The Limits of Self-Knowledge

Posted on: October 12, 2009 11:57 AM, by Jonah Lehrer / ScienceBlogs.com

Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired. He's also written for The New Yorker, Seed, Nature, the Boston Globe and is a contributor to Radio Lab. He's the author of Proust Was A Neuroscientist. His new book is How We Decide.

Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired. He's also written for The New Yorker, Seed, Nature, the Boston Globe and is a contributor to Radio Lab. He's the author of Proust Was A Neuroscientist. His new book is How We Decide.

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:

P.E.R. says: I published this video before, but here it is again in case you didn’t catch the other post.


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