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It has been a while since my last post. I have been reading some new books from the area of Psychology and haven’t have time to write. But now I think I have something useful to say. Last year I wrote a post about “Organizational Fear” and one aspect of it was G.H.Mead‘s “me”-“I” -dialogue. A friend of mine asked me to clarify what it meant as he didn’t quite catch it. I figured it is now time to give it a shot and try to explain it more clearly.

Cast Away – the Dialogue of Chuck and Wilson

A very useful metaphor of Mead’s concept of “me” and “I” can be found from Tom Hank’s role in the movie “Cast Away“. “Chuck” ends up alone on a deserted island. There are nobody else there, just Chuck and some stuff from the crashed airplane. Alone with nobody else to talk with, Chuck takes a volley ball and draws it a face. He names it Wilson and starts to have discussions with it. Wilson becomes his only friend, with whom Chuck shares his inner feelings, fears and joys.

Mead used “game” as a pragmatic metaphor of how people start to see themselves in terms of generalized attitude coming from the rest of the group they are part of. In games, like volley ball, we have rules and we understand how other people react if we do “this” or “that”. In small groups of 2-4 people we might relate to them individually, understanding how they react to our gestures individually, but in larger groups we can’t do it – we have to create a “generalized other”, that represents the whole group.

Mead saw that people were capable of having inner conversations. In practice this meant that we could take the attitude of other people, as well as of ourselves, and have inner dialogues. In those dialogues we would call forth the attitudes of ourselves as well as the others and simulate all those responses in our minds. In order to build up this kind of capacity we need to grow up in a social environment, but after this process has been created it can be maintained also alone – for example in deserted island.

Mead called this process “me”-“I” -dialogue. Our mind could be seen in separate process phases, where the “I” followed the “me”. “Me” is the generalized other. It is a structure of the rules how other people react to our gestures. “I” is our own spontaneous response to the “me”.

In the movie Wilson represents “me”. Whenever Chuck wants to reflect upon his ideas and feelings he turns to Wilson and talks to him. Of course Wilson doesn’t really respond, but Chuck feels very concretely that he does. Chuck talks to the generalized other, the whole human kind, that is not there with him in the island. And he knows exactly how Wilson responds, because Chuck is “me”, the collective response patterns of human beings against Chucks thoughts and behavior.

The interesting part is how Chuck responds to Wilsons responses. Chuck’s response is “I” and it is spontaneous, always partly unpredictable. Chuck can’t know in advance how he will respond to Wilson’s responses, because the “I” is something that occurs only in the present moment and as soon as we grasp it, it is already gone. The “I” has transformed to “me”.

This is what the “me”-“I” -dialogue means. We have created the generalized other that responds to our actions and thoughts. It is internalized structure of responses that can’t be separated from our self, but is also concrete, like Wilson. In each moment we respond to this “me” and often the responses are surprising even to ourselves. This is the mechanism of how we grow and change as human beings. The “I” is always new, transforming to the “me” of the next moment. The person Chuck is in his responses becomes Wilson. And in the next moment there is a new Chuck (“I”), always somewhat unpredictable and spontaneous, who responds to the old Chuck who is now represented by the Wilson (“me”).

In this kind of dialogue we all live and change. In reality we always need also real audience, real people to respond to our actions and thoughts, but we can also maintain this social process in our inner dialogue, which is also very real and meaningful for our growth.

I hope this example clarifies the meaning of G.H.Mead’s theory of “social behaviorism” and especially the “me-“I” -dialogue which is very important part of it. If there are something here that is still unclear, I hope you make a comment about it so I can try to clarify it further.