Synopsis: Strangers to Ourselves, Part III

by F.

What follows is my synopsis of Chapters 8-10 of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. This is Part III of III. The first four chapters are summarized here. The next three are here.

8. Introspection and Self-Narratives

Although there are a number of kinds of introspective activities, they have common characteristics. Usually, the activity is described by some sort of metaphor. One metaphor for introspection is the flashlight; another is the archeological dig. Both metaphors share the assumption that the unconscious can be made conscious. But it seems unlikely we can gain direct access to our mental operations: after all, we can’t gain access to how are perceptual system is working. A better metaphor is the self-narrative, in which we construct a biography of ourselves, piecing it together from both inside and outside information.

Introspection is itself a sort of self-narrative built out of limited source information. Everyday introspection is often faulty, even if we try to be scientific using 7-point scales or charts of pros and cons. This doesn’t mean introspection is useless, but it does mean that we should use introspection in certain circumstances and avoid it in others.

There are some dangers to introspection, too. Analyzing reasons can lead to attitude change in a negative direction. In one study, students were asked why their relationship was going the way it was and then to rate it. The controls were not asked this. The students who analyzed the reasons tended to change their attitudes toward the relationship based on the reasons, even though they may not have been accurate and may have instead been based on cultural and personal theories. Further, those who didn’t think of the reasons for why their relationship was going the way it was predicted more accurately the longevity of the relationship. In another study, Students got to choose a poster for their room. Some analyzed why, some didn’t. Those who didn’t were happier with their poster two weeks later.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t collect information. Rather, we should collect enough information to develop an informed gut feeling and then not analyze the feelings too much. Allow the adaptive unconscious to make a stable, informed evaluation.

It isn’t always bad to think about reasons. For instance, it’s not when we are quite knowledgeable about the subject matter we are analyzing. We may come to the “correct” conclusion after analysis, but this analysis doesn’t make us any more likely to make the right choice. Further, the length of time spent analyzing doesn’t make the assessments any better. People bring to mind reasons, then change their attitudes to fit them, and then stick with those attitudes.

So how should we use our adaptive unconscious? Like this: imagine in detail the counterfactual situation and let the adaptive unconscious generate feelings. Then notice them. While not foolproof, this may be better than analysis through introspection.

Introspection should not be confused with rumination. Rumination is “thinking about one’s feelings and their causes repetitively without taking action to improve one’s situation.” This make things worse. Unhappiness and rumination about it leads to more and greater unhappiness.

In contrast to other kinds of introspection, writing about emotional experiences has beneficial effects. According to Pennebaker, creating coherent, well organized stories help us to make sense of things in a more adaptive, objective manner. It may also save us from having to suppress thoughts about a distressing topic. Unexplained events tend to come back to mind. And suppression not only doesn’t work—it often backfires.

Psychotherapy may work by allowing people to construct new narratives about themselves. It appears to be irrelevant which form of therapy is used. And, after all, what therapists do is provide their patients with a new narrative to explain their problems—whatever the psychoanalytic framework is. Those patients who adopt the interpretations offered by the therapists improve the most in therapy. There is probably not one “true story;” many narratives are equally effective.

9. Looking Outward to Know Ourselves

We should use “outside” information as source material for self-biographies. We don’t have privileged access to how our pulmonary system works and so we consult outside information. We should do the same with our psychological system. While we may not be the “average person,” the response of the average person is informative in a probabilistic sense.

One example of learning about ourselves by looking at controlled psychological studies is advertising. People fear subliminal advertising but accept regular advertising. However, the former is almost entirely ineffective while the later is quite effective. Another example is racism. Studies show that we can consciously abhor racism and still appear to hold racist attitudes, as measured by access time and physical signals, such as avoiding physical contact. We can have automatic prejudices.

We may adopt a view of ourselves that becomes obsolete. For instance, we may be shy as a child but grow out of it in college, as people often do. Yet we may still think of ourselves as shy. In such a case, it may be more accurate to use others’ appraisals of us—a reflected appraisal—rather than our own self-theory.

However, there are dangers to using reflected appraisals, too. For one thing, we often misunderstand how others think of us: we sometimes project our self-theory onto others. And people lie. They are unlikely to tell us how greedy we are, for instance. Sometimes reflected appraisals are accurate, but the extent of the accuracy is not that impressive.

While reflected appraisals can be wrong, there are certain situations in which we should probably consider them. First, when an important life decision is at stake. Sure, Einstein failed his engineering entrance exam and was a brilliant physicist. But for every Einstein there are many people who wasted years pursuing careers for which they were ill suited. Second, we should probably consider others’ views when the gap between their appraisal and ours gets large. Generally it’s good to have a positive view of oneself, even if it is inaccurate. However, there are times when this disparity can cause problems for us.

10. Observing and Changing our Behavior

In addition to observing how others see us and reading the psychology literature, we can gain some insight by observing our own behavior carefully. And if we want to change something, we can begin acting like the person we want to be. In many cases, we can know ourselves better by observing what we do the same way we observe others.

But once we start to observe ourselves, we have to take into account biases in how we observe others, such as the fundamental attribution error, which results in our discounting contextual explanation in favor of personality traits as the cause of behavior. Or we may overattribute our actions to the situation. Or we might not take into account a hidden cause of our behavior, as in the Capilano Bridge experiment, or the experiment where students watched the comedy film after having been given epinephrine. But sometimes we can see patters, such as when we fail to hire 3 qualified minority applicants for a job, and instead hire the unqualified woman with huge ta-tas.

But might not the adaptive unconscious be doing the inferring about what we are like based on our behavior? Wouldn’t that screw things up? Maybe. But there’s no real alternative. Instead, we can try to correct for this by doing the self-perception consciously as well, as a check on the adaptive unconscious.

And even if the adaptive unconscious is at work, we can change our unconscious inclinations by changing our behavior and performing the new behavior more frequently. If we do good, we will come to think of ourselves as being good. This promotes a new self-definition as well and may even lead to act automatically in accordance with the new self-definition. “Fake it until you make it,” in the words of an AA slogan. This appears to work with depression: therapy that gets men to be more social can lift their depression.

A satisfying, functional, adaptive self-narrative should be roughly accurate: it should capture the nature of the person’s nonconscious goals, feelings, and temperaments. There must be some correspondence between the person’s adaptive unconscious and the self-narrative. The adaptive unconscious and the conscious mind must be in synch. Also, the self-narrative must be believable to you. Do you buy it? Commit to a coherent self-narrative that corresponds reasonably well to your adaptive unconscious. But be flexible, too, and revise your self-narrative as needed.