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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.”

The Transactional Self: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Social Mutuality, the Paradox of Privacy, and How Storytelling Shapes Our Sense of Personhood

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.

Jerome Bruner

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.

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block
Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

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.”

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

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.


Anne Lamott on the Life-Giving Power of Great Teachers

“All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life.”

“You try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone,” the great civil rights leader John Lewis insisted. A century earlier, Helen Keller, a supreme optimist of the human spirit, asserted that “the highest result of education is tolerance.” It can be said, then, that if we are bent on building an ennobled world of dignity for all, nowhere is the urgency of not giving up on any human being greater than in education.

That’s what Anne Lamott explores in a beautiful passage from Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library) — the miraculous little book that gave us Lamott on how we endure with sanity in a crazy world and the essential difference between routine and ritual.

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott

Lamott writes:

People who teach others to read or to navigate a library, who don’t give up on slow or challenged students, will get the best seats in heaven. I don’t know a lot, but I know this to be true.

My brother teaches special education at a local high school. I think he will be seated near the Godiva chocolate fountain on the other side of eternity. Our father taught English and writing to the prisoners at San Quentin in the fifties and sixties. All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life — a person with hope of a better story, who has allies, and can read.

Echoing Parker Palmer’s luminous wisdom on education as a spiritual practice, Lamott adds:

To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin.

You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch — teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte’s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you’re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning.

Complement this fragment of the wholly magnificent Stitches with John Dewey on the proper purpose of education, Nietzsche on its true value, and the beautiful letter of gratitude Albert Camus sent to his childhood teacher shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, then revisit Lamott on how perfectionism kills creativity, the greatest gift of friendship, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing.


Eyes on the Stars: Astronaut Ronald McNair, Who Perished in the Challenger Disaster, Remembered by His Brother in an Affectionate Animated Short Film

“When he went out in space and he looked out at the world, he saw no lines of demarcation. It was a world of peace, he said.”

Eyes on the Stars: Astronaut Ronald McNair, Who Perished in the Challenger Disaster, Remembered by His Brother in an Affectionate Animated Short Film

Shortly after noon on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off on its tenth mission. Seventy-three seconds later, off the coast of Florida, it combusted into a ball of fire and smoke on national television, imprinting generations with the shock of the tragedy. All crew members — five men and two women, including the first-ever non-government civilian to travel into the cosmos, a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe — perished. Among them was 35-year-old astronaut Ronald McNair (October 21, 1950–January 28, 1986) — a promising young physicist, a skilled saxophonist, and the second black person to fly into space. (On another Challenger mission three years earlier, Sally Ride had become the first American woman in orbit.)

Ronald McNair
Ronald McNair

In this wonderful animated short film from StoryCorps, the text of which is included alongside other moving and deeply humane stories in the marvelous book Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work (public library) edited by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, McNair’s brother Carl and his friend Vernon Skipper remember young Ronald’s defiant spirit of curiosity.

Folded into this affectionate account is a larger piece of civil rights history, a counterpoint to cultural stereotypes about race, law enforcement and even librarians, and a meditation on the elemental impulse for curiosity that animates all scientists and propels all science. Above all, the story emanates a clarion call to never forget — never forget our history, however difficult it may be to own up to, never forget our heroes, however tragic their fate, and never forget the power of storytelling as a caring keeper of our collective memory.

Carl McNair: We knew from an early age that my brother Ron was different. When he was nine years old, Ron decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library — which was, of course, a public library, but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959 in segregated South Carolina.

So as he was walking through the library, all these folks were staring at him, because it was white folk only, and they were looking at him and saying, you know, “Who is this Negro?” [Laughter.]

He found some books, and he politely positioned himself in line to check out. Well, this old librarian says, “This library is not for coloreds.” He said, “I would like to check out these books.” She says, “Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m going to call the police!” He just propped himself up on the counter and sat there and said, “I’ll wait.”

So she called the police and subsequently called my mother. The police came down, two burly guys, and say, “Well, where’s the disturbance?” She pointed to the nine-year-old boy sitting up on the counter. One of the policemen says, “Ma’am, what’s the problem?”

So my mother, in the meanwhile, she comes down there, and she’s praying the whole way: “Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail!” My mother asked the librarian, “What’s the problem?” The librarian said, “He wanted to check out the books. You know that your son shouldn’t be down here.”

The police officer said, “Why don’t you just give the kid the books?” And my mother said, “He’ll take good care of them.” Reluctantly, the librarian gave Ron the books, and my mother said, “What do you say?” He said, “Thank you, ma’am.” [Laughs.]

Ron did exceptionally well at school, and he was very good in science and math. During his junior year in high school, his chemistry professor told him about a summer institute for math and science, so he went three hundred miles or so from home to participate in this program. He met a professor there who said, “The highest academic level you can go is PhD, and young man, I think you should shoot for it.” And Ron says, “That sounds like a pretty good idea, sir. I’ll get a PhD.” And he went on to get a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then, when NASA was looking for astronauts, here he was with a PhD in physics.

Ron went on a space flight in February of 1984. When he went out in space and he looked out at the world, he saw no lines of demarcation. It was a world of peace, he said. And two years later, he took his last flight on the space shuttle Challenger.

You know, as youngsters, a show came on TV called Star Trek. Now, Star Trek showed the future, where there were black folk and white folk — all kinds of folk — working together. I looked at it as science fiction — that wasn’t going to happen, really. But Ronald saw it as science possibility.

He was always someone who didn’t accept societal norms as being his norm. That was for other people. In Ron’s own words, he was the kind of person who “hung it over the edge.” He’d go as far as he could, then go one step beyond that.

Ron was a country boy from segregated, small-town South Carolina. Who would dream that he could become an astronaut? But it was his time. And he got to be aboard his own starship Enterprise.

Callings is a tremendously nourishing read in its entirety, featuring stories by and about inspiring humans from walks of life as varied as firefighters, NBA referees, funeral directors, and librarians. Complement this particular thread with Primo Levi on how space exploration unites humanity and the wonderful Blast Off, a vintage children’s book that envisioned a black female astronauts decades before one flew into space.


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