The Limits of Self-Knowledge

Over at the BPS Research Digest, a number of researchers respond to a very interesting question: "What's one nagging thing you still don't understand about yourself?" All of the replies are intriguing, but my favorites answers concerned the limitations of self-knowledge. Here, for instance, is David Buss:

One nagging thing that I still don't understand about myself is why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I'm acutely aware of these biases. One example is my failure at affective forecasting, such as believing that I will be happy for a long time after some accomplishment (e.g. publishing a new book), when in fact the happiness dissipates more quickly than anticipated. Another is succumbing to the male sexual overperception bias, misperceiving a woman's friendliness as sexual interest. A third is undue optimism about how quickly I can complete work projects, despite many years of experience in underestimating the time actually required. One would think that explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. But they don't.

And it's not just psychologists who experience the limitations of self-knowledge. Just consider Harry Markowitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist who practically invented the field of investment portfolio theory. In the early 1950's, while working at the RAND Corporation, Markowitz became intrigued by a practical financial problem: how much of his savings should he invest in the stock market? Markowitz's breakthrough was to derive a complicated mathematical equation that could calculate the optimal mix of assets. He had come up with a rational solution to the old problem of risk versus reward.

But Markowitz was incapable of using his own equation. When he divided up his investment portfolio, he ignored the investment advice that had won him the Nobel Prize. Instead of relying on the math, he fell into the familiar trap of loss aversion - this leads people to reject investments that might lead to losses - and he split his portfolio equally between stocks and bonds. Markowitz was so worried about the possibility of losing his savings that he failed to optimize his own retirement account.

Or look at self-control. Dieters are intimately aware that self-control is a feeble mental muscle, easily overwhelmed by the smell of french fries. But does this knowledge lead to improved dieting performance? Most of the time, the answer is no: McDonald's is just too tasty. And so we end up like Saint Augustine, praying for chastity and continence, but not quite yet.

My own unfixable flaw concerns "paralysis by analysis," or thinking about decisions that I know shouldn't be consciously deliberated. Although I've written about Tim Wilson's work with strawberry jam, and know a bit about the information processing powers of the unconscious, I still find myself spending far too much time in the supermarket, debating the merits of various jams. It turns out that writing a book about decision-making doesn't make you a master decider - it simply allows you to have more precise names for your mistakes.

Update: Here's a cute video about behavior modification:

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Charming video!...onto self-knowledge:

Most self-knowledge consists of thoughts or words about our self that are suspicions or beliefs that are not based on actual experience of the self. In any instant of time this would be the sensory and/or mental experience of self that preceeds any thing we might think in response to that experience. Most people miss this experience and are left with the mental stuff that gets added after the fact. Those thoughts are who we think we are. Actions that come out of that space of non-thought are much wiser and kinder than those that come from what we think. To quote Susuki Roshi:"But the purpose of studying Buddhism is to study ourselves and to forget ourselves. When we forget ourselves, we are actually the true activity of the big existence, or reality itself. When we realize this fact, there is no problem whatsoever in this world, and we can enjoy our life without feeling any difficulties. The purpose of our practice is to be aware of this fact."

In "Les Penses,". Pascal dealt with the human limitations of self knowledge when he wrote: "Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed."

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 12 Oct 2009 #permalink

1)Imho, self knowledge which is self-serving seems futile. But if it leads to choices made that befit self, society, and humanity in all,then it seems a useful pursuit.

2)Apparently "intellectual meditation" or what I understand it to be "intelligent contemplation" on one's thoughts, and actions in the what's, why's etc...may shed some insights into the knowing of self.

3) It takes a great deal of honesty to know oneself. It takes discipline to accept the knowing. It takes hard work to manage the knowing. I think self knowledge is limited by the self and not by the knowledge itself, as the knowledge exists on the strength of its own truths in any case, irrespective of whether the self knows it or not.


It's an interesting question, but far from paradoxical. I think the issue is analogous to the declarative/procedural distinction. Knowing about your biases is different from learning how to behave/think better. Memorizing a book on Karate is not going to help you unless you practice.

Discipline requires both the declarative and the procedural systems. This is why ascetics and yogis go through years of practice to achieve their levels of self-control (and still occasionally fail!).

This is really interesting! I'm wondering, do you think it's possible for people to use their self-knowledge to change? Or are we essentially doomed to keep investing our money poorly, cheating on our diets, and falling off our other wagons?

Oh, and for the record, reading How We Decide actually made it easier for me to pick out stuff like jam and cereal. Thanks!

Knowing your biases is different from being aware of your biases in action in the moment of now. In most situations that are important to us we lose sight of ourselves. What happens is: Situation-->Emotion-->Response. Be as interested in your emotional reactions as in the situation that causes you to react. Learning is a continual process of self discovery. I feel a better suiting title for the article might be "The Limits of Knowledge".

Fun video... now that the experiment is done, will someone please make the escalator weight activated so that energy will not continued to be wasted.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink