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.

8 comments on “The Unreliability of Self-Knowledge
  • Interesting assessment here, Ben. I think so much depends on that main actor, as you suggested, in determining the ins and outs of any emotionally laden situation. Separating what’s real for them and what’s factually real can seem like a daunting task, nigh on impossible. But when relating with people, even remembering that each of us has our own version of reality can put you that much closer to the facts.

  • There are two explicit sources of errors in self-analysis: first, self-deception (to which @Jackie alludes); second, lack of self-analysis skills, which is fairly common (as an aside, I do think this is one of the benefits of therapy, because at a minimum it at least forces you to practice those skills).

    More generally, we face difficulties in knowing anything about ourselves in an epistemological sense, because much of our “self” is operating outside of conscious awareness. One of my favorite neuropsychology experiments is when they’re operating on epilepsy patients and the like, they’ll tweak (from the inside) the motor neurons that cause a finger to move; then they ask the patient why he moved his finger, and they provide all sorts of amazing reasons, none of which are “I didn’t intend to move it.” In other words, we tend to explain our actions after the fact, and those explanations likely only partially cohere with why we actually did something. Daniel Dennett also discusses this in some detail in Consciousness Explained.

    This also brings up the question of what it even means to be correct in an analysis of causes of our actions. Who is to decide and on what basis? I would propose that this is primarily about predicting future behavior, so that if the circumstances are largely similar then the same sort of behavior would be expected. As a consequence, a genuine understanding of one’s behavior, wants, etc. requires repeated analysis and a single data point is only of limited use.

    The reason I mention this is that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves – about the best we can do is pay attention, practice our self-analysis skills, and avoid self-deception.

  • Great stuff Ben! This year I am self-tracking my cognitive biases and irrational thoughts with productive results. Making a chart of the biases Eliezer mentions and trying to see which one crops up in my thinking has been enlightening.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky writes beautifully, and with wit and insight, in that paper on cognitive biases.

    He says, humorously:

    “All else being equal, not many people would prefer to destroy the world.”

    Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not the omnipotent ruler of the universe, or it would have been toast a long time ago.

    There’s a passage in the psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s book, Man Against Himself, where he discusses the case of a psychopathic man who had conceived of a plan to kill everybody on earth, which, according to Menninger, was not at all delusional.

    I felt cheated that the good doctor didn’t let us in on what this diabolical scheme might be, but supposed that he must have thought it best not to give all the psycho-aggressive maniacs out there any ideas, since he seemed to think the plan had some chance of at least partial success.

    It’s true that many of us do not know ourselves very well, in a general sense, but I believe there is a little part of everyone of us that knows just about everything.

    Call it the unconscious, or whatever you will.

    I have no doubt that it exists, having observed its actions empirically far too many times times.

    It rears its ugly head in situations where you spontaneously toss off a remark that unerringly cuts straight to the heart of someone’s deepest insecurities.

    Even when you had no possible foreknowledge of what those might be, and only realized the effects of what you’d said in retrospect, the all-knowing daemon within knew just what to say to cut, and cut deeply.

    You were never conscious of any animosity for the person, and why should you feel any toward a stranger, anyway?

    These extemporaneous eruptions might make you feel as if your mind were occupied by an alien presence.

    Puritans like Johnathan Edwards would call it a ‘devil’, but such language stinks of the crudest superstition.

    Thus I was shocked to discover that Karl Menninger seriously considered demonic possession as an explanation for mental disorders, especially schizophrenia, and even collaborated with Archbishop Fulton Sheen in developing this idea.

    But I still want to know the identity of this bastard within who knows so much more than ‘me’.

    And if it is me, where does ‘he’ get his unsolicited information?

    There is an essential part of everyone of us that does know the self, what we really want, and what is ultimately best for us.

    I know certain skeptics will decry this certitude– they have no truck with William James-style pragmatism, at least without benefit of the perishable revelations bestowed by nitrous oxide.

    To them I reply:

    “We don’t like the situation that prevails whereby a fellow human being is put aside, outcast as it were, ignored, labeled and said to be ‘sick in his mind’.”

    People do lie to themselves, but I believe this kind of knowledge I’m talking about is ineffable and not subject to Daniel Dennett’s withering scorn.

    True, it was the varieties of my own non-religious experience that ignited the fires of imagination and gave it soaring flight.

    That’s how I burnt my wings, and found myself agreeing with Thomas Szasz that “mental illness is a social construct created by doctors… that what psychiatrists label mental illness is in fact nothing more than a deviation from the consensus reality or common morality.”

    So I decided to be a revolutionist and lead the insurrection against Big Bad God, starting in your friendly local psycho-ward.

    I ask only that you not call my devastating love ‘radical empiricism’.;-)

  • The mind is very good at covering its own decision-making tracks and “rationalizing away” irrational behavior.

    A mind which covers its own tracks, works like JPEG compression. The picture of a dog gets compressed and compressed again, until the original image is lost “in the translation” and we are left with our own interpretations, based on false data. The picture now shows us a cat, a tree, a car or whatever we BELIEVE it shows.
    The problem is not that we don’t have the original picture anymore, the problem is, that we end up “rationalizing away” problems related to the loss of (crucial) data, by claiming that we know the right answers, no matter the data.
    As an analogy, from the “right” perspective, a cloud looks like a dog, the Eiffel Tower or has the shape of a heart.

    Self-reflection therefore is not analyzing the complete “image” of your psyche, self-reflection is about finding out, what your perspective is (in order to find the mistakes you make in analyzing the data BASED ON YOUR PERSPECTIVE, or finding out what data is missing, that you thought was “there”).

    The perspective sets the “norms” though and this creates a loop.

    “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” – Benjamin Franklin

  • @Kevin

    It seems to me that we often label those who have an accurate view of the world as “depressed” people.

    You can choose to be unrealistically optimistic or unrealistically pessimistic, but when you choose the “realist” path, people still label you as a pessimist (for some, this is equal to being “depressed”).

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