Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Introspection and Becoming Who You Want to Be

So I've been reading this book about the adaptive unconscious (Strangers to Ourselves, by Tim Wilson) and it says that introspection is not necessarily the best way to get a hold of your unconscious thoughts and feelings. The analogy Wilson alludes to was to compare your mind to a a giant cave; you only have a flashlight and archaelogical tools to explore the mind with. But apparently there are some deep, dark places in your mind that no amount of archaelogical work can dig up.

[Note: this is a long entry...]


(For example, understanding how your eye is filtering out the light and all the images that are hitting you. How the information travels to your brain is being worked on unconsciously, as in you are unaware of how its being done. But can you access that? Probably not!)

Shining a Flashlight in a Dark Cave

So let's say you believe introspection can uncover everything, well since you have access to only limited information, you have to do a significant amount of "construction" or make-believe, in order to connect the dots with what you can identify. And that could result in a lot what you believe to be true through introspection to be completely false, because you have no idea and you have no way of knowing, but you just make it up so that the story makes sense. You are creating falsehoods that you then believe.

That's sort of scary isn't it? Its like doing more thinking and thinking isn't going to help you figure it out (it being anything!) In fact, this introspection could just lead you astray.

But the author doesn't seem to be against using external methods to try to figure out what your unconscious thinks. For example, sometimes people realize something when others around them point it out to them. Because others will notice, hey you're not really in love your boyfriend. But you think you really are. When they point it out, you realize, hey you aren't really in love with him!

Its like how its said that roommates are the best predictors of whether a couple will stay together or break up, because the roommate(s) have no vested interest in the situation. They are far more accurate then parents or the couple themselves...

In the book, Wilson also gives the example of people saying they want this or that in an house, but when they actually go out and look at houses, it becomes clear that they have emotional reactions to something far different from what they stated they wanted. And that, eventually, is what they go with.

Or how in marketing studies, people will say they are likely to do x or y, when actually they are not really likely to do it at all. People don't know themselves.

But, I think that just emphasizes to me the importance of gut feeling. Like, going with your instinct and how you just feel about something, unconsciously. (Although apparently, your physical reactions can be affected by something external like being on a perilous bridge and mistaking the heightened heart rate for sexual attraction to a beautiful girl.)

However, its important to consider: is it possible that people can introspect too much, to the point at which they construct a false picture of their feelings?

I feel like I've been using my unconscious mind my whole life though. At least trying to direct it to do things from my conscious mind.. for example, when I wanted to improve my reading comprehension when I was studying for standardized tests, I would just read a little every day and learn through osmosis. Or I would write lists of goals, knowing I would forget them, and lo and behold years later, a lot of the goals would be accomplished.

False Constructions

So the book says when people are asked to construct lists explaining why about something, why they are dating someone, why they like a certain politician, they can do it easily, but often they end up believing in the accuracy of what they have written (even if it is actually not very accurate) and it results in them believing something false. As in, these are the reasons I like my house (when in fact the reasons stem from something very different.)

Sigh, how often do I make lists when I am trying to make decisions? How often do I overanalyze and do pro's and con's. Is it just leading me astray? Ack!

Goeth stated

"He who deliberates lengthily will not always choose the best."


People who go by their gut, unanalyzed feelings will be more accurate or correct.

So maybe I should make snap decisions based on my gut feeling.

What would I decide today?

Gather as Much Information as Possible, Let Your Unconscious Do the Rest

But now the author states, you should gather as much information as possible, to allow "our adaptive unconscious to make a stable, informed evaluation rather than an ill-informed one".

Hmm... sounds hard. How do you know if the information you've gathered is correct? But maybe its just spending time with something or someone and assessing your feelings (good or bad, simple question) and just going with that.

"The trick is to gather enough information to develop an informed gut feeling and then not analyze that feeling too much"


Hmmmmmm.. How can I apply this to myself? My life?

The point is a lot of the information is processed by our adaptive unconscious, and we can't break apart and understand how that process is working, similar to how we can't figure out how our eye is working.

"We should let our adaptive unconscious do the job of forming reliable feelings and then trust those feelings, even if we cannot explain them entirely."


But.. if you are knowledgeable about the topic you are analyzing, then the process of analyzng reasons is not necessarily harmful. It might just lead you to list reasons that match your feelings.

How do you know if you're knowledgeable? But the author says knowledgeable people do not seem to gain anything by analyzing reasons.

The rule is:

"if people are not very knowledeable about the topic they are analyzing, it is an exercise best avoided - at least in the way we have studied it, whereby people sit down by themselves and think about why they feel the way they do."


But you know, I don't spend all this time thinking about why I feel the way I do. I just want to identify how I feel in general!! And... understand what I want better.

You can also try imagining a future situation well enough that the feelings it would invoke are actually experienced.

The book says that ruminating about a problem is to think about one's feelings and their causes repetitively without taking action to improve one's situation. This leads to a negative, self-defeating pattern of thought that makes matters worse, especially when people are in bad moods to begin with (how true this IS!!!)!)

Decide Who You Want to Be and then believe it and BE IT

Another thing the book brings up that is interesting is the extent to which expectations or beliefs result in realities. If you believe it is true, even if it wasn't true, it will become true. For example, teachers that were told certain students had extraordinary talents (even though they didn't actually).. at the end of the year, those students did indeed become more extraordinary in comparison to the rest of the class (their IQ's improved more).

So people who believe in themselves more will persist longer at difficult tasks and succeed in accomplishing difficult tasks.

It is true that your belief in yourself is a strong driver for how you ultimately do.

Interesting story about Einstein:

"Albert Einstein had an inauspicious beginning to his academic career: at age sixteen he failed an entrance examination to an engineering school. Instead of giving up, he continued his schooling, applied again, and was finally admitted. No one was particularly impressed by his accomplishments at the engineering school; when he graduated in 1900 he failed to receive an job offers. He finally accepted a temporary position as director of the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, where he stayed for seven years. It was there that he wrote his first articles on relativity theory, in his spare time, eventually earning a doctorate from the University of Zurich in 1905.


Behavior change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings.

In order to become something, decide you want to be it and then do it. Do the behavior until you become it. If you can become possessed with the idea that you are doing it, and look as though you are, the psychological effect is astonishing.

So if I want to be a neat person, then I have to do it. Be neat. Do it little by little. Organize my clothes, clean things up. Just change your behavior and then you will start to believe that you are indeed naturally neat or outgoing or happy or whatever.

"Little steps can lead to big changes, however, and all of us have the ability to act more like the person we want to be."