I once knew a woman who confided that she lived with the disapproving, exhausting ghost of her long-dead mother. It was a disembodied voice in her head that wouldn't let her go to bed without the house in perfect order. All dishes, dusting, sweeping, tidying had to be done or this "spirit" would not let her rest. In fact, she confided that she didn't enjoy doing any of these things; it was a constant fear of disappointing her mother that drove her frantically through endless, joyless chores.
In a rather different vein, a friend of mine tells me that whenever he even considered any misbehavior he would hear the voice of his saintly grandmother, who he loved, reminding him that he knew better than to get involved with anything shady or "wrong." Rather than being tortured by this constant presence, he was comforted and aided by it. Occasionally, it was inconvenient, but honoring his grandmother was a pleasant and rewarding behavior he willingly engaged in.
In folklore, a doppelganger is a kind of ghost or spirit that takes the appearance of a living person: a kind of evil twin.
I don't believe that the spirits of the departed walk the earth and torment (or augment) the living. I use the concept of haunting as a metaphor only.
I have noticed that the memories we have of interactions with others (living or dead) tend to form a kind of simulated model of that person in our memory.
I use the term "doppelganger" to refer to our mental model of other humans.
I have read that one of the features of intelligence is the kind of imagination that allows you to simulate real-world interactions and operations. I don't recall the source, but I think it was in the context of animals using tools and solving problems and the apparently wrong opinion we once had that this use of imagination was the unique capability of human beings (what "separates us from the animals"). We've since found that animals may also have the same ability.
As a child, you probably had a mental model of a parent or guardian. This model was constructed of your memories of prior interactions and conversations. When you considered asking for permission to do a thing, you ran it past your mental model first. If your mental model refused, then you may not have made the request of your actual parent.
Have you ever rehearsed an argument? Most people have had long simulated imaginary arguments with a friend or loved one. If your imaginary argument with the doppelganger was successful, you were emboldened to have a real argument with the real loved one.
These doppelgangers are generally more harsh, disapproving, and difficult than the real people they simulate. I suspect that this is because the doppelganger is a protective model.
The doppelganger predicts other people's responses (based on our understanding of those people). This keeps us from crossing boundaries or interacting in a way that will be uncomfortable for ourselves and others.
Ideally, the doppelganger in our head is a social crash-test-dummy.
Once I became aware of the phenomenon, I discussed it with some of my friends and peers to see if they experienced the whole doppelganger experience in a similar way. This discussion opened up stories that none of us had told the others before.
At this time, I have little but observation (and possibly observational comedy) to go from. I would appreciate any links to articles, papers, or official psychological studies of the phenomenon.
The phone call
I recall one time when a boss of mine called me on the phone.
My inner boss-doppelganger was calling to give me a hard time, to relentlessly press me to do additional work or to be busier. I would have to give an account of everything I've been doing and explain why I was overwrought with my current level of effort and how little I understand of some of the things I'm asked to do. I would be called to account for everything not finished. I would be disrespected for my lack of knowledge/skill in some areas.
It would almost certainly be a negative experience I was not ready to have. I found myself considering what excuses I might offer later for not answering the phone now.
I realized that this was no way for an employee to behave. Hiding is not only a poor relational tactic, it is a kind of cowardice.
It was also unfair and unkind. If our positions were reversed and I was the boss, I would not want my people to avoid me.
I picked up the phone.
It was that employer telling me of a wonderful opportunity that has arisen which his internal doppelganger-tim told him I would enjoy.
His doppelganger-tim was a higher fidelity model than my doppelganger-boss.
The doppelganger I was listening to was not protecting me. It was robbing me of the joy of interacting wholeheartedly with the real person.
It was like an evil spirit haunting a crucial relationship in my life.
I recalled the woman I mentioned in the first paragraph above. I still wonder how supportive, accepting, and loving her real mother was compared to the doppelganger-mother she dreads so much.
Maybe we all have some doppelgangers to recalibrate.
Nicer in Real Life
I met some online acquaintances in real life (IRL). I remember hanging out for an hour or so when one of them told me that I seem surly and disapproving online but in person, I was (surprisingly) "charming and positive."
I later took a look through my past postings/tweets with an eye to understanding what social hints were built into my online persona. I saw how people who did not know me personally could easily have constructed an unpleasant Doppelganger Tim.
Later on, I was having a voice-only conference call when one of my peers suggested a course of action and immediately warned us that he could see his "inner Tim" shaking his head and tsk-tsking.
This surprised me because I was enthusiastic about the suggestion.
This was a new revelation to me. Not only do we sometimes have miscalibrated doppelgangers, sometimes we unintentionally construct disapproving doppelgangers in the minds of the people around us.
A few other interactions, including a meaningful one with Christopher Avery in email, confirmed this revelation.
I can take responsibility for the image others have of me. Their doppelganger is built from memories of my interactions with them.
I learned that I can interact intentionally in such a way as to build a more true-to-life model for others. It helped me to express myself more authentically.
It's a journey, but early results are good.
Awareness, Curiosity, Appreciation, Responsibility
We could go to judgment and chide others for having fake mental models or being too hard on each other, but there's not much value in that.
It is clear that many (perhaps all) of us have protective mental models of people we know. Trying to not have those models is difficult.
It is equally clear that others have mental models of us, which may also be miscalibrated.
Where does that leave us, and how can we improve our experience?
I can intentionally recalibrate my doppelgangers by having more probing interactions with real people. By allowing myself to be curious about their motivations instead of assuming certain personality traits, I can allow the real people to speak for themselves. What I learn from the real interaction calibrates the doppelganger.
I can also try to inform other people's inner doppelganger-Tim so that they know what to really expect of me, especially to be sure they know what brings me great joy.
And it might be freeing to know that the troublesome spirits who haunt and torture our days are not entirely real, but a product of our own memory and imagination.
How we respond to our doppelgangers is as much a choice as how we respond to other people. We can take responsibility.