By Amy Broadway, researcher at the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research
You’re lunching in the office lounge, and your coworker Daphne is monopolizing the conversation. Whenever someone introduces a topic, she interjects a long anecdote about herself. Phil brings up a movie. Daphne cuts in, talking about a time she saw someone who looks like Tom Hanks at IHOP. Molly mentions her son’s graduation. Daphne follows with 15 minutes about her daughter’s lawyer boyfriend. Daphne is being annoying. You see this. So does everyone else.
But Daphne is oblivious.
Daphne may even think she’s evoking admiration with her conversational skills. She doesn’t know she’s alienating others. Her cluelessness results from blind spots to self-knowledge. While "self-knowledge" has various connotations, I refer to it here in terms of knowledge of one’s personality. Daphne’s interaction style is one thing that constitutes her personality. She doesn’t recognize her negative effect on the group’s conversation, so she experiences a blind spot to self-knowledge. This self-blindness puts her in discord with her coworkers.
As we see in this case, a deficit in self-knowledge can lead to a deficit in social harmony. Self-knowledge of one's personality refers to knowledge of one’s own tendencies of behavior or ways of being. While some people experience it more than others, we all suffer blind spots to self-knowledge to varying degrees and in various areas. The possible impact of self-blindness entreats each of us to “know thyself” better.*
But if we consider what causes self-blindness, we may better understand ways to counteract this chronic condition.
Self-knowledge of personality refers to someone’s accurate perception of her or his habitual “patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, as well as about how others perceive those patterns.” (Carlson 2013) While at any given moment one may act in a discrete way, most of us act relatively the same way, day to day. Our personality consists in how we behave usually, under ordinary circumstances (e.g. at work) as well as how we tend to act in specific contexts (e.g. on a first date).
Someone’s personality is relative to the rest of the world. It is not just one's own biased experience of oneself. When Bob is alone, making faces in his bathroom mirror, he thinks he’s hilarious. However, since most people who know Bob find him dour, his personality in the world is that of someone who is not that funny. It would be nice for Bob if the world were just as he sees it. But as Lily Tomlin put it, reality is a collective hunch. Our world consists of others’ perceptions as well as our own. If Bob knows that others don’t think he’s funny, he has self-knowledge. If after receiving evidence to the contrary, Bob still thinks he’s a comedian, Bob experiences self-blindness.
Extreme cases of self-blindness are evident in personality disorders. For instance, those who score high for narcissistic personality disorder explicitly overestimate their achievements, likability, or sexiness relative to the rest of the population. On the surface, Donald Trump may find his combover quite hot. Implicitly, however, a narcissist may suffer low self-esteem without being aware of it. Implicitly and explicitly, narcissists distort their identities in the world, showing a lack of self-knowledge.
Studies have shown that narcissists have difficulty achieving long-lasting relationships. This might be because in order to preserve their inaccurate self-images, they prefer interacting with people who don’t know them well. Those who know them well may undermine their self-perceptions. “It is possible that narcissists discontinue relationships early on because they cannot bridge the gap between their positive self-perceptions and relatively negative meta-perceptions” (Carlson, Vazire, Oltmanns, 2011). Perhaps if narcissists saw themselves clearly and liked themselves as they are, they could tolerate meta-perceptions that indicate they’re less than perfect.
While personality disorders present pronounced cases of self-blindness, we all suffer from blind spots to self-knowledge to varying degrees and in various areas. Research has shown we can’t predict what will make us happy. We are also often unaware of how we behave, why we make certain decisions, what motivates us, and how we will act and feel in the future. (Carlson 2013) While not as blatant as narcissists, the average person tends to believe he or she is above average in many things. (Dunning 2004) How can we all be above average? It's apparent that most of us struggle to perceive ourselves accurately.
In some cases, ignorance might be bliss. Maybe Bob will enjoy wellbeing by believing he’s funny. In many cases, though, blind spots to self-knowledge hinder people’s ability to navigate the world. Every day we base decisions on how we perceive ourselves. Self-blindness can be disadvantageous to one’s health, work, and ability to learn. (Dunning 2004) Perhaps I put off going to the doctor because I think I’m healthier than average. Perhaps I underestimate the time it will take me to complete a task at work. Perhaps I think I’m smart enough to not study for a test and still do well. When we base our decisions on flawed self-assessments, we run the risk of causing harm to ourselves or others.
This can be seen in personal relationships, which consist of intimate, obvious interaction between personalities. By being blind to how you act in a relationship, you may not be able to measure whether a relationship is going well or not. If you see yourself as more considerate than you actually are, you may not notice when you impose on your partner. You may also underestimate your good qualities, resulting in low-self esteem. Suffering low self-esteem may lead to relationship insecurities, which negatively affect everyone in the relationship. There are a myriad of ways self-blindness can make relationships go awry.
Many studies indicate that self-blindness is part of the human condition, and yet it can be detrimental to our goals and relationships. By understanding what causes self-blindness, we may better understand how to counteract it.
In my next post, I’ll consider causes of self-blindness and the hypothesis that ‘mindfulness’ can counteract this phenomenon.
* In his Description of Greece, Pausanias writes that the Greek maxim “Know thyself” was inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Carlson, E. (2013) Overcoming the Barriers to Self-Knowledge: Mindfulness as a Path to Seeing Yourself as You Really Are. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(2) 173–186.
Carlson, E., Vazire, S., Oltmanns, T. F. (2011) You Probably Think This Paper’s About You: Narcissists’ Perceptions of Their Personality and Reputation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, No. 1, 185–201.
Dunning, D., Kruger, J. (1999) Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 6, 121-1134.