how. [But] we do not construct a reality solely on the basis of private encounters with exemplars of natural states. Most of our approaches to the world are mediated through negotiation with others.
This transactional self, Bruner reminds us, is held together by a narrative thread:
Insofar as we account for our own actions and for the human events that occur around us principally in terms of narrative, story, drama, it is conceivable that our sensitivity to narrative provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us. The common coin may be provided by the forms of narrative that the culture offers us. Again, life could be said to imitate art.
Actual Minds, Possible Worlds is a fascinating and intellectually invigorating read in its entirety. Complement it with Martha Nussbaum on how storytelling rewires us and Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Bruner on creative wholeness, art as a mode of knowing, and the six essential conditions for creativity.