Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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I wanted to start this post with a simple question:
How well do you know yourself?
…then I realized that it's not a simple question at all. After I applied it to myself I realized that I can know some things about myself (i.e. that I like the colour blue, and that I’m open to new experiences) that are almost certainly true, but not necessarily part of ‘who I am’. But if I try to drill down to my self-concept – those parts of me that I identify as making up the whole of me – it begins to get much harder. I like to think I’m creative, that I’m driven, that I am disciplined; but then I have to ask myself is this true?
A recent publication (which found its way into my inbox) by Vazire and Carlson (2011) suggests (consistent with the past research of others) that we’re not always very good at such things.
The paper, published in the most recent Current Directions of Psychological Science, is a theoretical piece that suggests
1) that self-report measures and introspection are not all they’re cracked up to be, and
2) that reports from others regarding the self can be very useful and more accurate than those provided about oneself.
I won’t spend too much time on their argument; instead I’m going to pull out the day-to-day interesting bits.
First things first – we’re probably all lying to ourselves about ourselves all the time (about some things). It’s useful and desirable for me to think about myself as a driven person. It can motivate me to do things that I might otherwise procrastinate on and it makes me feel better about myself when I am procrastinating (sure, I can write a blog now… I’ll do all my uni work this afternoon…).
Second, we do it selectively. When I say I’m open to new experiences I’m probably pretty accurate. But when I say that I’m creative, intelligent, or charismatic, then I’m probably a little off. Intuitively you can probably see a difference between those kinds of things, but Vazire and Carlson (2011) break it down thusly:
So you’ve got Low-Vis, Low-Evaluative things like being Anxious. This is something I can see, but something you can’t see so well, but that's ok, no-one really cares (there’s no social cost / benefit). This is why I can say I’m open to new experiences, and probably be accurate.
Then there’s High-Vis, Low-Evaluative things, like being talkative. Why are we not so good at judging these Hi-Vis things? Vazire et al (2010) propose that, while we have greater access to Low-Vis behaviours (and as a result are more accurate), other have more access to High-Vis things, and as a result, are more accurate than we are. So being talkative is obvious to all, but not necessarily associated with a social cost / benefit, nor do we (usually) get judged for it. This is not really a big deal, it's the difference between this and the final comparison that's the kicker...
Then there’s Low-Vis, High-Evaluative stuff. That’s me when I like to think I’m creative or driven. These things are not hugely obvious to all, but are associated with social costs and benefits – or at the very least, social judgements. As you can see people are poor at estimating their own levels of intelligence (and creativity [not shown, but reported in Vazire and Carlson (2011)]), yet others are much more accurate in their perceptions of you. The real key is the difference between self-and-other, not necessarily between self-between-conditions.
Vazire and Carlson (2011) go on to point out that not everyone is the same at making these inferences about an individual. My girlfriend, for instance, knows me very well and is more accurate about some of my low-vis characteristics than I am, yet she too is subject to certain biases. Complete strangers, in some contexts, are very good at estimating some kinds of things too, but again, suffer from certain problems (see a related post here).
Given that Vazire and Carlson (2011) are speaking about the need to make self-report more robust I feel they miss a really important question.
Why are we bad at this, and more importantly, why are we selectively bad at this?
So I go around thinking I’m creative and driven, others thinking they’re charismatic and witty, others yet thinking they’re honest, or generous, or insightful. Yet why are we wrong about it, and, why are we getting away with it (or even, are we getting away with it?). Why could such a system of blind-spots and self-deception emerge in behaviour, why (or how) could this possibly be useful?
In a recent publication by von Hippel and Trivers (2011), on deception and self-deception, they claim that by the act of deceiving oneself about [own’s own] positive qualities, individuals are more able to display confidence than would otherwise be warranted, thereby enabling them to benefit or advance socially or materially. Self-deception, they claim, may facilitate deception in others in a general sense. The act of deceiving ourselves minimizes (or eliminates) the chances of us exhibiting qualities inconsistent with our deception, and affords us confidence to act in a way consistent with out own (inaccurate) self-concept.
Think about it – let’s say I consider myself charismatic and witty. First off, those are traits which are informed by the perceptions of others (hopefully, a more accurate perception) (Vazire and Carlson, 2011). And generally speaking, we like charismatic and witty people. But being charismatic or witty requires social chutzpah – be that confidence in oneself regarding these abilities, or a recognition by others that you embody these qualities (a reputation, for instance). If I’m not confident I can toss out witticisms in a charming manner, I won’t. I don’t risk embarrassment, but I don’t tempt success either (e.g. earning a positive reputation for being charismatic, reinforcing my self-concept, etc). However, if I do think I have the ability to be the shining light of the party, than I will attempt to be so. If I convey my confidence expertly (or let my reputation precede me) then I am more likely to get away with (potentially) rude interruptions of conversation (with witticisms), or with risqué jokes that others may find appealing.
Now if your self-deception is too great you may fall flat on your face. People will interpret you wittisicms as interruptions, and your risqué jokes as offensive. But if the balance is right (your self-deception is balanced such that it enhances your self-concept, and bootstraps the opinion of other regarding yourself) then you can pull it off with optimal outcomes.
Here’s a couple of quick examples right off the top of my head.
The first is of the confident and witty variety:
You buy tickets to a local comedian. You’ve never seen them live, but you’re heard good things from friends and acquaintances. You go along, you have a glass of wine or a beer, and you sit back and laugh yourself stupid. Now, first, you’re letting a reputation influence the way you interact with the comedian; second, you’re responding to the persona that the comedian is putting forth (which is as much a practised act as any punchline); and third, you try to tell the exact same joke the next day and it just isn’t funny. Now you have to ask yourself – Did the context make the joke? Or did the comedian? And by extension, how much of the context did the comedian manufacture. The comedian, I argue, is bootstrapping your opinion of him positively in his favour. You just wouldn't be prepared to laugh if he walked on stage and said 'Yeah, I think this joke's pretty good. My Mum likes it...'
The second is less social, and relates to the Creativity thing I’ve been mentioning:
You walk into an art gallery, pick up a brochure on the current exhibition of Modern Masters, and find your way to the viewing rooms. You know these guys are held in high-regard, and so you spend a bit more time than you ordinarily would looking at these pictures. You identify some of the things in the brochure that are apparently extraordinary, and you may feel a bit more positive about the whole thing. Then you find the most ordinary banality of the day. You also note that it sold for 150 million dollars. The kind of art that, if your niece bought home, you’d damn with faint praise and complain about the state of public schools; but it’s not your niece, and artist you mock is a millionaire. This artist had such confidence in his ability to produce creative, credible work, that he undertook its risky, time-consuming construction, and managed to successfully loan it to a gallery (who believed it was credible and creative) and was paid an obscene sum by another chump who also believed it was credible, and creative. The artist may not have convinced you of his creative genius, but he certainly convinced others. Now if a bum on the street tried to create the same piece of art, he probably couldn’t sell it for a dollar coin; but a paint-streaked alcoholic with utter confidence that his abilities are beyond reproach sells it for a life-changing value.
Jackson Pollock. No. 5, 1948. 1948
Obviously I’m giving examples at the high-end of the spectrum. I could just as easily cite folks I know who shoot high and succeed, and folks who shoot high and fail. I suspect that they're people like like Paris Hilton and Charlie Sheen who seem to have enough people convinced that they’re beautiful and talented that they make metric-volumes of cash. The failures are just that, failures - it's hard to find examples of people who burned-out in just such a way.
So, hell, if my self-deception works enough for me to get a date, to get a job, to get a reference, or to be given a chance, then it paid off. My innacurate introspection was an asset.
The question is, of course, what do we think of ourselves that we are wrong about; what are we unwilling to acknowledge or question, and who can offer a more accurate (and honest) evaluation ... and, if we're getting away with it, do we really want to know?
Vazire, S., & Carlson, E. (2011). Others Sometimes Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (2), 104-108 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411402478
von Hippel, W., & Trivers, R. (2011). The evolution and psychology of self-deception Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34 (01), 1-16 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X10001354
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EEK! This is useless without information as to whether ther was a significant tendency for *over* estimated self-evaluations only or whether *under* estimated self-evaluations are also common. And also what are they indexing it to? How can you come up with an 'accurate' idea of any of these things? Is performance on a test in a lab setting or the judgement of a professional intrinsically more accurate than the evaluation of the people that know someone best?
It's obvious to see how over-inflated views of onself might be beneficial. But that's not the only mischaracterization we can make.
Under-estimates are not common, at least it's not reported as such. Over-estimates, however, are common.
One very clever study used to ascertain an objective baseline in regards to self-perceived attractiveness was in a paper by epley and whitchurch (2008).
participants had a photo taken of them (the objective measure) and then said photo was morphed to appear more attractive or less attractive than they were. Participants were then asked, under a number of conditions, to pick their true image from a line-up of their faces alone, and with distractor faces.
People tended towards the face that was 20% more attractive, significantly.
They also found that tendency to bias upwards was correlated with intrinsic self-attitudes; and that those who were moderately depressed were more accurate (not more negative, more accurate) in their assessment.
There's a bit to fix up with that study, as described here, but it demonstrates a nice way people deviate in their favour from an objective standard.
Underwhat circumstances do you suggest people systematically deviate against themselves?
This is definitely a great thought experiment, although I think you make a great point in the end when you ask if it really matters if you over-estimate yourself if it gives you a sucessful advantage. I guess apart from actually surveying your friends you'd never really know the truth.
My first thought was "what teenage girl does not have a touch of body dismorphic disorder?" But let's stick with a population I'm pretty sure of- say ballet dancers. They systematically deviate to assume that they are more fat than they are (actually, if we can guess anything from what women think their "ideal" weight should be, women are vastly more likely to think they are much more overweight than they are then to assume they are thinner than they really are, and men the inverse... I wonder if that gender trend holds for any of the other deviations? It would certainly fit stereotypes.)
And have you ever even talked with anyone who was severely depressed?
For that matter, read the stereotype threat literature much?
There are lots of groups who systematically deviate against themselves, and some circumstances you can put people in that will influence this. It may be rare in the contexts of the parameters these researchers have looked at in the populations they are testing, but it's not trivial.
And what if the others are wrong? For the high visibility characteristics I may understand, but it's less clear for the low visibility ones.
Also you seem to assume that the "others" evaluation is right. If you have a very discordant character compared to your peers/environment, they may have a different opinion of you than if you move to another place with multiple people that have similar characters to yours. I know that you probably don't want to give value judgment to this research, it's just the way it sound. I would say more than there is a discordance between some external evaluators and your internal evaluation, but you can't really assume that the external evaluation is the correct (even though it may be).
Here's a post I had made previously on the Epley and Whitchurch paper: http://www.labspaces.net/blog/946/Willful_Self_Deception_is_Bliss
It's mostly on topic, and outlines some of the problems with the paper.
@Becca, yes, you're right. A whole host of interacting factors may influence it (as explained into the linked post). They note in the paper that implicit self-esteem is a big predictor in the degree to which one mis-identifies themselves. Since this is a normal sample (yes, it's WIERD, too) most people will err in their favour. Depressed people will, as a result, be more accurate up to a certain point; and likely begin decreasing in accuracy on the other side as their implicit SE decreases. As for body dysmorphic disorder, they're probably skewed too, but it's more interesting that typical adults deviate preferenctially, than it is to know that ill-individual deviate consistent with their symptoms. Not that it's not important, but that it's less interesting.
Yes, I have known depressed individuals. And yes, I know a little about stereotype threat - and it wouldn't surprise me at all to find that priming or comparisons influences one's judgement.
@Yannisguerra - Yeah, interesting point. I mean, someone might accuse me of being 'intelligent' in the context of uni, but no-one would do the same if they saw me try to do something hands-on like build a chair. Even cross-culturally I can imagine this would play out differently. What is x here, may not be x in China, or Africa, or even between more similiar nations - particularly with Low-vis characteristics.