How Cultural Evolution is Shaping How We View Ourselves

Brittany Wells | Georgetown University (Published August, 2020)

Throughout all stages of human life, the thoughts of self-image fluctuate and change based on world views, society, evolution, and culture. Over the span of two million years, humans have surpassed other species in self-recognition through identity, reputation, and technology. Technology has shaped our world view over the past millennia, and it has changed the way in which we view ourselves. The question becomes raised; is technology changing human development over the course of a human’s life span? Will technology steal our self-identity? Self-identity varies human to human but how society has advanced can be seen across human species development. Our self-identity is gained through two ways: through our own self-awareness and through the view of the world in which we live. Human social worlds have expanded dramatically over the last decade and so has social influence. Externally driven self-identity through powerful technology advancements is showing that the internally derived identity has shifted to externally driven.

Rebecca Minkoff US

Human Evolution and the Development of Self-Image

In 1970, Gordon Gallup, an American psychologist, experimented with the possibility of self-recognition through a mirror with two male chimpanzees (“Mirror Test,” 2020). At first, the chimpanzees were threatened by their own reflection but eventually realized it was themselves in the mirror and would use their own reflection for self-directed behaviors such as grooming. After many more studies over decades, it has been shown that only a small number of species recognize themselves in the mirror. Passing the mirror test is one aspect of self-awareness. From ages 6-12 months, a baby sees a sociable playmate in the mirror’s reflection, and self-admiring and embarrassment usually begin at 12 months; by 20-24 months, self-recognition in humans increases to 65% (“Mirror Test,” 2020). Views on the self in psychology position the self as playing an integral part in human motivation, cognition, emotional affect, and social identity. There may be only a select few species that have the same ability as humans in recognizing their own image, but it is only humans that have enough self-awareness to know how to take our sense of self and place it into society.

Because we are humans, and human societies are so complex, our self-awareness has advanced and evolved. However, that may not be the case in other species in which mirror recognition has also evolved. It started in other animals such as elephants, ravens, and dolphins but continued to evolve in humans. That said, every species that passes the mirror test is ultra-social. This suggests that the human evolution of self-image within society makes us unlike any other species on the planet. Humans have surpassed other species that stay in the initial phase of self-awareness. As Heinrich (2016) states, dating back about two million years ago, we first crossed an “evolutionary rubicon,” at which point cultural evolution became the primary driver of our species evolution. Through our tools, practices, recipes, and culture, we have been domesticated into the only ultra-social mammal (Heinrich, 2016). This idea shows an evolutionary trait in humans: a complex idea of self-image in a complex human society.

Self-Image as a Human Universal

The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defines self as that which a person is intrinsically having successive and varying states of consciousness. The human universal “self-image” is the idea one has of one’s abilities, appearance, and personality. Humans have always been highly social and over time have developed more of a sense of needing to fit in and maintaining a positive “self-image.” Furthermore, biological and cultural factors play a part in our want and need to maintain a positive reputation, and one’s reputation depends on the people who trust you and the people whom you trust. Whether that group is part of a close inner circle, professional colleagues or spiritual group members, your reputation is your self-worth. Being accepted into a community or peer group is essential, and many humans gain positive self-esteem through their peer groups, which further their sense of belonging.

Self-image exists in two modes: internal and external. An internal self-image is your own view of yourself. An external self-image is how the world views you, which in turn feeds into your internal image and how you perceive yourself within the context of your society. From an internal perspective, how we identify ourselves is the foundation of our qualities, beliefs, and personality. We identify ourselves through our collective identity, our society, and our community.

German-American psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, known for his theory on psychological development of human beings, defined two main components in the structure of identity: personal (internal) and social (external). Erik Erikson’s Theory of Identity Development has been foundational for a variety of studies, “where identity can be examined from the perspective of personality psychology and social psychology” (Yanitskiy et al., 2018, p. 922). This identity can vary based on context, as “the quality of a person’s identity differs from culture to culture, [though] the accomplishments of this developmental task have common elements in all cultures” (Muss, 1988, p. 43). Erikson’s theory is that the “establishment of a true sense of personal identity is the psychological connection between childhood and adulthood” (Muss, 1988, p. 43). If Erikson’s theory is correct, it means the adolescent stage of human life has a major impact and role in our foundational view of ourselves.

Over time, human brain development has extended childhood, and a new period called “adolescence” has emerged (Heinrich, 2016). Contrasted to other primates, human childhood has extended, and a uniquely human period of adolescence has emerged prior to full maturity (Heinrich, 2016). Some studies have shown that between adolescence and young adulthood there is now an entirely new developmental stage called “Emerging Adulthood” (Gallo, 2011). Emerging Adulthood now categorizes humans ages 12 to 26 and young adulthood has been pushed forward to age 26. As Erik Erikson stressed, “It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood.” As technology continues to evolve and humans become increasingly hyperconnected, it is more evident now than ever that social and cultural development will continue changing humans’ biological development.

William James, one of the first “self” psychologists pointed out that there are many selves, and, like Erikson, he feels that the growth and development of these selves throughout the adolescent years is particularly important. James coined the term “the empirical self,” in which he sparks the question “Who am I?” (Brown, 2014, p. 19). In the 1890 publication of The Principles of Psychology written by William James, he grouped the various components of the “empirical self” into three subcategories: (1) the material self, (2) the social self, and (3) the spiritual self” (Brown, 2014, p. 21). Collectively, these ideas constitute the “ME.” Specifically, in adolescent and now, emergent adulthood years all three categories carry heavy importance both from an internal and external self-image viewpoint.

The Material Self

As an adolescent experiencing puberty, the physical body is evolving and changing from child to adult. Therefore, the material self goes deeper than just the physical body. The material self consists of possessions, home, family, and appearance. This category has two subclasses of the material self: “the bodily self and the extracorporeal (beyond the body) self” (Brown, 2014, p. 21). The extracorporeal self includes things we view as ours. Some examples of this are, my home, my cat, my car. All of these play a factor in our view of ourselves and how we feel the world perceives us.

The Social Self

Our reputation is how we are regarded and recognized by others. Throughout every stage of human life, maintaining a positive reputation is not only a reflection of one’s own view of oneself, but can also reflect one’s family, or inner circle. According to James (1890, as cited in Brown, 2014), a man has many “social selves.” Moreover, he argued that we (humans) have “an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably by our kind” (James, 1890, as cited in Brown, 2014, p. 25).

Maintaining a positive self-image, or reputation has evolved over many years, and there are many factors today that could impact our reputation easily, due to the fact we have become a hyper-fast and ultra-social species. Thus, with technology evolving and advancing at lightning pace, today we have the power to influence others with the click of a button. During adolescent and emergent adulthood years, there is an overwhelming need to fit in and adapt to different groups and situations. According to American developmental psychologist John H. Flavell, there is a marked increase during adolescence in the ability to see the self and others as actively interpreting rather than as passively responding to the environment (Trommsdorff & Chen, 2012). This results in a “chameleon effect,” which “refers to a nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions, and other behaviors of one’s interaction, such that one’s behavior passively and unintentionally changes to match that of others in one’s current social environment” (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). It has been shown through research and development that nonconscious mimicry plays an intrical part in human evolution (Lakin et al., 2003). Subconscious and conscious mimicry or imitation helps one adapt to their environment to show deference to prestige, boosting one’s own. This in turn helps the person fit into the group in which they seek to be a part of.

The Spiritual Self

The third and final component of the empirical self, is the spiritual self. Our spiritual self is our inner self, our subjective being. This idea is composed of our self-perceived “abilities, attitudes, emotions, interests, values, motives, opinions, traits and wishes” (Brown, 2014, p. 25).  In the spiritual self, James placed “inner or subjective being, as well as psychic faculties, depositions, or states of consciousness”, he “saw the spiritual category as the most enduring and intimate part of the self” (Offer et. al., 1988, p. 10).

As multiple scholars show, developmental psychologists Edward James, Erik Erickson, and John Flavell all share the same view that adolescence is a stage of cognitive self-awareness and could be the foundation of our reflection of the self into adult years (Brown, 2014; Muss, 1988; Trommsdorff & Chen, 2012). The quest to develop harmony, according to Erikson, is between the selves and pertains to one of the central tasks of adolescence: identity formation (Erikson, 1950, as cited in Muss, 1988). Developing balance and integration of the selves is one of the hallmarks of the adolescent years and it is crucial. However, that does not mean that culture and society does not have an impact on one’s self-image throughout all stages of human life.

Impacts of Self-Image Through Technology

There are both positive and negative impacts on and on one’s self-image within the contexts of their society. Culturally, advancing technology is impacting our society right before our eyes, and these advancements are happening rapidly. They are changing, shaping, and molding the way we view ourselves physically and in the context of our society. As we examine William James’ components of the empirical self 130 years later with advancing technology, the nature of the “Me” remains the same, though we see how cultural evolution impacts and informs the view of ourselves, externally and internally through technology.

Material Self – Through Technology:

As previously discussed, the material self is one’s view of oneself not only in physical form but, through the things in which we possess. In 1980 when James wrote about the material self, the phantoscope was first invented by Charles Francis Jenkins. The phantoscope, a film projection machine, was used to display motion pictures. Currently, video and audio are able to be streamed live and through artificial intelligence, there is the ability to change the aesthetic of which people are viewed. By having the ability to change appearance in real time, humans are able to adapt and change their self-image into any one they want to be, at any time, and in any environment.

Social Self – Through Technology:

Today, a great example of the social self (reputation) through the power of technology is through our President on Social Media. On Twitter, President Trump totals 80.3 million followers (Lerman, 2020). President Trump’s use of social media has worldwide reach and a global impact that influences not only domestically but also through foreign relations. Through controversial statements and rhetoric, whether it is fundamentally right or wrong, ultimately the opinion depends on the reader or observer. Society and culture can vary in the opinions of others and the President’s voice and beliefs impact people differently depending on the society and culture in which they live. This in turn, effects the reputation of our government, the United States and even individual United States citizens. On the other end of the spectrum, for the average person seeking a job, an employer has the ability to search a candidate’s name in Google and find personal, professional, and social information. Whether the results are positive or negative, accurate or inaccurate, dated or current, that information reflects on the candidate’s reputation and can have a significant impact on whether they are hired.

Referencing back to adolescence, from a cognitive development perspective, the ability to habitually think about thought and take another person’s independent view as an object of one’s own reflection is quite disconcerting, especially in our hyper social day and age where technology is constantly at our fingertips. Mass media and pop-culture has a massive impact on youth during their most impressionable years. Through Artificial Intelligence (AI), algorithms are combing phones, displaying ads on tablets, cell phones, computers and TV based on age, location and demographic.

Spiritual Self – Through Technology:

Early in the 20th century, through Evangelical sermons on the radio, to the television displaying worship in people’s living rooms today, advancing and evolving technology from a spiritual perspective is a powerful tool for those who wish to spread a message (Dean, 2019). For the inner or subjective being, technology has become a game changer for spirituality. Through the internet, humans have the ability to share ideas and spiritual practices. Technology is allowing for open forum dialogues for spiritual discussions. These advancements in technology have an impact on how we identify ourselves at the soul level, and gives us meaning and purpose through connecting with others with the same values and beliefs. This can be seen as having positive and negative impacts within our society. It can result in isolation, fear, or recruitment for idealistic practices and ideas where spirituality is used as a tool to radicate the impressionable. From a positive perspective, technology has the ability to cultivate love and unity from human to human.


Drawing from the same evolutionary feature of self-recognition shared with a dozen species through the mirror test, humans are evolving at a rapid pace. Through our advancing and evolving tools and technology, two million years ago to present day, we have gone from viewing our reflection in water, to altering the shape of our faces through AI on our phones. Where do we go from here? From the stone technology we used two million years ago, to the superhuman artificial intelligence we use now, there is no telling how AI and technology will impact our culture and how it will alter the views of ourselves. We have gone from human to superhuman through our technology and AI. At the rate our technology is advancing, humans could far surpass normal brain development and comprehension to the point it could not only impact our jobs (self-worth), relationships (reputation), but civilization itself.


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