[Draft 4 November 2004]
From Curiosity to Identity
Wonder, Curiosity, Purpose, and Identity
The function of identity in the psychology of intrinsic motivation
Centre for Applied Educational Research
The University of Melbourne
[Note: this paper assumes the background given in the two papers An Introduction to the Study of Curiosity and Management Implications of the Interaction between Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation. Some material from those papers is repeated here in the context of an initial exploration of basic concepts for a highly generalized application to the development of the whole person of the cognitive theory previously expounded at the micro level of curiosity in a specific situation. This general theory is still being developed and summary statements are made where details of sources and explanations will need to be given.]
Wonder is the purest expression, the most intimate and direct experience, of intrinsic motivation. To be struck with a sense of awe and wonder is a common yet by no means ordinary human experience. To be fascinated, interested, puzzled or intrigued, by an unexpected, strange, unusual, novel, marvelous, wonderful, even conflicting or contradictory event, and hence to feel an urge to understand, discover, or make sense of something, is one of the most basic and yet elevating experiences. While its essence is wonder, curiosity is the more general concept in our understanding of cognitive motivational processes in which people are aroused to investigate, search, ask questions and manipulate objects or ideas to resolve conceptual conflicts, uncertainties and gaps in knowledge or perceptions. It arises from sensitivity to some overtly or covertly experienced incompleteness, incongruity, or disturbance of one's cognitive map of the world, including oneself.
A person can react defensively against this kind of disturbing arousal, and attempt to deny, avoid or quickly put away the disturbing experience and its causes, or one can approach the threat to a pre-existing order, and deal with it constructively to create a new order which accommodates the causes of disturbance. The purpose of the behaviour which ensues, if a constructive approach is taken, is not to restore a state of affairs which existed before an old order was disturbed, but rather the aim of investigation, of turning things over, looking into them or tossing around ideas, is to develop a new order of out of the old. The aim will be a new order in which the disturbing elements such as contradictions, missing pieces or unexpected consequences are integrated with what was known before. Curiosity and related behaviour is purposeful in a very special sense. Its purpose is a new wholeness within the confines of a specific task or situation. It gains its meaning in a specific instance from the type of disturbance which gave rise to the search for wholeness. The satisfaction derived from it is intrinsic to that behaviour itself, rather than from the way in which it is a means to an end external to itself. It is intrinsically motivated.
Intrinsic satisfaction is what we experience when we are engaged in a task for its own sake. Intrinsically motivated behaviour seeks a peculiar kind of reward. Such rewards result from behaviour which is purposive but not in the more common sense of acts which are means to an end beyond the task. By intrinsic motivation we mean a process of arousal and satisfaction in which the rewards come from the process of carrying out an activity rather from a subsequent result of the activity. So for example, curiosity is characterized by what is going on here and now, while the specific quality of hunger directs towards a goal of eating which we have not yet reached. We might work hard at a task in order to eat. Such work, undertaken as a means to an end, is extrinsically motivated. It used to be thought of as typically deficit motivated behaviour in which there is a reward as a consequence of effort to reach a goal where a deficit, such as lack of food, is reduced. But there is an aspect of hunger which derives not from lack of food but from anticipation, from appetite which has been aroused by a sign of food. By analogy, intrinsic motivation tends more to be appetitive than deficit motivated, new information arousing an interest leading to an appetite for more. Psychologists who favoured the drive reduction reinforcement model of learning which was very influential in the middle of the twentieth century used to talk of the reinforcement of behaviour through the satisfaction of a need, like hunger, in which there was a deficit which was reduced by attaining a certain goal, like eating. The means leading to the desired end in which a need is reduced will be learned, so the theory went. But with intrinsically motivated behaviour the distinction between means and ends disappears. Some activities are undertaken because they are rewarding in themselves, not because they are a means to something else which is an extrinsic reward. In this way the study of intrinsic motivation posed quite a challenge to traditional learning theory. It required a different approach in which some new fundamental questions were asked.
The cognitive process theory of curiosity
According the cognitive process theory, which is concerned mainly with the depth type of curiosity, consistent sensitivity to small discrepancies against an ordered background is due to two contrasting facets of curiosity as a trait: openness to novel stimuli and a concern for orderliness. When those two personal qualities are measured separately from curiosity we find that they are negatively correlated, as one would expect from common sense. That is, people who readily accept and seek out novel, strange or unusual things, who are in general stimulus seeking, are typically not concerned with having everything in its proper place or with orderliness in general. Vice versa, people who value orderliness may not as often seek novel or strange things. (I use 'stimulus seeking' here in a more general sense than the specific variable in Zuckerman's Stimulus Seeking Scale which is loaded with items on high risk physical activities. Openness to experience has been recognised in recent years as a general personality factor, especially in the commonly used five-factor model. Some form of orderliness is also commonly represented in multi-factor models of personality.) But, although the two qualities of orderliness and openness tend to be opposed and not often found together in great strength, it turns out that highly curious people tend to have both these contrasting characteristics, they both seek novelty and value orderliness. If they had either one alone, that is if they sought novelty without care for order, or they disregarded novel stimuli while guarding their well ordered map of the world, they would experience few conceptual conflicts. They would be less aware of gaps and discrepancies. Whereas if they tried to be both open to novelty and seek order they would experience many conflicts, and they would tend to be aroused by inconsistencies and incompleteness. The result then of combining openness with orderliness is a propensity for that careful attention which is characteristic of the depth type of curiosity. When Ainley distinguished between breadth and depth types of curiosity, she found that my questionnaire measure of curiosity or intrinsic motivation correlated highly with her depth factor, while it was unrelated to the breadth factor.
There are individual differences not only in the probability and the intensity of being aroused, but also in how people deal with conceptual conflicts and gaps in knowledge when they are experienced. Before going a little into the dynamics of the process there is another prior consideration. In the past I have seen curiosity as a process of creating, maintaining and resolving conceptual conflicts, but I have been convinced in reviewing more recent work that one must also speak in terms of gaps in knowledge, understanding or perceptions and their effects. The common factor seems to be a basic tendency to seek an integrated understanding or map of the world. Conflicts and gaps give rise to an effort to produce a newly conceived or perceived order of things in a new whole or gestalt that accounts for or makes sense of a discrepancy. I have not yet fully worked through the implications of this more highly generalised conception. In what follows I am presenting the theory in the previous terms of how people deal with conceptual conflict, but similar processes should apply in regard to gaps in knowledge. The more general concept may be a sense of incompleteness.
Conceptual conflict arises from a lack of fit between an incoming signal or stimulus and a cognitive map or category system which represents the world from past experience. Simple conflicts are generated by some very primitive unlearned responses, such as the orienting response which directs attention to new stimuli or to anything which stands out from the background in one's perception of the environment. People quickly learn to make sense of such signals as part of a more complex learned process of adaptation by referring them to an ordered representation of what has happened before. If a new signal is something very similar to what is already there it will be easy to give it meaning by fitting it into that representation of past experience, but if it does not fit easily there will be a conflict which can be resolved by one of two processes of modification, which following Piaget I have called assimilation and accommodation. In the first, assimilation, the conceptual conflict is resolved by changing one's perception of what is out there, that is by modifying the signal to fit the cognitive map. Alternatively, one can modify the cognitive map to accommodate the signal. The more strange, unusual or unexpected the event, or you might say the greater the information value of the signal, the greater will be the need for assimilation or accommodation or both. People who readily assimilate what they experience to what is already known will not experience very much curiosity. That might be because they experience little conflict when they do not have a sufficiently differentiated map of the world for a novel event to cause much conflict. Or they may be too anxious about its effects and fail to perceive its unique characteristics, and so act defensively to put it away with as little trouble as possible. They could thus make it fit where it does not fit well, and store potential for future conflict. On the other hand some people will readily re-order their view of the world to accommodate new information, but if they do so quickly and without gathering more information they might simply pigeon-hole it or produce a new category which is not well integrated with the whole cognitive map. That map would then be unlikely to remain stable for very long.
The highly curious person with a high regard for the uniqueness of the signal and for the integrity of his or her cognitive map, and will be loathe to either assimilate or accommodate. He or she will seek the best possible fit, and typically that will require seeking additional information to build a suitable new integration of the incoming information with what was known before. So questions will be asked, calculations might be made, things will be turned over and looked under, there may well be much wondering and doubting; but after the ball has been kept bouncing for a sufficient length of time some sort of resolution will be reached in which sufficient accommodation occurs for the conceptual conflict to be resolved. The result is that a new order or representation of the world is developed. There is no homeostatic restoration of a previous state of affairs that became disturbed, but a new order is produced. The assumption we make is that there is a natural tendency towards such a systematic integration of the cognitive map. That is given in the way the brain functions. The processes of integration typically require one to seek information which is additional to that which gave rise to the perceived conflict or gap which aroused curiosity. Information seeking and processing are instrumental acts which follow from arousal. Some people will be much better able than others to carry them out and more confident in their capacity to cope with the arousal, without debilitating anxiety, and so are more likely to remain in a situation of uncertainty long enough to produce an enduring new integration. Individual differences will then appear at many points in the creation, maintenance and resolution of conceptual conflicts and gaps in knowledge. However, while individuals vary in ways which give us insight into how intrinsic motivation works, it is a basic process commonly experienced by all people and one which is highly beneficial in many aspects of life.
Personality dynamics which moderate the effects of rewards
While the value of intrinsic motivation has been recognized, especially in work which requires a degree of creativity, it has been found to be vulnerable to the negative effects of the way that incentives for work or learning are often managed in employment situations and educational institutions. Over the last thirty years or so a good deal of attention has been given in psychology and related fields like management and education to research findings on suppression of intrinsic motivation through the effects of extrinsic rewards. Put briefly, but rather too simply, it has been found experimentally that if you pay people for doing what they would previously have done purely out of interest in the activity itself they will be less likely to do it in future without being paid. That will have detrimental effects in narrowing people's attention and giving them a short time perspective, in making them less likely to return to a task voluntarily, less inclined to undertake risky, challenging or time consuming tasks, and less responsible personally for their performance. The transfer of power to the person or agency which controls externally managed rewards tend to alienate people from their work.
At the centre of the debate about the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation is the question of how making a task into a means to an end reduces the sense people can have of being an effective agent in what is important to them. There have been a number of theories which use the value of freedom and autonomy to explain the negative effects. They predict that when extrinsic rewards are used to harness work for some purpose that is not in harmony with the interests of the worker, it will be experienced as a loss of freedom. Power has moved from the person who undertakes the task to some other person or impersonal agency which defines or controls the rewards. Concepts of personal causation (deCharmes), self-determination (Deci and Ryan) and responsibility (Winter) have been applied in attempts to understand the process. Theories developed from these concepts have been advanced to indicate how improvements can be made to the management of incentives to retain the valuable contribution of intrinsically motivated behaviour, especially in any enterprise which requires originality and creativity.
Deci has written a good deal on management principles to provide practical guidance on the management of productive systems in ways which can maintain the most effective motivation, notably in a book with the catchy title Why people do what they do. More recently similar purposes have been addressed by Amabile (1993, 1996 etc.) with particular reference to the necessary conditions for maintaining intrinsic motivation in a business culture which is conducive to creativity.
In general, successful strategies have been claimed to include some means of integrating the rewarded behaviour and the rewards with personal goals and development processes. Deci and Ryan (1985 etc.) have written in terms a theory of self determination. In his earlier work deCharmes had defined personal causation as "a primary motivational propensity to be effective in producing changes in the environment" which looks a little like power motivation in the McClelland, Atkinson and Veroff tradition. Associated with this tradition was the seminal paper of White (1959) on effectence motivation which is acknowledged by almost all subsequent authors in this field. As noted above, White drew attention to the fact that people typically gain pleasure and satisfaction from the sheer sense of being able to do something, to be effective in it, whether it be in play or work, physical or mental. In his later work, while still retaining the value of people feeling effective in what they did, deCharmes dropped the motivational quality and saw personal causation more simply: "personal causation means doing something intentionally to produce a change". It was described largely in term of a personal experience of people having a sense of being the origin of their own actions.
The beneficial effects of a sense of being the origin of one's actions, are not due simply to an interest in achievement or the exercise of power. This is important in fields like education and health today because we often hear talk of empowerment in the context of creativity and personal development, but in so far as these things are intrinsically motivated, it is not simply a matter of acquiring or defending personal power. The relationship of conditions which enhance rather than suppress intrinsic motivation to those which enable satisfaction of need for achievement requires more study in detail, but the key point of similarity is in McClelland's description of need for achievement in terms of competition with an internalised standard of excellence. So, in so far as the function of an extrinsic reward is to provide evidence relevant to the attainment of such a standard, it will have positive effects. The person whose behaviour is being rewarded needs to feel responsible for the outcome as a free agent who is achieving his or her own goals and who is the origin of the achieving behaviour. Responsibility is a related concept that has been studied in this context.
It is an implication of Winter's theory of responsibility that if the reward is intrinsic to the person's self understanding and purposeful development in which they can own their own behaviour the inhibiting effect on intrinsic motivation will be reduced or perhaps eliminated. Behaviour in a means-ends sequence that is rewarded extrinsically will not be experienced as reducing the person to a pawn to the extent that at the same time it is rewarding within the person's own understanding of who they are and where they are heading as an integrated responsible agent. A person having a sense of responsibility for his or her actions and being the origin of purposeful behaviour will be better able to gain those benefits than one who experiences manipulation at the hands of an external agent. Where in this context we refer to people understanding who they are and where they are heading as integrated responsible agents we see the need to understand further the function of a sense of identity and becoming.
The macro integration model
A reward being intrinsic to the task is characteristic of the basic kind of intrinsic motivation, like curiosity, at the micro level of problem solving described above in terms of the cognitive process theory of curiosity. There is a sense, however, in which another kind of intrinsic satisfaction may be experienced at a macro or whole person level of organisation. It occurs when the rewards are intrinsic to the person in a more holistic sense not limited to the task in hand. Whereas resolution of conceptual conflicts at the task level produces a new integration of information relevant to that task at a micro level of organisation, integration of new experiences with the whole person produces a new wholeness at the macro level. The first takes place at the task level in a specific problem solving and immediate context, the second at the level of the person in a long term social context of development, integration and growth of personality. Wholeness at the micro level results from integration of disparate information in a specific learning or problem solving task. Wholeness at the macro level results from purposive development of personal identity. Its rewards are intrinsic to the person.
Behaviour which leads to personally intrinsic rewards will have purposes related to a sense of identity, of who one is and is becoming. The term "intrinsic" sometimes thus also occurs in reference to incentives which are consistent with personal qualities, intentions and values. Satisfaction gained from such incentives may be seen as intrinsic to the person rather than to the task. Some behaviour can be rewarding at both this macro level of the person and at the micro level of the task. For example, behaviour such as undertaking a scientific research project can assist in the satisfaction of personal development goals while it is also intrinsically rewarding in itself. The micro sense of intrinsic interest in the task is the primary meaning, but satisfaction intrinsic to the person in the macro sense carries some of the same meaning, especially in regard to processes of integration which are common to both. However, as noted above, while the two can work together, intrinsic motivation in the primary sense is vulnerable to being inhibited by the use of extrinsic rewards in ways which do not give the macro type of intrinsic satisfaction and are experienced as alien to the person.
While they have not used the term intrinsic motivation in the macro sense, the work of several investigators in recent years points to the importance of the secondary or macro type of intrinsic satisfaction from extrinsic rewards. It is found in one of the most difficult tasks in management, the management of extrinsic rewards in ways which do not inhibit the operation of intrinsic motivation. So that if a person's interest in the task is not to be reduced by external control of rewards, then rewards like pay and status must be managed in such a way as to enhance rather than reduce a person's sense of being responsible for moving towards goals which are in some sense their own. Where terms like personal causation, self-determination and responsibility have been used they point to the importance of what may be understood within the theory we are now developing as sources of intrinsic satisfaction that relate to a person's sense of identity.
Identity, becoming and purposive behaviour
Identity has both social and personal aspects. We identify with social groups or categories of people and understand who we are partly in those terms; but we also see ourselves as unique individuals with our own personal histories which cannot be fully understood in terms of groups, classes or categories of people to which we belong. We are not only men or women, Australian or another nationality, we are not only adherents to a particular shared belief system, nor are we either good or bad, strong or weak, hopeful or depressed, outgoing or withdrawn, or well defined in terms of any categories of human differences. Indeed, while we all tend at times to identify ourselves in term of groups or categories that are important to us, especially when the relevant reference group is under threat or being celebrated in some way, we know nevertheless that there is more to our identities than those group identifications. Indeed most people are aware to some extent of the seriously disruptive consequences of group identities which exclude other understandings of our selves and others. We see dangers in appeals to exclusive and passionate national or religious group identifications. Identity politics has been played with assertions and denials of claims made by groups seeking social and political rights on the basis of such defining characteristics as race, religion, nationality, place of residence, occupation, education, gender or sexual preference. Such identity politics has dangerous consequences and it is important to see that identity can be understood in other terms.
There is an awakening concern that in some respects in recent years in the West, after centuries of struggle to recognize individuals as possessing certain basic rights by virtue of their common humanity regardless of such group identity distinctions as race, class and religion, we have moved again towards policies and practices in which actions are once more based upon group identities. It has been a constant struggle in the social, political and legal processes of liberal democracies, and it is seen now in much more challenging forms in international, communal and global religious conflicts. Identity politics is based essentially on theories of class memberships and of relations between classes of people. It is not clear in these circumstances how much the crucial identity of individuals comes from their group memberships and class defining characteristics, and how much their membership of a group or class of persons comes from their personal sense of identity. Some national and religious leaders seek to reinforce commitment to group identities by appeal to personal identity as a matter of faith or loyalty. But most people know that who they are is more than the sum of their group memberships.
While reference to groups may be important, and our sense of self grows in part out of our interactions with others, people have also known who they are from a sense of a continuing self, a self which is conscious of a personal history in which one knows oneself and one is known by others as the same person with the same identity at different times and places. However much one might change, we recognize each other as continuing entities. For example, people who go to a school reunion, where they meet former classmates whom they have not seen for decades, will soon identify each other. They will acknowledge with a name and memories of defining characteristics people whose faces might not be recognized immediately and whose life stories is now largely unknown. That recognition of identity is more personal than social. It may be affirmed and reinforced socially, but it is carried forward in our own memories and in the memories of others by our being thought of as individuals much more than in the recall of the groups and classifications of persons to which we might have been assigned over the years. It may well be relevant in the establishment of our identities in such a context to tell when meeting an old friend of former years a little of what has happened since we last met and even of significant changes in group memberships and the classes of persons of which we have been members or to which we now belong - married, divorced, liberal, conservative, changes of nationality or religious affiliation; but only part of the sense of who we are comes from knowing where we belong. Identity has both personal and social dimensions. But that is not all. Besides the personal and social aspects, there is also the sense of agency or executive function in which a person acts and is not merely acted upon.
There have been thousands of articles published on the social psychology of the self and its extraordinary complexity and varied forms, but as one recent reviewer (Baumeister 1998) pointed out throughout the whole literature there appear to be just three important roots of selfhood. These are reflexive consciousness, interpersonal being and executive function. The concept of self is broader than the notion of identity, so that for example the interpersonal aspects of our being include the ways in which we interact with others as well as our group identifications, but in both personal and social respects the self can be regarded as passive, as an observer of what we have done, of what has happened to us and where we are in the world. But every conscious person is aware that he or she is not merely the locus of interacting forces. Even the most deterministic psychologists know that they are responsible for their own behaviour, and can purposely pursue aims in their research or their professional practice, and in their private lives, which they have chosen and which they will by their own deliberate actions seek to achieve. People have a sense of agency in which they originate action and cause things to happen. Indeed if we are ever so dispossessed of personal power as to lose all control over our destinies, we become so alienated from life that our sense of self tends to disappear. Research on intrinsic motivation has pointed in many ways to the critical importance of this sense of agency. I want now to relate it particularly to the way that a sense of identity functions in the development of the whole person, that is at the macro level of conflict resolution and integration.
What has happened to us personally and socially in the past and our knowledge of how we have acted as responsible agents has helped to form our identities, but our sense of identity does not depend only on memory. Indeed, while there is a continuing sense of being the same person, and one's sense of identity is formed from the experience of becoming who we are more than from remembering who we were, it is dependent to a degree on who we see ourselves becoming and are not yet. There is a future aspect to it. It is essential for purposeful behaviour and central to the sense of agency.
As Gordon Allport (1955, p12) wrote fifty years ago on his little book Becoming: Basic considerations for a Psychology of Personality,
To understand what a person is, it is necessary always to refer to what he may be in the future, for every state of the person is pointed in the direction of future possibilities.
Just as we know ourselves to be whom we have become as we are now, we also know that our identities are not limited to the present outcome of our histories and group memberships, for who we are includes a sense of becoming who we have the potential to be. Every living person is a work in progress. Purposive behaviour in a global personal sense is intimately tied up with a sense of identity which has a past, a present and a future, as well as a social context.
The open character of holistic integration
The function of intrinsic motivation in personal development is to energize and direct behaviour towards of the creation of a new ordering of the self which is consistent with an ongoing sense of identity when the old order of the self is disturbed in some way. This is analogous to what happens in the creation and resolution of conceptual conflicts aroused by curiosity. Indeed it is more than analogous, and in fact another example at a different level of the same basic processes of integration. In this process of modification of an old order the resolution of conflicts, the accommodation of unexpected developments, or the working through of an experience of incompleteness, has at least the potential to lead to a new wholeness of being. It is the sense of our identity which gives direction to that sense of becoming. Yet even then we know that we will still have the same identity although we might in some sense become a different person, at least to the extent of undergoing some personality change. Identity is more constant than personality.
Knowledge of our own identity gives rise to a range of possible strategies which we can conceive as solutions to personal problems. We learn how to manage our own growth and development with purposive behaviour which constructs new possibilities out of unintegrated shards of experience. We tend to do this not by anticipating possible new states of being which we might attain, although we might have some specific aims of that kind, but rather we conceive of ways of moving towards new possibilities which are consistent with who we are and who we are becoming. We know that the outcome of developmental processes is often unpredictable. We may have only a general sense the kind of person we are becoming, with some awareness of the broad direction in which we are moving without necessarily being able to anticipate specific outcomes. More importantly, we do not move directly and immediately to a new whole person identity, but we carry with us and construct as we go some of the tools for building a newly integrated personality. We learn what works for us, how to make and use the tools for personality development which are likely to fulfil our sense of purpose and personal meaning. If the task is well done, the result may well be a surprise, a cause for wonder, associated with a sense of health, wholeness and well being.
It should not be surprising that we cannot conceive, picture or fully anticipate the nature of the resolution of personal problems or challenges which result in personal growth. After all, something new has happened; we have reached a point in our life's journey where we have never been before. Just as every person is unique, so every step in personal development is unique. Personal history is like the history of societies. It consists of a series of unique events. Each step might in some degree be explicable and predictable in terms of general laws, but as there has never before existed exactly the same state of affairs, neither the person concerned nor an objective observer can know in advance how the new gestalt of the personality will manifest itself. So if there is purposive behaviour directed toward the establishment of that new order of personal being, the best that a person can do towards that end is to implement some strategies which should lead in the preferred direction but which cannot completely determine the outcome. For this reason, the notion of self-determination, much loved of popular psychologists and some recent theoreticians such as Deci and Ryan, must be somewhat misleading. Determination is the wrong idea, even if it is self-determination. It implies a degree of control and foreknowledge that we do not have. Moreover, to the extent that it depends upon our knowledge of alternatives, it is too closed, limited and limiting in its possibilities. We manage personally a broad steering procedure, not a tightly targeted mechanism. Intrinsically motivated development of the person is self directed in some degree but it cannot lead to a fully self determined result. The wonder of a new creation, even in oneself, is enjoyed in part because the result is a surprise. It is the kind of surprise in which we delight and which is intrinsically rewarding. We are delighted to engage in it for its own sake without knowing exactly what it will be like.
The process of personal development by which this occurs is analogous to the cognitive process by which the uncertainties of curiosity are resolved at the micro level of a perceptual or problem solving task. The tools for personal development through problem solving are like the instrumental acts for the solution of conceptual conflicts in the cognitive process of curiosity. Just as an uncertain or conflicting signal or a gap in knowledge is given meaning by reference to a cognitive map of a task or situation which is changed in the processes of resolving conceptual conflicts, so the meaning of one's actions as a person in a social context is developed in a process of discovery and development in which personal challenges and uncertainties are managed and overcome as they are integrated into a new conception of the whole person. The relevant tools at the micro level of a task include such things as knowing how to look for missing pieces, daring to ask questions, being able to consider a range of possibilities and hold them in tension, and more generally a developed capacity for tolerating uncertainty and risking exposure to more of it while seeking additional information in order of resolve uncertainties. Similarly at the macro level of the person we develop tools of investigation as we learn how to tolerate uncertainties and develop a capacity for taking appropriate risks for the sake of achieving new personal development goals including unanticipated outcomes which are nevertheless consistent with our sense of who we are becoming.
This conception is more dynamic and less restrictive, it is more open to the future and offers better hope of satisfying and purposeful integration of experience with the self than what might be called the more self-centred theories of self functioning which have dominated research and discussion in the past decade or two. Such theories as self-assessment theory (Trope, 1986), self-verification theory (Swan 1983), self-discrepancy theory (Higgins 1989), self-evaluation maintenance theory (Tesser, 1988) and self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988) have all tended to concentrate on the maintenance of self-esteem and on accuracy and consistency in self-understanding. This can lead to distortions and illusions as well as greater accuracy as disparate elements of experience are made consistent with previous understanding of the self. This implies a view of self that assumes identity is fixed or given, so that people seek to discover who they are and to maintain that understanding of themselves. A different outcome is more likely if instead we understand our identities as always in the process of becoming and not simply being.
The self is a project not yet completed; it is only finished when we are dead. Accepting the not-yet-competed character of one's identity means that one is much more likely to learn constructively from experiences which do not fit well with previous or present conceptions of who we are. Instead of distorting the experience to make it fit with preconceptions of ourselves, or distorting the self-image arbitrarily to make it consistent without essential change, the possibility exists of a creative solution in which one moves forward in becoming a new well integrated identity that nevertheless continues in being the same person. A new order is developed out of the old through the acceptance of new experiences which are inconsistent with the old self. One needs to be able to recognize the conflict, rather than deny its reality or reduce it with minimal effort. To grow from the experience one must take the time and make the effort to do a thorough job of reconstruction and integration of the new with the old. Satisfying and stable solutions are reached that way. This is the same process at the level of the organisation of whole person as the cognitive processes of curiosity at the task level when a strange, unexpected or novel event disturbs our cognitive map of the world. It should not be surprising if the same things happen in the understanding of ourselves, for we are after all most interesting objects of our own curiosity. And when it is done there is the same sense of wonder.
[This draft is the basis for a paper given at a SCR seminar, St Hilda's College, The University of Melbourne, 3 November 2004, revised 18 July 2005.]