Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Illusions of Self-Knowledge: Findings and Benefits

How well do you really know yourself?

Have you ever discovered with surprise that the type of movie you hate was actually interesting; the sushi you would never try was delicious; or the cruise you resisted was really a blast?

Have you ever thought that if anyone had told you what you had to face yesterday, last month or this whole year, you would have said, “No Way, I can’t do that.”girl on the train

You are not alone.

Most of us pride ourselves on the belief that we know ourselves.

We go to work each day believing we know how to do our jobs; we know what people think of us; and what we would do in certain situations. While much of this is likely true, the reality is that no one has a lock-down on self-knowledge…

In his book, Mindwise:How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want, Nicholas Epley draws upon his own and prior research to consider that we tend to overestimate our ability to know what others are thinking and what we think we know about ourselves.

As you will see in the results of two fascinating studies discussed by Epley, there is often a disconnect between what we think we know about ourselves and how we actually behave or feel.

The Ten Thousand Mile Trip

  • At the time of the first study conducted in the 1940’s between the wars, there was considerable discrimination against Asians. At that time, Stanford sociologist, Richard LaPiere set out on a journey across the U.S. with a young Asian couple, who thought they were just seeing the country. At each stop, be it a hotel or restaurant, LaPiere wondered if he would meet resistance on checking in or being served. At times, he had the couple ask for services themselves. At other times they approached the situation as a group. Out of 251 establishments they were refused ONLY ONCE.
  • Six months later LaPiere sent a letter to each of the clerks at each of these establishments explaining that he might be coming through the town with an important Chinese gentleman and would the hotel or restaurant be willing to accommodate them…91% of the hotels and 92% of the restaurants said “ NO.”
  • What? Essentially, people openly admitted to being racist despite the fact that they had behaved very differently when the situation with real people presented itself.
  • In some ways, the results raise the question of whether we narrowly and rigidly define ourselves without accounting for variables that may change what we do and expand who we are.

The Daily Commute

In another study conducted by Nicholas Epley and his colleague, Juliana Schroeder, he recognized that although studies show that social contact keeps us happy and healthy, when it comes to the daily commute, most of us do not turn to speak with the person next to us. Deciding to survey people in a Chicago train station where Nicolas Ebley commuted, the researchers conducted a survey in which they asked commuters which would they prefer: to sit alone and enjoy their solitude; talk to the person sitting next to them; or do whatever they normally did.

Consistent with what he observed everyday (what most of us probably do) the vast majority reported they would least prefer to speak to the person next to them.

In a follow-up experiment in the same train station with the same populations of commuters, Epley next randomly assigned commuters (willing to receive a reward card) to sit alone and “ enjoy their solitude;” speak to the person next to them; or “ do whatever you normally do” on their daily commute.

Surprisingly and in direct contrast to what they predicted, those commuters who spoke to the person next to them reported having the MOST pleasant trip and those “ enjoying their solitude,” reported having the LEAST pleasant trip!

The results did not come at the cost of productivity – as there were no differences reported in the groups; nor were there differences found in personality types of the commuters, indicated by a questionnaire they had filled out.

What does this mean?

“The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself” Miguel de Cervantes.

  • We need to strive to acquire self-knowledge because it is central to our physical and psychological well being; but it is not a static body of information we learn in a given way.
  • Recognition of our illusion of knowing self as reflected in research findings in which we act, feel or behave differently than we predict is not a reason for self-doubt but an opportunity to consider self-knowledge as a dynamic process that continues to unfold much as our life unfolds at different times and in different circumstances.
  • What if the discrepancy between what we thought we would do or feel and what we actually do or feel is a starting point of curiosity for more self-knowledge? Our unexpected reactions may be the ones that teach us the most about ourselves.
  • The surprise that we make it through life’s daily challenges or even that we have survived unimagined trauma and hardship is not without stress and pain but it is the fabric of what helps us to know “ I can handle things.” “ I know how to problem solve.” “ I can get a report out under stress.” “ I can survive.”
  • Such survival may invite us to consider that Post-Traumatic Growth is not just reflected in an altered world-view but an altered self-view.

Could the most important self-knowledge we acquire about ourselves be that sometimes we just can’t know?

Could it be that despite the warnings not to speak with strangers and the tendency to seek solitude in the midst of crowded trains—you just might enjoy the option of speaking to the person next to you? You may be surprised.

“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” Albert Einstein


Listen to Nickolas Epley discuss “Do We Really Have a Sixth Sense?” on Psych Up on Cosozo Radio or your IPhone podcast Sunday 6/22/14