The Totalitarian Ego and Its Cognitive Biases

How do your ways of thinking change? How does the environment influence these changes? In this article, we discover the the totalitarian self and describe its consequences.
The Totalitarian Ego and Its Cognitive Biases

Last update: 06 January, 2022

Popular culture has already assimilated the interaction between personal tendencies and the influence of the environment. However, there are many theories prior to this idea that are interesting to discover. One good example is the theory of the totalitarian ego.

This theory was proposed by Anthony Greenwald. His ideas concerning the formation of ideas and perception of the world are fascinating. Let’s take a look at them.

The totalitarian ego

It’s usually considered that the outside configures your formation of ideas and subjective vision of the world via your experiences. In this way, your memory and thoughts would be the product of the interaction of your genetic tendencies with the influence of the environment. This is how you build your history.

In 1980, Greenwald claimed that this totalitarian ego is in charge of maintaining and integrating all this information.

However, how do you get this information? The answer lies in cognitive biases. In other words, you distort how you process your social information in order to create memories and a concept of yourself that’s positive.

This theory is called totalitarian because self-bias selects information in a similar way as a totalitarian government would. Indeed, the processes you’ll read about below are extremely similar to the censorship that dictatorships use to maintain their image.

Woman imagining her mind

Cognitive biases in the totalitarian ego

You may have already heard of cognitive biases. They can be defined as the systematic misinterpretation of information when making judgments, decisions, or processing thoughts. Although this may seem like a negative process, in reality, its function is adaptive. That’s because it facilitates decision-making for survival. However, when it comes to social issues, cognitive biases can prove to be a problem.

There’s a multitude of cognitive biases. The totalitarian ego maintains self-concept through three main biases. These are self-centeredness, conservatism, and ‘beneffectance’ bias. Below, you can read about each of them.

Egocentrism: the self as protagonist

If you’re asked to talk about one of your personal memories, you’ll probably tell it as if you were the protagonist of the story. In fact, even if the main events of the story happen to someone else, you’ll tell the story of how the events affected you.

Most of the knowledge you have about the world is autobiographical because it’s through your experience that you build your memories and learning. Indeed, you more easily remember information when it concerns you than when it relates to others. This is called the egocentric bias.

One of the consequences of this bias is the tendency to exaggerate your own contribution to events that took place around you. However, you may not accurately remember the participation of others. In this way, your totalitarian ego maintains your perception of how important you are in your own environment.

The ‘beneffectance’ bias

With this bias, you place the focus of responsibility for your own actions in a way that benefits the idea of you being efficient and capable. We can illustrate it with two examples:

  • You put the focus on yourself when it comes to success. For example, passing an exam you only studied for the day before.
  • You put the focus on external circumstances in cases of bad luck or failure. For example, you failed because you were sick and couldn’t study.

The objective of this bias is to protect your self-esteem and create a self-concept consistent with positive ideas about yourself. It also has protective value against the negative emotions that accompany failure. This creation of the positive self-concept and its protection is the trait that’s shared with totalitarian regimes.

Cognitive conservatism or resistance to change

Your self-esteem and self-concept must be reasonably stable to guarantee their coherence. That’s because a changing or fragile identity will make you psychologically uncomfortable. In general, changes in the realm of your personality and identity are slow and consist of small steps that project a sense of stability.

Therefore, the totalitarian ego would favor all your thoughts and judgments that help to confirm your identity. Since these are generally positive judgments, the totalitarian ego would resist change. As in an authoritarian regime, it pursues the preservation of the established.

Person holding mirror

The term ‘totalitarian’ doesn’t have a very good reputation. Nevertheless, the intention of this theory is nothing more than to define the strategies that your mind follows when it comes to protecting your self-esteem. Needless to say, knowing about these ‘tricks’ is extremely helpful when it comes to introspection and being honest with yourself.

On the other hand, this theory was formulated sixty years ago. Therefore, certain details may not fit so well now. Nevertheless, over the years, the theory of the totalitarian ego has evolved to a certain extent and has certainly helped in unraveling the recesses of the mind.

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