Extended self and digitisation: needs and opportunities

Cristina Morlino - June 8, 2021
digital market research psychology ricerca di mercato

Extended self and digitisation: needs and opportunities

Extended self - PXR Italy

The extended self-concept

The concept of the extended self is treated by Russel Belk in an article of 1988, starting from some of William James' considerations about the concept of the self.
In particular, he argued that the self is not only the sum of body and mind, but also the sum of one's objects, meaningful relationships and the opinions of others.
Belk focuses on the field of marketing and consumption, believing that one's possessions (brands and products) influence and reflect one's identity.

Extended self and digitisation

Since the concept of the extended self began to be adopted in the consumer sphere, numerous technological developments have led to the opportunity to develop new formulations of this concept.

In fact, the emerging dynamic that is created between the virtual self and the 'real' self has become a fundamental key to understanding the contemporary era.
A striking example is that of avatars, which make it possible to maintain a kind of personal corporeity within virtual spaces such as video games).

In an updated version of his work, Belk identifies several changes due to digitisation. One of these is dematerialisation, i.e. the transformation of material objects such as books or photographs into digital objects.

The debate on the ability of virtual possessions to increase the extent of the self like physical possessions is still open; however, virtual possessions show many similarities with material possessions in terms of both behaviour and psychological effects. For example, computer crashes and loss of data can induce significant reactions.

The relationship between the self and one's smartphone

Smartphone - PXR Italy
Smartphone - PXR Italy

A further development concerns the use of technological devices; some tools, such as laptops and smartphones, act as prosthetic possessions, extending the self.

Some evidence suggests that people perceive their mobile phone as a part of themselves. Park and Kaye conducted a study to investigate the relationship people have with their smartphones. The smartphone is perceived as an extent of the self in three different ways:

  • Functional extension of the self. In short, the smartphone is seen as a tool through which to extend one's cognitive abilities. A large proportion of the respondents felt that their mobile phone was essential for the completion of their daily goals, making them feel smarter as well.
  • Anthropological extension of the self. This type of extension concerns the perception of one's smartphone as having its own personality, reflecting that of its owner. With the spread of artificial intelligence software such as 'Siri' and 'Cortana', this type of extension is even stronger. The mobile phone thus becomes an object invested with affection by users, who keep it by their side at all times.
  • Ontological extension of the self. This is the tendency to perceive one's smartphone as a natural part of one's existence and body. 

The latter is not limited to a simple subjective feeling. In a 2012 study, it was found that the neural representation of one's own hand and that of one's mobile phone coincide. The smartphone has become part of the brain's self, too. In the words of Belk, it is literally extended.

Extended self and new business opportunities

Nuovi bisogni e opportunità - PXR Italy
New needs and opportunities - PXR Italy

The perception of the mobile phone as part of ourselves stems from the fact that it now meets many of our needs.
Originally, the phone was designed to put people in touch with each other, but today it offers many more functionalities, such as a calendar and a camera, added to satisfy new and more sophisticated needs.

Indeed, what consumers often do not realise is that the smartphone not only satisfies pre-existing needs, but also creates new ones.
Market research helps companies developing digital solutions (electronic devices, apps and websites) to improve their products and make them part of the consumer's self.


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