Illusion Series 3: The Illusion of Knowing Our Own Minds

by Don Berg
(Portland, OR, USA)

In this third installment we visit our knowledge of our own minds. Do we really know how our own minds work? We are very good at thinking and reflecting on how we think, but do our ideas about how we think actually accord with the reality of our behavior and it's influences?

Here's an interview article from Scientific American, two collections of psychological research articles and several video presentations, including one by philosopher Daniel Dennett, that all show that we are not very knowledgeable about our own minds, after all.

The Scientific American interview is with Robert Burton, a scientist who studies the certainty bias. This interview is a good cautionary tale about how our minds are wired to create feelings of certainty about unconscious thought processes that need to be subjected to verification whenever possible. The research is clear that taking our hunches, gut feelings and intuitions too seriously will lead us to make mistakes, but they are generally still reasonably good enough guides when we cannot verify what they are telling us.

In this TED talk we visit the realm of memory and how we do not realize how unreliable our memories are. This illusion has tragic real world consequences because of how our legal system has assumed that memory is accurate.

Here is a TED talk by Social Scientist Dan Ariely who was motivated to study our ability to make moral choices because of the painful way in which the nurses at the hospital burn unit he spent several years in changed his bandages every day.

The PsyBlog collection What Everyone Should Know About Their Own Minds: Six Introspective Insights from Psychology brings together a variety of experimental results that further demonstrate that our own ideas about our minds are sometimes unreliable. In particular the fourth article presents experiments that involved no deception on the part of the experimenters and yet show very clearly that we are often unable to detect factors of a situation that influence our actions.

Finally, I refer you to the Illusion Category at the Situationist Blog. The Situationist Blog is entirely dedicated to reporting on scientific insights into how situational factors are often more influential than we give them credit for. The opposite view, which tends to be the dominant way of thinking, is known as dispositionism, the idea that the prime causes of our behavior are stable, internal character traits. In many of the most important issues of our times relying on dispositionism leads to very poor analysis and ineffective plans of action to counter the causes of social and psychological problems. Situationist Founder Harvard Law School Professor Jon Hanson gave an introductory lecture about (summary here) situationism in terms of "individual free choice" and how we may be more like a volleyball, the one bounced around, rather than one doing the bouncing.

What all these resources point to is a new insight that needs to inform our understanding of our own minds. This insight is summarized by Daniel Dennett in his 2003 TED talk in which he set out to show us that we are not experts on our own consciousness.

Here's a video about change blindness that gives a nice explanation and provides a special insight as well:

To top it all off here's a short video that explains change blindness and shows people in an actual change blindness experiment and failing to observe what appears to those in the know as an obvious change in their situation.

Illusion Series:

1: Literal Illusions

2: Illusions of Knowing The World

3: The Illusion of Knowing Our Own Minds

4: Illusions of Evil

5: Illusions of Good

6: Illusions About Our Global Society

Click here to post comments

Return to Attitude Science.