The Unreliability of Self-Knowledge

The fascinating truth about humans is that many of us do not know ourselves very well. We don't know what we want. We don't know what's best for us. We don't know what we're trying to say.

It follows that we should not automatically trust someone's self-analysis or personal expression. If a woman I do not know well tells me very honestly, "I recently broke up with my boyfriend because he was boring," I will maintain some level of skepticism about her stated reason until I have a handle on the reliability of her introspections (or perhaps her willingness to self-delude).

Even on issues about which a person has unmatched knowledge and connection – the reasons for their parents’ divorce, the dynamics of their romantic relationship – their intuitions and default explanations can be very off. I know mine can be.

In general I think we give too much deference to the main actor's intuitions in cases where there's deep interior drama, like romance.

Some possible loose conclusions:

  • Early on in any kind of relationship try to assess the accuracy of the other person's self-knowledge.
  • Sometimes I feel like I know a person better than they know themselves.
  • Sometimes it's other people, in all their brilliant distance, who can shed the most light on issues most intimate to us.
  • Which are areas where self-knowledge is most consistently unreliable?


My friend Eliezer Yudkowsky not too long ago wrote a useful paper on cognitive biases. Required reading.

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