Why you don’t really know your own mind

One of the things you learn in studying attitudes and public opinion is just how little most people understand what they believe.  Public opinion polls can be great with simple questions, “who will you vote for?” “do you approve of President Obama?” etc., but when we start asking questions like “why do you oppose Obamacare?” “why do you support Donald Trump?” “what should we do about the civil war in Syria?” the answers get pretty meaningless?  Why– because people are pretty horrible at really understanding what they believe.  This Alex Rosenberg essay in the NYT offers the most compelling explanation for why this is that I have yet seen.  Really fascinating stuff:

Introspection, “the mind’s eye,” assures us with the greatest confidence that it is the best, in some cases the only authority on how the mind works, because we all think it has direct, first person access to itself. We’re all very confident that we just know what’s going on in our own minds, from the inside, so to speak…

In fact, controlled experiments in cognitive science, neuroimaging and social psychology have repeatedly shown how wrong we can be about our real motivations, the justification of firmly held beliefs and the accuracy of our sensory equipment. This trend began even before the work of psychologists such as Benjamin Libet, who showed that the conscious feeling of willing an act actually occurs after the brain process that brings about the act — a result replicated and refined hundreds of times since his original discovery in the 1980s…

Despite these assurances from philosophy, empirical science has continued to build up an impressive body of evidence showing that introspection and consciousness are not reliable bases for self-knowledge. As sources of knowledge even about themselves, let alone anything else human, both are frequently and profoundly mistaken… [emphases mine]

After a certain point in the evolutionary past, organisms began needing to predict whether others posed threats in order to protect themselves, and later needed to coordinate to attain outcomes not achievable alone. This environment strongly selected for mind reading. Had variation in cognitive abilities not hit on this adaptation, puny creatures like us would never have survived in the face of savanna megafauna.

 Mind reading, even in our own hands, is a very imperfect tool: We have to go on others’ behavior (including verbal behavior). We can’t really tell with much precision exactly what others believe or want, because we can’t get inside their heads. So our predictions are often pretty vague and frequently false. Like other Darwinian adaptations, mind reading is an imperfect, “quick and dirty” solution to a “design problem.” It was just good enough that, equipped with this theory of mind, we managed to gradually climb to the top of the food chain. We were able to do so in large part because once mind reading was in place human language, which requires it, became possible…
Most important, there is compelling evidence that our own self-awareness is actually just this same mind reading ability, turned around and employed on our own mind, with all the fallibility, speculation, and lack of direct evidence that bedevils mind reading as a tool for guessing at the thought and behavior of others…
Of course we have a lot more sensory data — images and silent speech instead of visual experience and heard speech — to go on in trying to figure out our own desires and beliefs than what other people’s behavior reveals about what is going on in their minds. That’s part of what makes for the illusion that we know our own minds so much better. But the difference is only the amount of data, not its quality or source. We never have direct access to our thoughts. As Peter Carruthers first argued, self-consciousness is just mind reading turned inward.
Personally, I find this concept pretty mind-blowing.  This is definitely going to impact how I think about my own mind and what I think I know.
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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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