Bright Spots and Blind Spots in Self-Knowledge

Self-insight is often considered one of the most distinctive aspects of human experience. While other species can recognize themselves in the mirror or have a rudimentary sense of self, the human capacity for self-insight and self-reflection is what makes our species unique. However, this capacity has many, often hilarious, limits. We all have some version of the emotionally volatile friend who is convinced he is the model of equanimity, or the humor-challenged colleague who, like Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott, clings to his identity as the funny guy. In this essay I shall argue that humans have both remarkable skill and remarkable limitations when it comes to knowing themselves.

There are many types of self-knowledge, ranging from knowing our immediate sensory states to knowing what career or life partner is best for us. Here I’ll focus on one particular type of self-knowledge: knowing our own personality. This consists of knowing which patterns of behavior, thought, and feeling are particularly characteristic of us.

Some people think that we automatically know our own personalities. In other words, just by virtue of being you, you have direct access to what you are like. This view is very tempting when applied to ourselves, but becomes very difficult to maintain when thinking about our many friends, colleagues, and relatives who clearly are oblivious to their own most salient personality characteristics. If I ask you whether you know yourself better than anybody else knows you, you’re likely to say yes, but if I ask you the same thing about your roommate, that’s another story. In fact, there are many ways in which thinking about ourselves is fundamentally different from thinking about others (Pronin, 2008), so it’s not surprising that when we think about our own self-knowledge we are optimistic, but when thinking about others’ ability to know themselves we are much more pessimistic. It turns out both intuitions are partly correct.

Let’s start with the positive: I believe we have a lot of privileged information about ourselves. We typically know better than anyone else what our fears, hopes, fantasies, and preferences are. These are important parts of our personality. We know how the world looks to us, which again is central to understanding what we’re like (see the work of McAdams). We know our own history, we know how we responded to bullies in childhood, what we were thinking when we decided to buy the $135 bottle opener, how long it took us to get over our first heartbreak, and how we feel when praised by our mothers. These are important things to know about a person, and, most likely, no one can tell you better than the person him or herself. As any therapist or biographer can tell you, a full understanding of a person requires some understanding of their inner life, their subjective experience.

Now for the negative. First, we don’t have unfettered access even to our subjective experience. We have fears, insecurities, and biases that we are not aware of. We misremember our personal history, misinterpret our emotional reactions, get our preferences wrong, and make false predictions about what will make us happy (see the work of Wilson, Gilbert, Haybron, Dunn, and many others). Second, many aspects of personality are not internal. How funny you are, what makes you cranky, whether you’re a good leader — these aspects of your personality are defined by your overt behavior, your reaction to others and others’ reactions to you, regardless of how you see yourself. Third, we can’t perceive our own personality in a neutral, objective way. We have so much at stake when judging our own personality that our perceptions are distorted by strong motivations (see the work of Dunning, Sedikides and Swann). These motivations are varied and can distort self-perceptions in many directions (i.e., they don’t always lead to overly positive self-views).

Over the last few years, my research has focused on trying to develop a balanced theory of self-knowledge of personality. It’s hard to evaluate the amount of self-knowledge people have without a comparison point, so in my research I compare the accuracy of people’s own perceptions of their personality to the accuracy of their friends’ and family members’ perceptions of their personality. In other words, I ask: When do people know themselves better than others know them?

My model, the Self–Other Knowledge Asymmetry (SOKA) model, makes two predictions. First, I claim that self-knowledge should be greater than other-knowledge for internal aspects of personality. We know better than others how anxious and optimistic we are, for example. It doesn’t really matter what your friends think, if you feel extraordinarily proud of who you are, then you have high self-esteem. In contrast, when it comes to our overt behavior, (e.g., how funny and assertive we are), I claim that others who know us well are in a better position to judge. This prediction is based on evidence showing that others have a hard time judging our thoughts and feelings, and we have a hard time seeing our own behavior objectively (see the work of Andersen, Malle, and Funder).

Second, I predict that others are in a better position than the self to judge highly evaluative (i.e., very desirable or undesirable) aspects of our personality. When it comes to how intelligent, attractive, and creative we are, we know less than our friends and family do. That isn’t to say that our friends and family don’t have their own biases. In my own research, friends and family members consistently provide rosier judgments of our participants than do the participants themselves (so next time your mom tells you you’re beautiful, don’t take it too seriously). But despite this positive slant, the friends’ and family members’ ratings are still more accurate at distinguishing the most attractive/intelligent/creative participants from the least. It’s the difference between having a perception that is correct in the absolute (e.g., my roommate has an IQ of 136) — which people are not very good at — and having a perception that is correct in a relative sense (i.e., nobody is quite as wonderful as their friends and family members say, but those who are described most positively by their friends and family do score the highest on objective measures). Self-perceptions on these traits are less positive in the absolute sense, but also show less correspondence to reality in the relative sense (i.e., those who rate themselves most positively do not score the highest on objective measures). Thus, even though others are overly optimistic about their friends and family members, people’s illusions tend to be proportional to their loved ones’ actual qualities.

How do I measure reality? That is the $64,000 question. There is no perfect way. The challenge, of course, is to obtain a measure of personality that is independent of the self-ratings and of the friend and family members’ ratings. I’ve used several different methods. In one study with my collaborator Matthias Mehl, we put a recorder on people for four days. It came on and off at regular intervals and recorded the sounds of their everyday life. From those recordings, we could extrapolate how people behave in their natural environments. In that study, we also asked participants to rate how they think they typically behave, and we asked their friends and family members to tell us how they think the participant typically behaves. We were then able to compare these ratings to our objective measure of how the participants behaved from the sound files we recorded over those four days. If you’re wondering whether people censored their behavior while wearing our recorders, we did, too. But Matthias’s extensive research (and our dozens of sound files capturing off-key singing) shows that people forget about the recorder after about an hour or two. So, we were pretty confident that our four days of recording provided a representative picture of how our participants typically behave. And our results showed that self-ratings and close others’ ratings were about equally accurate overall, but there were some behaviors (e.g., arguing) that the self was more accurate about than others, and other behaviors (e.g., attending class) that others were more accurate about than the self.

To test the predictions of the SOKA model, I ran another study in which I collected self- and friend-ratings of personality traits, including internal and external traits, and evaluative and neutral traits. In this study, my objective measures were based on people’s behavior and performance in laboratory-based tasks. For example, to assess anxiety objectively, I had people give a speech to a stern-looking experimenter who told them that their speech would be evaluated by a team of experts, and that public speaking ability was predictive of occupational success, relationship success, and every other good thing under the sun. Oh, and the topic of the speech is: “What I like and don’t like about my body”. Ready? Go. I then had coders watch the videos of the speeches and identify objective signs of anxiety (e.g., nervous hand and mouth movements). I also collected objective measures of assertiveness, talkativeness, self-esteem, creativity, and intelligence. My results were consistent with the SOKA model predictions. For internal traits (e.g., anxiety, self-esteem), self-ratings were more accurate than friends’ ratings, whereas for external traits (e.g., assertiveness, talkativeness) there was no difference. For evaluative traits (intelligence and creativity), friends’ ratings were more accurate than self-ratings.

Each of these studies has its limitations, and they are by no means the final word on self-knowledge of personality. There are many questions left to be answered. To me, the most important implication of these studies (and the work of Oltmanns and Turkheimer, and Robins and John) is that self-knowledge is a complicated thing — in some ways we know ourselves better than anyone else knows us, but there are also some aspects of our personality that others can see more clearly than we can. Humans’ unique capacity for self-reflection does not automatically translate to immaculate self-knowledge.

I’d like to end by posing some of the unanswered questions about self-knowledge, and some speculations.

  1. Are people aware of the discrepancies between how they see themselves and how others see them? My graduate student, Erika Carlson, is tackling this question and finding that people do have some insight into the ways in which their views of themselves are idiosyncratic, and may not be shared by others.
  2. How do people react when confronted with these discrepancies? Do they change their self-views? As you might have guessed from personal experience, it’s not so easy to get people to correct their self-views. But just like you keep hoping that maybe next time your deluded friend/colleague/relative will finally pick up on your subtle hints, we researchers keep hoping that some manipulation or intervention will show an effect. Like you, we haven’t had any luck so far. Our research suggests that small doses of feedback do not have much impact on people’s self-views. Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others does not seem to be enough to increase self-knowledge, at least not in small doses.
  3. Should we seek to know ourselves better? There has been an ongoing debate in psychology about whether having an accurate perception of oneself is healthy, or whether positive illusions about ourselves are more adaptive. Would you want to know if it turned out you were dull and obnoxious? What if you had a very specific personality tick that was driving everyone around you crazy? Clearly, there are pros and cons to acquiring self-insight. I think there is a lot more to be learned about this issue. Like everything else in psychology, the answer is probably “it depends.” But what does it depend on?

References

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9 comments to Bright Spots and Blind Spots in Self-Knowledge

  • Fascinating research! Thanks for sharing it with us. I have a question and a comment.

    The question is about certain aspects of personality that are internal, but that seem particularly resistant to introspection and self-knowledge, for example, insecurity. It’s not uncommon to witness someone who is obnoxiously condescending to others and apparently quite arrogant and to think that the reason for the apparent arrogance is deep insecurity. Does the person actually acknowledge feelings of insecurity and hide them? Maybe in some cases, but sometimes it doesn’t seem like this is what’s happening. It often seems that the self-deception runs too deep. I wonder what’s going on in these kinds of cases. Is it that the behavioral output of insecurity is more obvious than the internal feelings? Is it the “costliness” of knowing this about oneself? Would you predict that people will be worse at knowing something about themselves the more acknowledging that thing conflicts with their public image?

    My comment is about your last question about the value of self-knowledge. I think it’s worth distinguishing two questions: One is whether it is good to have an accurate picture of yourself. The other is whether it is good to seek self-knowledge, that is, whether it is good for a person to do what it takes to acquire self-knowledge. Given that we can’t take a pill to gain an accurate picture of ourselves, in order to improve our accuracy we’re going to have to *do* something (whether it’s therapy or introspection or heart-to-hearts with trusted friends). Since these efforts themselves have costs, and since the result can’t always be predicted, it’s worth thinking about the value of the process independently of the value of the outcome.

    - VT

  • On Vazire’s Self-Other Knowledge Asymmetry (SOKA) model, we know our internal selves better (our own thoughts and feelings), while others know our external selves better (our overt behavior). I think this model is interesting and intuitive and important: I know what I’m like on the inside; you see what I’m like on the outside. Notably, you can’t see inside as well as I can, and I can’t normally observe myself as a social agent interacting with you and the world, in the moment (with a few exceptions that certainly didn’t exist in our evolutionary past, e.g., the real-time video of myself and my conversation partner that services like SKYPE offers).

    Yet I wonder whether there are some things on the inside that you, the observer, process better – or in a more automatic and obligatory fashion – than I, the agent. These things may include thoughts, versus feelings; or (transient) beliefs and intentions, versus (relatively stable) personality traits – reflecting a distinction within the internal self. On the one hand, I know what’s on my mind and heart. On the other hand, while I can access this information if prompted, I might not normally do so spontaneously – the way I attempt to guess at other people’s mental states when predicting, interpreting, or judging their behavior, e.g., why did she do that? what was she thinking? In other words, I may always know what I am thinking, but I may not always be thinking about what I am thinking – since I do not need this information to predict, interpret, or judge my own behavior.

    There are hints of this alternative asymmetry in the literature, that mental states like beliefs and intentions matter less when I think about myself versus others. First, research suggests that our own feelings of guilt are independent of our intent: we feel just as guilty for accidents we cause as we do for harms we cause intentionally (reviewed in Baumeister et al., 1994). Second, research shows that in action explanations or predictions, the actors themselves use fewer mental state markers than observers (Malle et al., 2000). As the example goes: If I cancel the party because I think it will rain, I consider the rain, not my belief that it will rain. I would therefore say: I cancelled the party because of the rain – not I cancelled the party because I thought it would rain. These linguistic clues may indicate that when I am choosing whether to act, for example, I consider the contents of my reasons or beliefs rather than my beliefs qua beliefs. By contrast, when processing the external actions of others, I try my best to guess at what’s going on inside, challenging as it may be. In the spirit of SOKA, I would love to see whether different internal states are indeed processed differently by the self versus other – and with what consequences.

  • Bittany Solomon

    This work is truly fascinating! Dr. Vazire provides a strong argument for the notion that people may not know as much about themselves as they assume they do. This conclusion makes me wonder in terms of well-being and life outcomes whether it is better to mistakenly believe you know yourself well or to know that you may be blind to certain aspects of your personality. I’d speculate that the answer to this broad question would depend on differences in individuals’ satisfaction and comfort levels with who they [think they] are.

    While Dr. Vazire points out that people typically know better than others what their preferences are, this is an area that may also warrant further study. Presumably, people make important life choices based on their self-insight. For instance, someone who sees himself as being especially extroverted might choose a career in which he can interact with a variety of people on a regular basis. Someone who sees herself as very spontaneous might choose a romantic partner who shares similar tendencies. The reality, however, is that many people actually are unhappy in their work environments and in their relationships (as changing jobs and breaking up with romantic partners are common occurrences). This begs the question: Do people know what they want or do they just assume that they do? Relating this back to self-knowledge of personality, if people mistakenly believe that they know themselves better than research suggests, and moreover, if people make important life decisions based on their personalities, logical reasoning suggests that we should also explore the extent to which people hold accurate beliefs about their preferences. My guess is that we should be similarly skeptical about the degree of accuracy we hold for the types of work and relationships that make us happy as Dr. Vazire has pointed out we should have about the extent of our self-knowledge of personality. Whether close others have greater knowledge than we do about our perfect job or romantic partner is an interesting question for exploration, as such decisions are motivated by a vast range of considerations.

  • Anna Alexandrova

    Like other commentators I thank Simine Vazire for this excellent essay. It is exciting that centuries of speculation in both philosophy and psychology on the extent of self-knowledge are culminating in genuine empirical tests using creative methods that many thought were impossible. This is great interdisciplinary progress!

    It is also exciting to learn about a theoretical model she is developing to synthesize and explain the various findings. The SOKA model appears to rely primarily on two distinctions: internal vs external, and evaluative vs neutral traits. Of course, these distinctions do not need to be sharp. Many traits involve both internal and external, and evaluative and neutral elements. Kindness, modesty, sincerity, are all examples of traits that are complex mixtures of all four. But that’s not a problem. The model will still apply to traits that have more or less of one element than another, which is very plausible in most cases. But I can also imagine cases of complex interaction between the four elements. Have you come across traits that are both primarily internal and primarily evaluative? I imagine intelligence can be an example. In this case, does the SOKA model predict that the evaluative asymmetry effect will overwhelm the internal asymmetry effect? In general, does the SOKA model postulate any dominance of one of these axes over another? Is it the case that the less neutral a trait is, the harder it is to sustain personal authority despite the wealth of internally available information?

    Valerie Tiberius’s example of insecurity is also very pertinent here too. One could be seriously insecure and yet fail to pick up on it and moreover fail to manifest it in overt behavior (if, say, one has good manners). And yet the SOKA model appears to predict better knowledge by the person himself. Do you regard this as a problem?

    Finally, regarding the possibility of learning about oneself. Reading the teaching evaluations my students wrote on me a few years ago, I learned that I wasn’t particularly charitable and encouraging, though I sincerely believed I was. A few honest comments by friends confirmed that. Looking back I now remember incidents in my early youth that should have had the same effect, but didn’t. Though the journey has been tough for me, I do believe I’ve made some progress in self-knowledge. Do you not believe that this is a fairly typical experience? It seems like such an integral part of growing up. Don’t we get better at it as we grow older?

    Many thanks, aa

  • Fascinating work, Simine! I’m a big fan. However, I wonder if you are a little too optimistic.

    Consider anxiety and optimism, which you describe as traits where self-knowledge is superior to other-knowledge. First: Impressionistically, it seems to me that we are not especially better than others in judging our characterological anxiety and optimism. Partly, this might be because, considered as traits, anxiety and optimism are comparative: Am I more anxious than others, more optimistic than others? We might not be especially good at these comparisons. For example, from the inside, perhaps, most people feel that they are unusually anxious about speaking in public; others can judge more objectively.

    Second: You present empirical evidence suggesting that objective measures did tend to line up with people’s judgments about their anxiety and optimism (e.g., Vazire, 2010). But here I worry about reactivity between the measures. In your 2010 study, people first self-described their levels of various character traits. Then afterwards they present a speech and engage in social interactions and also take intelligence and creativity tests. One possibility is that people’s behavior in that speech and in that social interaction is partly affected, in a self-fulfilling way, by the previous self-description. For example, the person who previously self-described as especially anxious might be less prone to hide her anxiety during the speech than the person who previously self-described as not anxious — in part just to ensure that her behavior coheres with her previous self-description. Similarly for extraversion and optimism. The outward signs of these are partly under the subject’s control (perhaps even in sampled audio). The outward signs of creativity and intelligence might be somewhat less under the subject’s control — or (alternatively) perhaps all subjects are motivated to appear creative and intelligent to the experimenter regardless of previous self-description, resulting in a smaller fulfill-my-self-description effect.

    Unfortunately, reactivity runs the other way too: If you measure the objective behavior first and then collect the self-description, the self-description may be especially informed by knowledge of the measured objective behavior. So these remarks aren’t intended to suggest that there’s any obviously better research design, but just that testing your hypotheses is hard — and that overall we might expect reactivity in a self-attribution-confirming direction and thus poorer self-knowledge than you report. This should be so especially to the extent the objective behaviors are (a.) under the subject’s control, (b.) variable in the degree to which subjects are motivated to display them, and (c.) obviously relevant to the self-report.

    A brief thought on a related topic: How much knowledge would you predict people have of their overall moral character? My guess would be that there would be approximately zero correlation between how morally well someone tends to behave and their opinion about how morally well they tend to behave. Of course, both dimensions are very difficult to measure — or even, perhaps, to conceptualize in a scalar fashion.

  • I will save my main comment for last. First, I want to note that Vazire’s methods for assessing self-knowledge may prove useful for evaluating self-report measures in research on well-being. The recent Gallup World Poll, for instance, employs an extensive and well-chosen battery of questions, including such items as “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” Yet there remain significant concerns about how reliable people’s answers to such questions are. Do people have accurate self-knowledge in these domains? And how comparable are answers across cultures? Perhaps Americans give more favorable answers than French participants because they have stronger positivity biases. To some extent, these concerns may be answerable with methods like Vazire’s. Regarding the laughter question, perhaps audio recorders could be used to compare reported and actual rates of laughter; maybe this would reveal that Americans with the same rate of laughter as French counterparts nonetheless report greater laughter. Take enough data points of this sort, and it may be possible to calibrate well-being reports across cultures, adjusting for differential positivity (or negativity) biases. (E.g., we might know that an American’s “7” is equivalent to an Israeli’s “5”.) This would greatly enhance the quality of cross-cultural well-being research.

    The SOKA model offers a very helpful framework for thinking about the nuances of self-knowledge, but I follow other commentators in wondering exactly what shape the asymmetry takes, in particular whether certain types of internal traits (and states) can often be better-known by external observers. One question is who the observers are. Perhaps long-married spouses tend to assess their partners’ happiness more accurately than the partners themselves. Or maybe only when the spouse is particularly discerning, and/or the partner especially unreflective. (Another variable is culture: some cultures may breed better introspectors, or keener observers.) And maybe this only applies to certain aspects of happiness: diffuse moods like anxiety, tension, stress, mild depression may be hard to introspect, and people often assess those states not by introspection but by observing their own behavior and physical symptoms (Am I sleeping a lot, losing my temper easily, popping lots of Tums…). Insofar as people are right to assess their own internal states via external signs, the SOKA model itself seems to suggest that others may sometimes be better-placed to judge those states. Which may be why, when I really want to know how I’m doing, I ask my wife.

    Wherever we place the asymmetries, the finding that outsiders sometimes know our personalities better than we do ramifies broadly. For instance, it is possible that even governments, armed with this sort of research, will sometimes be more reliable judges of our personalities than we are. This can seem crazy, since they usually don’t even *know* us. But suppose observers can more accurately rate signs of, say, self-absorption or narcissism. You might then get a population of highly self-absorbed individuals who greatly overrate their social orientations and virtues. Researchers or government agencies might thus know that the average person is highly self-absorbed (or high in relevant behaviors, at least), even as the average person mistakenly thinks they exhibit those behaviors only a little. “This is a society of narcissists. Not me, of course.”

    For my money, though, the most interesting upshot of this research is what it suggests about the social bases of personality and self-regulation. On the face of it, you might expect a highly individualistic society, where people spend inordinate amounts of time with themselves, having mostly superficial interactions with others, would foster self-knowledge. Hardly knowing anyone *but* ourselves, we’d *really* know ourselves. Yet the opposite might be true, for at least two reasons.

    First, Vazire’s work suggests that self-knowledge may substantially come from other people, insofar as those individuals can judge facets of our personalities better than we can. I may only know how much I interrupt people, for instance, by hearing about it from others. Individualistic societies, if they weaken social bonds and hence important channels for such feedback, can thus hinder important forms of self-knowledge. (For our compatriots, this is the most salient kind of self-knowledge; I don’t much care if you’re in touch with your feelings, but I’d really prefer you knew what you’re doing to me.)

    Second, much of our self-knowledge may only emerge in *dialogue* with others, where (among other things) epistemic demands tend to be higher than they are in our inner monologues. (Here my remarks bear the influence of John Doris.) The more we converse with close friends and trusted neighbors, the more disciplined and coherent our thinking may become. We can more easily weed out contradictory or crazy ideas, and develop a better sense of who we are and what we really value. Alone, we may devolve into the sorts of deeply incoherent, self-ignorant beings that seem increasingly to populate the United States today. Offhand, my sense is that the great majority of Americans have, at bottom, quite reasonable values, but that their express opinions about many issues are increasingly divorced from those values—perhaps because they engage so little in serious discussion with friends and neighbors about them. This seems to me at least partly to involve a deficit in self-knowledge—such people no longer really know what they stand for or what they really value.

    In short, self-knowledge may be substantially a social phenomenon, requiring sustained and deep engagement with other people. Individualistic societies may thus tend to undercut self-knowledge by depriving people of its social bases. This can degrade the quality of our views and votes, as in the last paragraph. Or, worse, it can degrade our conduct toward each other, as in the paragraph before: self-regulation is critical for civility and decent behavior generally, but it is impossible to self-regulate effectively if you don’t know what you’re doing. Much of the purported decline in civility over recent decades, if genuine, may result from the fraying of traditional feedback mechanisms that inform us about how we’re doing. (And given positivity biases, self-ignorance of this sort is likely to skew toward overstating our virtues. We’re jerks who talk too loudly into our cellphones, cut off other drivers, etc., but think we’re quite considerate, unlike all the other jerks.)

    All of which is to say, this is a really interesting and important line of research. Thanks so much for sharing it.

  • You should listen to me more often. Maybe that doesn’t surprise you; often enough, when things go South, people wish they’d heeded someone’s advice. But if Vazire is right, maybe listening to me is better than better than listening to yourself. And that would be surprising. A familiar conviction, at least in (putatively) liberal democracies like this one, is the assumption of first personal authority; grownups like us are expected to know themselves, and know what’s best for themselves. We often enough doubt this is so, of course; people adopt all sorts of views, both personal and political, that cause us to shake our heads. But even when this is so, the assumption of first personal authority lingers; I may not know what I’m doing, but I know what I’m doing better than you. (It’s my Tea Party, and I’ll cry if I want to.)

    Recently, the assumption of first personal authority has come under sustained attack. (And also not so recently, since we can find the attack in Freud and others.) On the basis of pretty compelling empirical evidence, Dan Haybron doubts that people know what’s good for them, and Eric Schwitzgebel doubts that people have reliable first personal access to phenomenal states like sensations and perceptions. I’ve indulged in a bit of this skepticism myself: in a previous segment of On the Human, I’ve wondered whether people really know their own motives (why am I writing this, anyway?).

    Vazire takes up another aspect of self-knowledge, knowledge of personality, or knowledge of what one is like. Here, it’s tempting to think the assumption of first personal authority is on a pretty firm foot. Who should know better than me if I’m shy? After all, even if I’m carrying on like the life of the party, I may feel shy inside, and that seems to come pretty close to settling the question of whether I’m shy, even if I’ve got my fellow revelers fooled. (Turns out, it’s not so easy to trace the tracks of my tears.)

    In a series of suggestive and methodologically innovative studies, Vazire and her colleagues have shown, convincingly, that the picture is more mixed. Sometimes people’s awareness of what they’re like seems pretty accurate (when compared both to peer ratings and “objective” test measures), and other times not so much. This sounds about right to me. If cases of accurate self-awareness are easy to come by, so are cases of inaccuracy: he wouldn’t keep telling those jokes, would he, if he knew how funny he wasn’t.

    Then Vazire’s approach is broadly contextualist (in the spirit of peace, I won’t call it situationist): in some conditions we’re pretty good at knowing ourselves, and in some instances we’re not. As a personality psychologist, for Vazire the conditions in question concern the target attribute: people may be accurate for internal attributes like anxiety, and inaccurate for external attributes like funny. Moreover, they might be inaccurate for evaluatively laden attributes like honest, and accurate for evaluatively neutral attributes like absent-minded. Vazire’s elegant SOKA model is an attempt to schematize these observations in an empirically substantiated way.

    Does this leave the glass half-empty, or half full? That is, should skeptics like Schwitzgabel, Haybron, and Doris claim victory, or do optimists like Vazire carry the day? I’m going to be stubborn, and lodge two complaints on behalf of the skeptic.

    First, if people tend to have blind spots in the region of evaluate attributes, we may be talking about rather a large region of darkness. I’m betting there are masses of evaluative attributes, many of which are among the most interesting to both psychologists and philosophers (to say nothing of our selves and our intimates). For instance, when I was trying to think of a neutral attribute a few lines back, I struggled, and I’m not even sure absent-minded fits the bill. (I doubt it does for the people I miss appointments with, and the compulsive among you may have balked when I first suggested it.) So even on Vazire’s optimistic model, there may be ample area for skeptical glee.

    Second, if the skeptic is to hang his shaggy head, we need to know quite a lot more about when we’re good and when we’re bad. For the skeptic might respond to Vazire as follows: “Let’s grant that self awareness is sometimes accurate. But unless we can state with some precision which those cases are, the reasonable thing to do is with hold attributes of self-awareness, and this is enough to undermine the assumption of first personal authority.” Of course, this is just the challenge Vazire’s SOKA model is designed to meet. It’s too early to say, I think, but if Vazire can further articulate the bright spots and blind spots of self-awareness, we might be justified in holding a bounded assumption of first personal authority. And that would be a victory for the optimist.

  • It is rare that I am the most optimistic one in the room. But perhaps that’s because I’m not usually in a room mostly full of philosophers! It was fascinating to see that every comment expressed more skepticism about self-knowledge of personality than I did. Among personality psychologists, I’m used to being the skeptic, arguing against researchers fighting for the authority of self-reports. Then again there is also an active and visible contingent of psychologists who have joined the skeptic camp (e.g., Wilson, Dunning, Back and it seems Young and Solomon as well!).
    I like sitting right on the fence, though it does get uncomfortable sometimes. For example, I fully agree with Tiberius, Alexandrova, Schwitzgebel, and Haybron that there are plenty of internal traits that others can see better than we can ourselves. As Alexandrova suggests, I think this often has to do with the evaluativeness of the trait – when a trait is both internal and evaluative, evaluativeness trumps observability and self-knowledge is the loser. And of course, as Doris points out, a great many personality attributes are evaluative, which makes for a rather giant blind spot. As Haybron points out, though, whether other-knowledge is any better than self-knowledge for these evaluative, internal traits depends on who the “other” is. Internal, evaluative traits (such as intelligent, sensitive (in the bad sense of the word), insecure) are difficult for strangers or even friends to detect, and very close others are probably the best judge. So, keep listening to your wife, Dan!

    This ties into another theme in these excellent comments — the contextual nature of self- and other-knowledge. As Doris points out, the question is not whether self- or other-knowledge is better, but when people have or lack self- or other-knowledge. The SOKA model focuses on trait properties that answer the “when” question (i.e., moderators), but surely there are other types of moderators – who the “self” is (e.g., does the “self” have a personality disorder?), who the “other” is (e.g., does the “other” see the self in only one context, or many different contexts?), and of course the usual suspects: gender, age, and culture. I’m very interested in learning how these variables influence self- and other-knowledge.

    Another good question was raised by Solomon raised – is it better to believe we know ourselves, or should we be skeptical about our own self-knowledge? As Haybron points out, if we don’t adopt a skeptical attitude about our own self-knowledge, we won’t apply the basic truths about human nature to ourselves, and thus we’ll know less about ourselves than any intelligent being (or government) will know about us, because they will recognize that these tendencies apply to us.

    This also ties into the question Alexandrova asked about whether most people acquire self-knowledge as they grow up. I think this depends on how much humility people have about their self-knowledge. Those who are absolutely convinced they have nothing to learn about themselves likely will be immune to feedback, even when it bites them in the behind. And, as Tiberius pointed it, feedback is often likely to bite quite hard, and as a result many people likely have strong defenses against self-insight. I completely agree with Tiberius that the process of acquiring self-knowledge is likely to be painful, but I suspect the pain eventually gives way to a deeper and more sustainable happiness than was possible without self-knowledge. But that’s an empirical question!

    Which leads me to the next thread that runs through these comments – almost all of them hit on a topic we are currently exploring in our lab:

    1. Young asks whether self-knowledge for internal phenomena (thoughts, beliefs) may suffer when dealing with transient states rather than traits. We want to know that, too, and are examining how aware the self and others are of fluctuations in a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. We’ll keep you posted!

    2. Solomon asks whether people really know their own preferences better than others. What she didn’t mention is that her own research is investigating this question! Together, we’re planning a study looking at people looking for and entering relationships, which will shed light on how good people are at making these types of decisions. Solomon makes an important point that people’s lack of insight into their personality may impair their ability to know their preferences, to the extent that our preferences are constrained by our personalities (I may want to like public speaking, but if I’m uncontrollably anxious, it’s not really in my powers to have that preference).

    3. Schwitzgebel and Haybron point out several ways in which self-knowledge is social in nature. Here they anticipate a paper I’ve been working on and hope to submit soon, tentatively titled “The Social Nature of Self-Knowledge.” As Schwitzgebel points out, knowing our personalities requires knowing what other people are like, because personality traits are inherently comparative (“I am very agreeable” implies that I am more agreeable than most people, thus it requires knowing the distribution of agreeableness in the population). As Haybron points out, the development and maintenance of self-knowledge also depends on others in important ways. I would add a few more ways in which self-knowledge is social. For example, one of the important benefits of self-knowledge, I claim, is that it makes life easier for those who have to interact with you every day. Self-knowledge: Do it for the ones you love.

    4. Schwitzgebel also asks whether people know their own moral characteristics. This is the question we’re asking in one of our upcoming studies. I’m with Schwitzgebel; I suspect people have little to no insight into their moral characteristics. Furthermore, I think this might be an area where self-knowledge would be detrimental. As the ancient Chinese thinker Zhuangzi said “Be virtuous, but without being consciously so, and wherever you go, you will be loved.”

    5. Doris points out that if people sometimes have self-knowledge, but do not know when they do and when they don’t, then the skeptic wins because people are then forced to adopt a skeptical attitude towards their self-views all the time. I agree that this is a problem. One potential answer comes from Erika Carlson’s work, showing that our confidence in our judgments about ourselves (loosely) tracks our accuracy about ourselves. Thus, it’s possible that we can use our gut feelings about whether to trust our self-perceptions, and be skeptical only when we have doubt about our self-views (which, I admit, is most of the time).

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