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COGNITIVE BIAS #1: Introspection Illusion

Carved into the stones of the temple of Apollo at Delphi were three proverbs. These include “Μηδέν άγαν” or “Nothing in excess” and ”Ἑγγύα πάρα δ’ἄτη” or “Make a pledge and mischief follows.” But the most well-known is “Γνῶθι σεαυτόν” or “Know thyself.”

Which is easier said than done, according to psychologists.

As it turns out, we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. We believe we have an intuitive and accurate understanding of our thoughts and actions.  The reality is that we’ve created an explanation the same way we would when reflecting upon the thoughts and actions of other people.

We might know ourselves only slightly better than we know other people and that’s only because we spend more time with ourselves than with others.

Specifically: If one is asked to explain why he or she is especially fond of strawberry ice cream, their answer is no more likely to be correct than would be an explanation for the same preference in another person.

It might not matter if our answer is quick and automatic or the result of careful reflection when we say that our mother or father loved strawberry ice cream and eating it brings back pleasant memories of our childhood. We could explain another person’s preference in a similar way with the same degree of accuracy.

As clearly and accurate that we might be able to identify memories of incidents, people, place or objects, we are comparatively lost when it comes to knowing how we thought about those same things or why we acted a certain way. We’re much better at understanding the content of our minds than their processes.

Most of what passes for self-knowledge is constructed less to understand ourselves than to avoid the discomfort of not knowing why we think, feel or behave the way we do.

We might consider it a very intimate preference, but that list of what we look for in a potential mate – their height, build, color of their hair or eyes – are mostly guesses made after the fact; these are attempts to explain the attraction after experiencing it.

“Hmmm…,” we might think to ourselves after meeting someone to whom we’d felt a strong attraction. “I really do like redheads.” Or tall people or people with green eyes…

Even when a subject’s choice is surreptitiously replaced by an alternative – when selecting photographs of attractive people, for example – more often than not they accept the alternative without question and provide a reason for having made a selection they didn’t actually make.

I know what you’re thinking…

We’ve all seen how this mechanism is used by a salesperson or speaker, especially in large groups. They need only ask a question, the answer to which is predictable, and then provide the answer the speaker wants:

“You’ve been feeling pretty frustrated and unhappy these days, am I right?

This is a common situation at any time and likely to get a positive response. The point, however, is how people explain the feeling they’re having. As we’ve been saying, people’s ability to explain their feelings is not as accurate as they think. Furthermore, in many cases, previous conclusions can be overridden without the listener’s noticing.

“You know why that is? I’ll tell you why that is. You’re feeling that way because taxes (or gas prices or mortgage rates or whatever) are too high, isn’t it?”

“Yeah! That’s right! I’m frustrated and unhappy because inflation is too high!”

Which is a bit of a dirty trick, putting thoughts into people’s minds right where we know there is a weakness. Rhetoricians and others in the “persuading” business have an ethical responsibility not to use devious means to accomplish their goals. At the same time, listeners need to be savvy to how their minds work and watch out for attempts to manipulate them.

Another way this illusion manifests is in the sense that we ourselves exercise greater free will than do others. It’s easy to believe that we are in full control of our own behavior while the actions of other people are largely the result of various forces outside of their control.


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