The Limits of Self-Knowledge

Sunday, June 26, 2016
First Aired: 
Sunday, October 6, 2013

What Is It

Descartes considered the mind to be fully self-transparent; that is, he thought that we need only introspect to know what goes on inside our own minds. More recently, social psychology has shown that a great deal of high-level cognition takes place at an unconscious level, inaccessible to introspection. How then do we gain insight into ourselves? How reliable are the narratives that we construct about ourselves and our internal lives? Are there other reliable routes to self-knowledge, or are we condemned to being forever deluded about who we truly are? John and Ken look inward with Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia, author of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.

Listening Notes

According to Descartes we have infallible and complete knowledge of what goes on inside our minds. This is just common sense—all we need to do is turn our attention inwards and introspect. However, this is not entirely right. There is more to the mind than we can consciously access. Experimental evidence suggests that while people might know what mood they are in, they are very bad at knowing why they are in that mood. Instead, they latch on to a readily available cultural explanation for the mood they are in, such as ‘rainy days and Mondays always get me down…’ when in reality there is no correlation between moods and weather or the day of the week. Perhaps such explanations simply make us feel as though we understand ourselves, including the causes for our moods, when in reality these explanations are entirely confabulated.

In fact, the prediction of moods is much more accurate when it is applied to others, rather than to oneself. (Ken, for example, can predict his wife and son’s moods very accurately based on observation.) Perhaps a similar third-person, observational approach to one’s own internal goings-on is the way to gain knowledge about one’s own mind. As Flannery O’Connor says: “I don’t know what I think until I read what I write”. However, Ken worries that this third-person attitudes wreaks havoc with our immediate experienced living of life. If the way we seem to ourselves is so out of sync with how we really are, Ken suggests, doesn’t that imply that we are buffeted about without control, in ways over which we have no control, into which we have no real insight?

In order to gain some traction on this potentially unsettling circumstance, Ken and John bring Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious into the discussion. He argues that while we have a rich conscious life, there is much beyond that which we cannot access. While Tim admits that we may have some privileged access to certain feelings, such as knowing that we are in pain or in a good mood, he holds that this asymmetry of access breaks down once we try to identify the reasons for these feelings or emotions.

In the second segment, Tim argues that what we do know about the reasons for our moods or our behavior, is in fact gleaned from observation, i.e. the same way we know about the reasons for the moods and behaviors of others. We draw inferences about ourselves, he argues, and since we have a lot of observational information about ourselves, given that we are always around ourselves, we are pretty good at predicting our own behaviors and moods. But we aren’t better than others at explaining ourselves. Tim cites a study in which college students tried to guess what influenced their mood. They got the reasons just as right as complete strangers who were asked to make the same guess. Tim suggests that we can be lead astray because we can become so intrigued with a certain fact about ourselves that we give it more importance than it should have. An outside observer may be better at determining why it is that we do what we do.

John makes that the point that evolutionarily speaking, it makes a lot of sense to invest resources in gaining knowledge about others. We need to be able to predict whether another animal is going to try to eat us, or whether they are hostile or friendly. Perhaps this way of gaining insight into a mind originally came about in order to allow us to explain and predict others and only secondarily became applied to the self. Tim agrees. He argues that the function of the mind is to understand others. That is so critical that that comes first. Only as an afterthought, so to speak, do we apply it to ourselves. Moreover, culture supplies us with a number of theories about why we do what we do and we take those theories indiscriminately and apply them to ourselves. These theories are not always wrong, but they’re not always right either.

Ken takes issue with this view. He argues that even from a natural selection perspective, making sense of oneself is similarly important, since one needs to be able to predict how one oneself is going to act! For instance, in order to be a good partner in transactions, I need to be able to understand why I do what I do, so I can figure out what I am going to do in the future. But Tim replies that this view assumes that we need to understand ourselves in order to guide our behavior, but that is not necessarily true. Not all action, Tim maintains, is the result of thoughtful introspection. We can act in ways that are regular and in accordance with our goals and personalities in ways that operate entirely unconsciously.

At this point John cites the example of how most of us know how to ride a bike, but very few know what exactly it is we know. Similarly, John suggests, we need to be good at knowing how to deal with ourselves, but we don’t need to know how to put that knowledge into words. Tim agrees and adds that, of course, for some of our higher goals, such as plotting our futures, deciding what professions we want to pursue, or which partners we want to spend our lives with, knowing something about our preferences is important. Here our conscious storytelling part of ourselves needs to be a good observer, otherwise those choices won’t be optimal. But even in these cases it is not a matter of direct access to the unconscious.

In the final segment, John, Ken, and Tim discuss to what extent we can confabulate explanations about ourselves. Arguably, overestimating ourselves slightly has evolutionary payoffs. However, to some extent we need to see the world the way it really is. After all, no one is well-served by disregarding an oncoming truck and neglecting to get out of its way. Too much confabulation about the self, such as pretend reasons or being blinded to one’s real motives, makes for a toxic public space, as Ken and Tim agree is the case in politics. Often, we think others find ourselves more interesting than we really are.

Ken is now concerned. What about the self? If the self is truly autonomous and self-governing, it has to be transparent. If it is not, if it is opaque and we cannot see into it, doesn’t the idea of self-governing go out the window, at least idea that the self is in charge? If we mostly confabulate the explanations of ourselves doesn’t the idea of the self begin to crumble? Tim’s response presumably doesn’t put Ken entirely at ease. Tim likens the self to riding a wild horse and trying to pull on the reigns. One has a little bit of an effect, but largely one is not able to steer where the beast is going.

So how do we improve our self-understanding? Ken and John ask Tim if he can provide some advice? Tim suggests we practice seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, and coming up with better stories about ourselves. He assures Ken that this should just be a matter of tweaking our self-conceptions, not of shattering them entirely. After all, if our stories about ourselves are not at least roughly accurate, i.e. if they are wildly out of synch, we would be institutionalized.

Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 5:30): Roving Philosophical Reporter Caitlin Esch investigates a patient who exhibits spontaneous confabulation. Rather than remembering the past the way it really was, he produces false memories that render his life better, driving a more expensive car, married to a younger and more attractive wife, and making more money. Turns out, this kind of confabulation might actually be good for us!

60 second philosopher (seek to 49:35): Ian Shoales takes us on a mad-dash tour of history from the origins of farming to a world controlled by digital overlords.