Does Your Self Live in Your Head—or in Your Heart?
We often have difficulty describing ourselves fully yet succinctly. This is because our personality is complex and made up of socially constructed concepts. (What is a friendly versus unfriendly person, really?) As with other abstract concepts, such as emotions, people sometimes use metaphors to describe themselves and other people. In everyday conversation, saying that someone “follows their heart” often seems clearer and more informative than saying that someone scores high on emotionality.
These metaphors replace something complex and abstract, such as an aspect of someone’s personality, with something concrete and understandable (such as a heart). Everyone knows that the heart is associated with love, compassion, intuition, and emotion, and we even have physical experiences that correspond with the heart, such as a faster heartbeat when we’re excited. Therefore, people who say they “follow their heart” give us a good sense of their personality. The metaphors we use to describe ourselves tell other people how we define ourselves, and our research shows that do reflect people’s personalities.
A few years ago, we conducted a series of studies that asked people whether they locate their sense of self in their head or their heart. Overall, 50% of our participants chose the head, and 50% chose the heart. Their answers to this question were related to a wide variety of psychological characteristics. In general, head-people tend to be more logical, interpersonally cold, and have higher GPAs. In contrast, heart-people tend to be more intuitive, interpersonally warm, and literally “follow their hearts” when making moral decisions in the sense that they prefer intuitive decisions over calculated ones. Since this initial investigation, numerous studies have examined other implications of where people metaphorically locate their self. A recent study even found that it relates to whether people use more verbs (heart-people) or nouns (head-people) in everyday language.
Responses to this simple self-location question are associated with many things. In a set of studies involving over 2,575 participants from the United States and Germany, we examined whether people’s self-location was related to the degree to which they believe in God and to their level of religiosity. We knew from other research that God-belief is intuitive and that people high in religiosity tend to score higher on empathic moral concern, which seems a lot like heart-people. Therefore, we expected that heart-people would score higher in God-belief and religiosity. Indeed, heart-locators had a higher certainty in their belief in God and were more religious and spiritual than head-people—although, of course, this does not mean that head-people are atheists.
We also wanted to know which characteristics of heart-people are associated with their higher religiosity and God-belief. In one study, we gave participants a set of moral dilemmas to measure their empathic moral concern. Think of the famous trolley problem where a trolley is heading down a track to kill four people. If you flip a switch, the trolley will kill only one person. Do you flip the switch and kill the one person? We found that heart-people are less likely to say they would flip the switch, probably because they do not want to be responsible for that one person’s death. Furthermore, people higher in God-belief also responded in this manner, which may explain why heart-people believe in God more than head-people. In other words, heart-people appear to believe in God more than head-people partially because they are higher in empathic concern.
The other reason heart-people might believe in God more than head-people involves their intuitive nature. In a final study, we had participants indicate their self-location and their level of God-belief. Then they completed math questions for which the intuitive answer is wrong. Consider this example: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost (in cents)? The intuitive response is 10 cents, but the correct response is 5 cents. We found that heart-people are more likely to make the intuitive response than head-people. Consistent with other studies, people who scored higher in God-belief made the intuitive response – and this may also explain why head-people score higher in God-belief. Head people and heart people seem to possess different cognitive styles that lead them to differ in many ways.
When being literal will not communicate clearly, we sometimes describe things metaphorically. Being metaphorical packs a large amount of information into a small package. We find that whether people associate their sense of self with their head or their heart reveals a lot about their personality and reactions. From intuitive problem-solving to classic morals dilemmas, whether people see the self as residing in the head or the heart tells us a lot, including their beliefs about the existence of God.
For Further Reading
Fetterman, A. K., Juhl, J., Meier, B. P., Abeyta, A., Routledge, C. & Robinson, M. D. (2020). The path to god is through the heart: Metaphoric self-location as a predictor of religiosity. Self and Identity, 6, 650-672.
Adam K. Fetterman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Houston. His research examines a number of topics including metaphor, nostalgia, religiosity, politics, and others.
Brian P. Meier is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Gettysburg College. His research examines a number of topics including eating behavior, helping behavior, metaphors, mindfulness, the naturalness bias, and others.