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Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson

It’s a commonly held belief that introspection is the way to greater self-knowledge. Wilson believes there is a world of judgements, feelings, and motives that introspection cannot reveal.

Unconscious memory

A patient with amnesia (the inability to make new conscious memories) was greeted by her doctor with a handshake every morning. One morning, the doctor concealed a pin in his hand, pricking her. The next day, when he went to shake her hand, she recoiled, but did not know why when asked.

Doing before knowing

Children are especially likely to act on automatic pilot, with their adaptive unconscious guiding their behavior in sophisticated ways before they are aware of what they are doing or why they are doing it.

This makes it difficult to study the development of the mind in children. Most studies of cognitive development rely on self-reporting, even when studies of children. Because the conscious system develops more slowly than the non-conscious one, self-reports can be misleading.

For example, children three to five years old have demonstrated non-conscious knowledge of the discounting principle, despite not exhibiting conscious knowledge of the principle until the age of seven or eight.

Knowing how we will feel

Whatever our dreams, we all tend to think that we would be significantly happier if they were to come true.

To achieve long-term happiness, we have to know the right things to wish for. We have to make the correct affective forecasts, predictions about our emotional reactions to future events.

Affective forecasts are crucial for big decisions: what job to take, who to marry, where to move. It is often not enough to know what our initial reaction to these decisions will be. We’ll also need to know how long our reaction will last. Our affective forecasts often involve a durability bias, a tendency to overestimate the duration of reactions to future emotional events.

I see undergraduates striving for careers that will pay them lots of money but doom them to mind-numbing daily routines (tax law comes to mind, but that might just be me). The second kind of life is that of a struggling artist, a social worker who loves to make a difference in people’s lives, or, I suppose, a tax attorneys who are really turned on by the latest changes in Roth IRAs. Daily absorption is more important than the paycheck at the end of the month, as long as that paycheck covers our basic needs.

Suffering by comparison

The first meal we eat at a fancy three-star restaurant is wonderful. But after eating at a lot of fancy restaurants, we change our standard of comparison. The sad fact is that there meat be a cost to extremely pleasurable experiences. They are wonderful when they occur, but they give us a new reference point against which all future experiences are compared, and many of them will suffer by that comparison.

Finding meaning through introspection

Compared with people in a control condition, those who write about emotional experiences report better moods, get better grades in college, miss less work, show improved immune function, and visit doctors less. Writing about emotional experiences is distressing in the short run but has quite positive long-term effects.

Why does this work? One common theory is that hiding or suppressing negative emotional experiences can lead to stress. However, there is not much evidence that writing about emotional experiences is beneficial due to lowering inhibition: people who wrote about events they had already discussed with others saw similar benefits to those whose wrote about events they had kept secret.

Are you influenced by advertising?

The failure to recognize the power of advertising makes use more susceptible to it, though, because we are likely to lower our guard while watching commercials or fail to avoid them altogether. Consequently, we can be influenced in unwanted ways without being aware that we are being influenced. The author calls this “mental contamination,” because our minds can unknowingly become “polluted” with information we would rather not have influence us.

Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others

There are many pitfalls with assessing ourselves through introspection. Our theories of ourselves are often misguided, under the false assumption that self-knowledge means we know ourselves best.

Another approach to assessing ourselves is through the “look glass self,” seeing ourselves in how others view our personalities, preferences, and behaviors. Wilson encourages us to adapt this “reflected appraisal” as part of our self-concept, especially if we wish to perceive the nature of our non-conscious selves that cannot be perceived through introspection.

The take-away

We should strive to act like the person we want to be, by taking small steps. By doing so, we will become the person we want to be.