Saturday, March 6, 2010

How well do you know yourself? The limits of introspection

Think back to a recent choice you made -- maybe you were choosing among different posters to put up in your home, and you liked one better than the others.  Now think about why you made that choice, and tell me what it was about that poster that you liked best.  How you do you figure out what motivated your behavior?  Well, you just look inside yourself and describe that inner process.  Surely you would know better than anyone why you do what you do.  Right? 
Not necessarily.  We tend to think that introspection results in accurate self-knowledge, but we often don't have access to our internal processes.  In those cases, we simply make up plausible reasons for our behavior and confidently believe that we have derived these from accurate introspection (this is called the introspection illusion).  Johannson and colleagues, for example, asked people to choose which of two photographs they liked best and then asked them to explain the reasons for their choice.  Unbeknownst to the participants, though, the researchers switched the pictures, so the participants were actually explaining why they liked the picture they hadn't chosen.  Yet, rather than noticing the switch, participants simply confabulated explanations, identifying aspects of the non-preferred photo as the reasons for their choice (e.g., "I liked this one because he has blue eyes," when in fact they had chosen a picture of a brown-eyed person). 

[By the way, if you are positive that you would notice the switch of the pictures, check out this video and this video, both of which illustrate inattentional blindness. Most people think they would notice the change, but few people actually do.]

 We simply don't have direct access to many of our psychological processes, as they happen rapidly and outside of conscious awareness.  So you may really not know why you do what you do.  But that doesn't stop you from making up some plausible story to explain your behavior.  These stories may then shape what we do, as we strive to be consistent with our perceived motives.  Let's go back to the poster you picked out for your home.  Suppose you made a gut decision; you just picked one you liked without analyzing your reason for choosing it.  Your friend, on the other hand, thought about the options and made a reasoned choice based on conscious thought.  Who is going to be more satisfied with their choice later on?  Chances are, you will be more satisfied than your friend, at least according to studies conducted by Tim Wilson and colleagues.  Wilson's resarch has found that analyzing the reasons for our feelings and behaviors can actually be unhelpful, because we may change our attitudes and behavior to match the story we made up about ourselves. 

No one is claiming that introspection is always inaccurate, but it is clear that we don't have access to all aspects of our inner life.  So what to do?  It seems to me there are a couple of options here.

  • Trust your instincts (sometimes):  Much of this research supports the idea that we are better off going with our gut when we make choices, at least in some situations.  The unconscious processes may be a better match for our real preferences than the carefully-thought-out reasons we craft to explain our choices.  However, there can be costs in following instincts, as well, in that we are prone to biases in our thinking and may make choices that do not meet our broader, long-term goals.  Our gut is not particularly rational, after all, and relying solely on instinct can result in poor choices at times. We may like that car merely because we have seen it in advertisements, not because it is a reliable vehicle.  So, instinct might be useful in guiding decisions at times, but I do not think we should rely on it in all cases. 
  • Don't overthink:  The implication of Wilson's research is that conscious analysis of our feelings and behaviors can result in faulty self-knowledge and impaired decision making.  So clearly, he would argue that we shouldn't overthink our decisions.  Again, though, this needs to be qualified.  There are certainly some decisions that are improved by careful thought, and self-analysis can be helpful at times.  No one is arguing that thinking is always counterproductive, merely that when we are being driven by unconscious cognitive processes, self-reflection can be misleading. 
  • Embrace uncertainty:  When asked why I feel the way I do, I'm quite likely to say "I don't know."  I know this response is frustrating, but I want to be mindful of the limits of my knowledge.   The introspection illusion comes from the fact that we don't know what we don't know. So maybe it would help for us to resist the desire to confabulate and be willing to admit ignorance.  The challenge here is to know when we are gaining accurate self-knowledge through introspection, and when we are confabulating.  Quite frankly, I'm not sure we can tell which is which.  So maybe it's a good idea to live with a certain amount of uncertainty at all times. 
  • Be open-minded:  One way of dealing with our lack of certainty is to strive to be open-minded.  Even when we do have a theory regarding our motives or feelings, we can still be open to other explanations.  In general, though, we aren't terribly open-minded.  We work to maintain our beliefs by searching out and remembering confirming evidence and ignoring or deflecting contradictory evidence.  So being open-minded requires active work on our part to counteract our natural cognitive tendencies.  That doesn't mean we have to throw out our beliefs every time they are challenged, but it does mean we should take extra time to consider contradictory evidence and alternative theories.  So if someone suggests that you might have a different reason for your feelings or behavior, give that idea a chance before you reject it out of hand. 
  • Don't rely on introspection alone:  If there are multiple possible explanations for our behavior, then how can we decide which one is correct?  Rather than just looking inward, we can also examine our responses over time.  If our feelings and behavior don't seem consistent with our conscious explanations, then it is worth re-examining our theories.  When we moved into our house, I had the idea that neutral, off-white walls were ideal, as that gave us the freedom to display any artwork we liked without fear of clashing with the color of the wall.  But every time we have painted one of the rooms a bold, striking color, it makes me happier.  It turns out that my oh-so-reasonable belief that I would prefer neutral paint schemes was just wrong -- it doesn't fit with my real experience and feelings.  So, in keeping with my goal of open-mindedness, I threw out my neutral-paint theory and reshaped my self-image to fit my actual patterns of experience.  Friends and family can also be useful sources of data, particularly insofar as they might recognize patterns that we haven't seen (although their image of us may also be biased). 
In short, introspection is not an infallible source of self-knowledge.  Self-reflection and analysis can produce faulty explanations for our feelings and behaviors, particularly when we are influenced by unconscious processes.  There are some contexts in which self-analysis may lead us to second-guess our instincts and make inauthentic choices.  We needn't throw out introspection altogether, but it behooves us to be aware of its limitations and be less confident in our introspective conclusions.  You may not know yourself as well as you think. 

Note:  This post was prompted by a comment I posted on Katherine A. Cartwright's blog about the role of  introspection in the artistic process.   Check out her blog for terrific intellectual discussions about art. 

Further reading: 

Johansson, P., Hall, L., Sikstr√∂m, S., Olsson, A. (2005). Failure to Detect Mismatches Between Intention and Outcome in a Simple Decision Task. Science 310 (5745): 116–119. PDF

Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Timothy D. (2003). Knowing When to Ask: Introspection and the Adaptive Unconscious, in Anthony Jack, Andreas Roepstorff. Trusting the subject?: the use of introspective evidence in cognitive science. Imprint Academic. pp. 131–140. PDF

Wilson, T. D., Lisle, D., Schooler, J. W., Hodges, S. D., Klaaren, K. J., & LaFleur, S. J. (1993). Introspecting about reasons can reduce post-choice satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 331–339. PDF


  1. Thank you for offering this well-written analysis on introspection. It makes sense, and I'll highlight this post on my blog. Lots to think about here.

  2. Greetings Deborah,

    I came via Katharine's link and I am glad I did.

    This post of yours is very thought provoking and though I wish to add much more, I have not had my morning tea yet. However as to instincts or intuition, though I am sure the dictionary makes a difference between them, I trust. Sadly though, I do not listen to them often enough.

    I shall return.

    Warmest regards,

  3. Thanks for the compliment, Kathy! It was your blog that inspired me to write about it, so thank you for the inspiration.

    Egmont, thanks for stopping by, even before caffeine. I'm honored! :) I agree that instincts and intuition are different, and I used the term instinct imprecisely in this essay. Technically, instincts are innate, built-in response patterns, such as the instinct for birds to fly south for the winter. Intuition refers to rapid, unconscious cognitive processes, which are not innate, but come from years of experience. While intuition feels like an immediate gut-level response, it is really a rapid thought process that we can't easily access consciously. We often use intuition when discussing problem solving or decision making, and the research on introspection would imply that we often have trouble tracking our intuition processes and may well confabulate in those cases.

    “Intuition (is) perception via the unconscious” ~ Carl Gustav Jung

    Intuition is a combination of historical (empirical) data, deep and heightened observation and an ability to cut through the thickness of surface reality. Intuition is like a slow motion machine that captures data instantaneously and hits you like a ton of bricks. Intuition is a knowing, a sensing that is beyond the conscious understanding — a gut feeling. Intuition is not pseudo-science.
    ~ Abella Arthur

    Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I am so glad Katharine pointed out your blog from her blog. This certainly gave me insight on some of the "bad" decisions I've made and some of the ones I was surprised that turned out to be completely on the mark. I'm a follower and fan now!

  5. Hi Deborah! I have found that my greatest defense against confabulation in the process of introspection is to ask my husband. That man can lay it out on the line quicker than lickety split. On the other hand, I won't be giving up introspection just because the process is flawed. I liked the discussion on intuition as mine has served me well.
    Thanks for taking the time to provide your viewpoint and relevant research data.

  6. Hi again, Deborah. I've been re-reading and thinking about this excellent essay and have a question for you if I can figure out how to articulate it. Is it possible that introspection, or self-reflection, occurs mostly when we're challenged by someone else for some reason rather than when everything's going great and we're happy? And, if it is true that an external challenge is the most common stimulus for introspection, and that our confabulations arise from those moments of stress, then the "self" that we construct results from only the challenging times in our lives. And, if that's true, then our self perceptions are really skewed because we don't examine ourselves much when we're happy or successful. Does any of that make sense? I'm really interested in this topic.

  7. Pam - why would your husband know you better than you know yourself? My wife does - but that's besides the point! ;)

    Very thought-provoking post, Deborah. I enjoyed your related comment on Katharine's blog, as well.

    I believe that we make many decisions in a split second, faster than we realize, and spend the rest of the time justifying it rationally. I am skeptical about the process of retrospection for the very reason that you site, that introspection and imagination are so closely intertwined.

  8. Sheila, I'm glad you found my post useful, and that you could connect it with your own life. That's what psychological research should be about! Thanks for stopping by.

    Pam, I know what you mean. Sometimes other people can see me more clearly than I see myself -- and it's useful to have someone you can rely on for honest feedback. I don't think we should give up introspection, as it can provide us with self-knowledge. But I think it's worth taking those insights with a grain of salt and being less overconfident about the accuracy of our introspection. To my mind, once we know about our biases, we can at least try to correct for them. Thanks for visiting my blog and participating in the discussion.

    Kathy, you ask an interesting question, and I'm not sure I can answer it fully. I think you may well be right that we are particularly likely to search for explanations and introspective insights when life is not going as we would wish, although I can't think of any research that directly addresses that issue. Much of the research that I know in this field has relied on the laboratory experiment, which doesn't directly address the naturalistic use of introspection. But it seems to me that we do engage in the search for self-knowledge even when not stressed. We have to account for our behavior to other people -- my friend wants to know why I am so happy today, so I have to come up with an explanation to answer her question. We talk about ourselves to others in casual conversation, in job interviews, in personal ads. Add to that individual differences in introspection -- I have friends who spend quite a bit of time engaging in self-reflection, whereas I spend relatively little time doing so. There is a good deal of research on self-awareness, which is related to the issue of introspection. Self-awareness is when we become focused on the self. Sometimes, we are just cruising along, not thinking about ourselves, but then maybe we see ourselves in the mirror or we are on stage in front of a crowd, and that increases our self-awareness. So, here's what seems plausible to me with regard to introspection. We spend some of our time not introspecting, just immersed in the rich experience of life. But then we encounter something that prompts us for self-knowledge -- we have to explain ourselves to another person, or something unexpected happens, or something bad happens -- and then we are more likely to turn inward to search for an explanation or self-understanding of some kind. I agree that bad events, stress, and confrontation often challenge us to come up with explanations, so in that sense, I think you are right, but I doubt that this is the only prompt for introspection. What do you think?

    Thanks for your comment, Dan. I think you have stated the issue exactly as Wilson and others in this field would. I like the phrase "introspection and imagination are closely intertwined." Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Hi Deborah

    I have quite a few thoughts on this post and would like to put them together in a more articulate flow. This will require a little more reading and time, so for now, I'll just say this: I'm a reflective dude and have been for as long as I can remember. I'm on an ongoing quest for answers concerning self!!! It's part of my personality and I think that is OK. On more than one occasion I've been told to quit thinking so much . The problem with confabulation is it isn't the truth. Logicians know that a truthful inference cannot be deducted from one or more invalid premises. Example:

    My favorite color is blue;

    The face in this poster has blue eyes and the face in the other poster doesn't;

    Therefore I pick the blue eyed poster.

    The fallacy lies in the false premise, My favorite color is blue Because it just so happens my favorite color is red and the blue was confabulated. This results in an erroneous conclusion and sooner or later will surface as not being true. So It's back to introspection to discover the real color for me is red. This loop could go on forever if one continued to confabulate, however, I don't believe I confabulate. I will explain why in another post. I have gone beyond the well beaten path of introspection and have at several times in my life plunged head first into the abyss. Again, I'll elaborate soon. Suffice it to say for now that I believe I do know some things that I didn't know.


  10. Thanks for a substantive response to my query, Deborah! I could only respond from personal experience, which is that I tend to be introspective mostly when stressed by external challenges, like if I've offended someone or done something that someone else disagrees with. When things are great I tend to be extroverted and more concerned with other people's issues. I can't say that I'm always either in one state or the other, however.

    Like Stan, I've been taken to the brink many times in my life through illness, financial hardship, and other disasters. For me, however, those were times of self-reflection but also confabulation. I had to construct a new "Kathy" to move on and that meant slightly distorting reality to become who I wanted to be. Since I don't believe in the supernatural or anything "divine" it was up to me to deal with my own humanity. And, I'm very happy with that!!

  11. Thanks for your comment, Stan. I'm not trying to argue against introspection or the quest for self-knowledge. I think it is admirable (and often helpful) to seek to know oneself, and I am a big believer in thinking about things. (I, too, have been told to stop thinking so much.) But I am convinced by the research that introspection can be inaccurate, even when we are very confident of our self-knowledge. As you say, the problem is confabulation, and the question is whether we would be able to discover our error through more introspection, or whether we would continue to persist in the inaccurate belief. I'd like to believe that we would eventually figure out our error and come to a more accurate understanding of the self, but the research on memory and belief indicate that we can hold onto inaccurate beliefs indefinitely, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Most people are quite confident in the accuracy of their beliefs, even when they are inaccurate. So the challenge is to figure out how to identify confabulations and correct them -- my suggestions are based on that idea (being open-minded, looking for other types of evidence). I look forward to more of your thoughts on these issues. Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

    To both Kathy and Stan, I'm sorry to hear of your past difficulties, but glad you made it through. It takes great strength to maintain our sense of self through adversity, and sometimes that means reinventing ourselves.

    I had a couple of other thoughts on the idea that external challenges would increase self-focus, Kathy. Negative mood (depression, sadness, anxiety) tend to increase self-focus. So if you've offended someone and that makes you sad or anxious, that would tend to direct your attention more toward your self. Self-awareness can be aversive, particularly if we become aware of how we are not living up to our ideal or ought selves, so self-focus can also increase feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, disappointment, etc. Happy moods are less likely to increase self-focus, so your experience of looking outward at others when you are in a good mood is consistent with the research.

    Your experience of distorting reality to become who you wanted to be reminds me of Freud's discussion of defense mechanisms, in which we distort reality to avoid confronting information that threatens our sense of self. Freud argues that we all engage in these defense mechanisms to some extent, so you are in good company. :) Thanks again for your contribution to the discussion -- you helped me further clarify the issues here.

  12. Fascinating post and comments. I think that explaining your thoughts to others is different from explaining them to yourself. In a way, all communication is a form of self-analysis. This post is a reflection of my thoughts now, after reading the comments above. Commentary by someone on an external event (like asking a witness to a crime to describe it) is just as prone to errors as commentary on their own reason, so, is all communication more or less flawed than the specific description of internal processes? I think they are equally prone to errors. So, as far as truth goes it doesn't matter how introspective a person is. Take that Descartes!

  13. Mark, I certainly agree that descriptions of external events (e.g., eyewitness statements about a crime) are also prone to error. There is quite a bit of research by Elizabeth Loftus on the memory errors involved in eyewitness testimony. Self-analysis suffers from the same issues of cognitive bias and memory error as descriptions of external events, but is further complicated by the fact that we simply have no conscious access to many of our internal processes. That is, we can at least see the crime, but we literally can't "see" some of our automatic cognitive processes. In addition, I think that most people assume that introspection is infallible, and there is, of course, no way of directly corroborating most introspective insights. So each of us are assumed to be experts on our own inner life, which is not always the case. But you are correct to point out that there are cognitive biases and errors that influence commentary of all sorts, both self and other.

    Thanks for stopping by and participating in the discussion!