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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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