February 1, 2009

Self-Knowledge . . . ?

This past week’s readings on the self dealt with the topic of “self-knowledge.” Do we have self-knowledge? Are we aware of what motivates or influences us? More specifically, the papers were investigations into how well we can recognize, predict, and explain our own behaviors. And, apparently, the general conclusion is that we are not very good at it at all.

Firstly, we often overestimate our performances in most domains. In general, we think we are better than average, while everyone else is at or lower than average. As well, we overestimate how much group successes are due to our individual effort, whereas we underestimate how much we contribute to group failures. We even overestimate predictions of our own future behaviors, compared to our predictions of the future behavior of random people. For instance, we might think that we are more likely to vote in future elections than a random person that we haven’t met before. Such errors in estimation are often due to cognitive biases that make us rely on self-assessments, while ignoring population base rates. As per the voting example, perhaps we know that we’ve voted before, and through that self-assessment we think that we’ll be more likely to vote again compared to a random person. Yet we ignore the fact that there’s always a significant proportion of the population that doesn’t vote in a given election. So, in other words, we’re very ego-centric! We aren’t very good about thinking of ourselves in statistical terms. Yet, we seem to be more accurate in making judgments of others. Why is this? Is it because we are unconsciously self-enhancing? Are we trying to heighten our self-esteem?

Anthony Greenwald calls these biases, the “totalitarian ego.” The totalitarian ego is comprised of three major cognitive biases that serve to preserve order in “intrapsychic” organization. Beneffectance is the tendency to take credit for success while denying responsibility for failure. Cognitive conservatism is the tendency to preserve existing knowledge structures (e.g., memories, schemata, etc.). And egocentricity is the over-perception of the self as influencer of events beyond realistic control, as well as the over-perception of the self as the targets of other’s actions (e.g., paranoia). With these biases, we can rewrite memories to fit the existing cognitive structure. The totalitarian ego makes us unable to accurately report on stimuli that influences our behavior. We even fail to realize a change in our past attitudes to those of our present attitudes when a change does occur. Take the very simplistic example: Suppose that you used to hate chocolate. And then, I started making you eat chocolate, but only after you took a pill that activated some “pleasure center” of the brain. And perhaps I told you that this pill was just a placebo that would have no perceivable effect on your body. Well, you would probably start liking chocolate. Now if I asked you, “why do you like chocolate?,” you’d probably answer that it tasted good. You wouldn’t realize that you were influenced by the pill. So, then I blatantly tell you what the pill did as you ate chocolate. You would likely still fail to acknowledge that the pill had any effect on your chocolate preference. Even more interestingly, you may not even realize that you used to hate eating chocolate in the first place. Weird.

Part of this may be due to those cognitive biases of the totalitarian ego, and then there’s the concept called the “adaptive unconscious.” As Wilson and Dunn explain, much of the processing that goes on in our minds is unconscious and we are simply unable to access this information into conscious processing. So much goes on around us. There is an infinite amount of information out there, and it would be completely exhausting to take it all in and analyze it. So we perceive the stimuli around us through our adaptive unconscious, to help us get around and make quick split decisions. Yet, just because we perceive it, doesn’t mean we can remember it. Only things that enter conscious awareness can enter into our short-term, and eventually long-term, memory.

So that’s essentially the gist of our readings. We have self-knowledge, but only to the point that we might realize the behaviors we are currently doing. But when we’re asked why we are doing them, how good are we at doing them, if we did them before, and will we do them again, we seem to answer with a story that we make up for ourselves, unconsciously, to fit this idea of who we think we are. Fun stuff.

Here are citations of the articles we read, in case you’re interested:

Epley, N., & Dunning, D. (2006). The mixed blessings of self-knowledge in behavioral prediction: Enhanced discrimination but exacerbated bias. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 641-655.

Greenwald, A. G. (1980). The totalitarian ego: Fabrication and revision of personal history. American Psychologist, 35, 603-618.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134.

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.

Wilson, T.D., & Dunn, E. (2004). Self-knowledge: Its limits, value, and potential for improvement. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 493-518.


Tukes said...

Thank goodness you're back Rickster. I got something interesting to read about my head. And mind. And brain.

pr1ttyricky said...

Thanks man. Yeah, I'm trying to be consistent with my posting. It's hard to find time sometimes, but it's getting better now.