The Failures of Introspection The Stumbling Block to Self-Knowledge

Thinking Man

On our journey towards self-knowledge, our first impulse is often to turn inward, introspect and self-reflect. We give great weight to our introspections. Most of us are confident that our perceptions of ourselves are more accurate than others’ perceptions of them.1

Yet psychological research tells us that introspection is often a highly inaccurate source of self-knowledge. An over-reliance on introspection trips one up–decreasing performance, reducing decision quality and even undermining self-insight.2 The problems with introspection are threefold:

1) Biases corrupt introspection

Cognitive biases are introspection’s first stumbling block. Significant biases include the inclination to see oneself in a positive and socially desirable way (positivity bias), the tendency for people to interpret events in accordance to their previous beliefs and expectations (perceptual confirmation), and the need for self-consistency.

It is unfortunate that biases training is not part of our education curricula. Many people do not have accurate knowledge about cognitive biases’ effects, and the situations where they are likely to occur. Thus, many fail to correct, or even become aware of these biases. We go through life with rose-tinted glasses glued to our faces, and we often forget that they are there.

The difficulty with introspection is made worse by our frequent misconceptions about ourselves, as we turn our rose-tinted glasses inwards. We often underestimate our own susceptibility to biases and overestimate the amount of control we have over our mental processes. Overconfident and under-prepared, we  often do not see the need to take the appropriate steps to avoid mental errors.3

2) We cannot perceive or correct biases

Even when we are informed and motivated to think clearer thoughts, the architecture of the mind often prevents us from being aware of our mental biases. Many biases work subconsciously, and are undetectable, and thus often uncorrectable, despite our efforts.

These subconscious biases cannot be identified through the lens of introspection, which by definition occurs on the plane of consciousness. Ironically, the inability to detect these unconscious biases lead to people coming away feeling more convinced of their impartiality after attempting to assess their possible bias through introspection.4

Even if we become aware of our skewed judgments, we find it hard to determine the specific level by which the bias had affected us. We thus often fail to readjust our views by the proper amount. Those who become aware of possible biases tend to over-correct their judgments. Alternatively, people may underestimate the effects of biases, especially those biases that correspond with their prior expectations, and thus under-correct their judgments.3

3) We cannot penetrate our unconscious

Yet our biggest barrier may be that much of our minds are inaccessible, hidden in the unconscious. Even if we could be unbiased in our introspections, we will still be unable to access certain mental processes and attributes. We play on the surface of the water, without knowing how deep the ocean goes.

A clearer definition of the ‘unconscious’ is needed here: I am not referring to the Freudian concept of repression—mainstream psychology has long moved away from that.

Instead, many researchers adopt the idea of the adaptive unconscious.6 These processes are not unconscious due to Freudian repression; they are unconscious due to the architecture of the mind. Like a good delegator, the mind assigns certain processes to the unconscious, so that it is able to function more efficiently and quickly.5

An intuitive example of this process would be our visual perceptions, where much of the process of disambiguating, identifying and reacting to external objects is fast, effortless and unconscious.

The sacrifice we make for our mind’s efficiency is that we cannot access the processes that were delegated to the unconscious. When we try to peek into the murky depths of our unconscious through introspection, instead of accessing the desired body of knowledge, we often end up making up information that is drawn from previous beliefs and expectations, like a child seeing faces in the wall.2 

Fixing Introspection

While introspection will forever remained a flawed tool, there are a few things we can do to patch it up. As a start, education about various cognitive biases and logical errors, their effects, the situations where they may occur, and possible corrections will go a long way to help us introspect more expertly.

Another tip for minimizing biases is to make sure we have enough time and mental energy to ‘think’ well. Researchers found that people who had limited time for reflection, or were under cognitive load (i.e. running out of mental RAM) were more likely to display positivity bias.2  We are much better introspecters when we have sufficient time, energy, and focus (i.e. no multitasking).

Nonetheless, as mentioned before, there is a limit to what we can anticipate and correct. We need to avoid underestimating our susceptibility to biases and overestimating the amount of control we has over our mental processes.3

In order to circumvent the barrier posed by unconscious processes, we might instead turn to our immediate sensory and affective experiences—basically, to our emotions and gut feelings, as irrational as they may seem.6

While trying to decipher the reasons behind certain behavior often leads to confabulation, focusing on our immediate emotional reactions instead may serve us better in our quest for self-knowledge, as they are often a more direct reflection of actual attitudes. In the process, we should also be open to inconsistencies between our gut feelings and our preconceived, and seemingly rational, notions.

Nonetheless, a single observer with only a few faulty tools in her toolkit will produce dubious data. We need to expand our toolkit, our methods towards self-knowledge. Look forward to future articles on the subject.

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  1. Some advances have been recently made in terms of “defining” the unconscious. Looks like humans have two information processing systems: the rational-cognitive and the experiential. The former processes concepts and, as I have recently suggested, the experiential processes percepts. By definition, percepts cannot be conceptualized (i.e., put into words) because they occur prior to concept formation. For example, no one can describe their subjective experience of the color blue, or the smell of coffee, or the sound of middle “C” on a piano. We can talk about what else they are similar to but we cannot describe them as they are (i.e., percepts). Yet, we process percepts directly – driving our car, pulling our covers up at night – all without engagement of the rational-cognitive system of “thinking.” I suggest perceptual awareness is our unconscious. Insights occur when the results of perceptual processing, which we can’t know is going on because it’s not conceptual, hit our rational-cognitive system. Then, we newly “understand” something that has been worked on by the other system.

    I’ve got a paper out in J. Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics (Dec 2014) that alludes to this. I have another paper under review right now that describes it in detail. I have also suggested the placebo response comes from the differences in these two systems. It may also be that spirituality – a sense of “knowing” – may be awareness of the perceptual system without an ability to express what it’s all about.

    • David

      Very interesting! Relates to the dual process theory, which my friend scolded me for not including in this post. Fascinating, to think how consciousness works. Maybe in another post?

  2. Dorothy

    I am having difficulty accepting your assertions in #2 and 3 that “we cannot penetrate our unconscious” and cannot correct our biases. I do believe that the vast majority of our thoughts, emotions, and behavior are on “autopilot” and driven by our subconscious, and we are not consciously aware of it. However, I have found ways to access subconscious biases and drivers, mainly through temporarily suspending control from my conscious mind, and shifting my focus instead on my body, my senses, and surrendering to my “higher” consciousness. It is the age-old Mind-Body-Spirit paradigm – you can’t just focus on only one of them (i.e. the conscious mind, or the spirit). They are all equally important parts of our selves and need to respect one another. An example might be something like this: I am feeling anxious, so I check in with my body to see where I am feeling that. I am feeling it in my throat, which is constricted and my breathing has become shallow. So I ask my body to feel more deeply into these sensations and try to notice what forms, colors, smell, sounds, images are associated with these sensations – where was I when I felt this before. Then I wait and get a memory – usually from childhood, or some very challenging moment in my past. Then I ask my higher self (my gut or my intuition) if this feels accurate, and further allow more subconscious thoughts and emotions associated with it to come up. Then I bring the conscious brain back into the picture and ask it what it needs in order to feel better about that memory/situation so that it can change its perceptions and function in a healthier way. It sounds like a complicated process, but after doing it a few times, it speeds up and becomes very accessible. And you don’t need to be in deep meditation in order to do this. You just need to be present, undistracted, and surrendering to the process. Before I learned this procedure, my attempts at introspection had been too focused on my brain and my intellect – and hence not very productive. Then I really focused on meditation/spirit and got a bit too far “out of my body” and hence very ungrounded. But after I was taught this procedure, I was so surprised at how much I had ignored and devalued my body. What I found was that my body was infinitely more accurate than my mind – it couldn’t lie, and neither does my spirit (higher self). It is all about allowing your mind to stop trying to control everything, and to honor and investigate the feelings and emotions that are coming up from your body and your intuition. It has to be a 3-way conversation. My experience has been informed by Body-Centered Psychology, Positive Psychology, and Meditation.
    I just received your newsletter this week and have really enjoyed reading your articles. I wish I too could jump on a bike and travel across the world. Congratulations to you for following your passions and letting your intuition take you to remote corners of the world!

    • David

      Hi Dorothy, thank you for reading, and for your detailed reply! I agree largely with you. The way psychologists have defined introspection is mainly the overly cerebral process you talked about–with its corresponding weaknesses, which you also observed. Researchers definitely advocate focusing on our gut feelings and our bodily reactions as an alternative to this type of introspection, as a way to more “directly” access the unconscious. I’m actually heading off to a 10 day meditation retreat later today, so I’ll be experiencing some of this first hand, intensively.

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