In 1964, close to a thousand young Americans from cushy middle- and upper-class homes put themselves in harm’s way to participate in Freedom Summer which many historians cite as the beginning of what we now think of as “the Sixties.” To withstand the dangers and to hold on to a new vision of America, each volunteer had to summon his “extended self”–the part of our identity that is tied to another person or social group. As I explain in “We Become Who We’re With” in Chapter 3:
Our extended selves are continually affected by consequential strangers. In the course of any given day, each encounter leaves us with impressions–images and ideas that in turn color our perception and influence our behavior. We then bring that newly informed self into our next encounter, where we exchange more impressions.
The volunteers’ sense of self was forever changed as a result of their participation in Freedom Summer, and many other paradigm shifts in history have been driven by the same dynamics. As sociologist Doug McAdam told me, “a movement can’t spread without the influence of weak, bridging ties.” Translation: Consequential strangers can take us beyond our comfort zone.
For a more current example, consider the NFL players’ participation in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which began on October 1. The macho men of the gridiron deck themselves out in–what? Hot pink. Talk about a paradigm shift. But there’s a reason they can go beyond their individual selves. Read why in my Psychology Today blog, “Will Pink Cleats Help NFL Players Win the Game?“