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New Insight into the Limits of Self-Insight

A study counters the popular idea that knowing yourself is good for you.

Self-insight may not be as useful as we like to think.
Source: Deagreez/iStock

How useful is it, really, to know thyself? The idea that self-insight is good for us dates all the way back to the inscriptions on the ancient Greek Temple of Delphi. It is still popularly assumed that people with a clear view of themselves and their abilities are better off—that they feel better, have more satisfying relationships and are more successful. But when psychologists have tested that premise, they haven’t found much strong empirical evidence of the benefits of self-insight for well-being.

An intriguing study recently added provocative findings to this long-standing debate. It tested five of the most common hypotheses on the connection between self-insight and psychological adjustment. Does self-knowledge really lead to higher satisfaction? Maybe it’s more productive to just think positively—even if a little overconfidently—about one’s abilities? Or, could it be that those with the highest abilities will be optimally adjusted?

The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, found support for none of these ideas. Instead, it tentatively indicates that it is people with the biggest gap between their abilities and their views of themselves who report the highest levels of satisfaction with life, career, and relationships. “People who report being the more adjusted are those who have a combination of relatively lower true abilities, and actual higher views of themselves,” social psychologist Stéphane Côté of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and co-author of the paper says.

“The paper provides one of the very few direct tests of the assumption that individual differences in self-insight are related to adjustment outcomes," psychologist Mitja Back of the University of Muenster in Germany, who served as a reviewer for the paper, says.

Others who work on similar questions found the results intriguing. “This is fascinating work,” social psychologist Cameron Anderson of the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley, who wasn’t involved in the research, says. “Most people would guess—and many interventions are built upon the assumption—that knowing how smart and skilled you are benefits you in the long run. But this casts doubt on that assumption.”

Côté and graduate student Joyce He, who led the study, recruited more than 1000 people online. Participants completed itemized tests of cognitive and emotional abilities and then reported how many items they thought they answered correctly. Côté and He recorded the actual number of items on each test and the number of items individuals thought they got right. Then, over the following week, participants filled out a daily diary survey. “We asked them to reflect on how satisfied they were with their life, with their career, with relationships in general,” He says. By extending the survey over a week, she adds, they avoided the distortion that might come with someone having a particularly good or bad day.

Previous studies on self-insight had been limited in part by statistical techniques. Most researchers have employed a “difference score,” a measure of the gap between true ability and self-perceived ability, but difference scores have been criticized for oversimplification and because they conflate variables. Instead, Côté and He used a technique called polynomial regression, which creates a more complex statistical model preserving multiple variables.

The unexpected result showing that considerable self-delusion is helpful, which Côté and He are calling “beneficial self-enhancement,” must be regarded as preliminary because it wasn’t one of their original hypotheses. They are at work on follow-up studies and have some early confirmatory results, but nothing has been published yet.

Importantly, even if it is confirmed that self-insight does not provide much benefit in psychological adjustment, a clear view of one’s abilities might still be an important element in job performance or other areas. Psychologist Elizabeth Tenney, who studies organizational behavior at the University of Utah, doesn’t think that all job reviews and student evaluations should leave out feedback on strengths and weaknesses just yet. She says of the study, “It’s not like they gave them self-insight and watched what happened.”

Côté agrees that people should not change their behavior based on results from a single paper. "If this is confirmed," he says, "it would mean that if you want to be somebody who on a day-to-day level says my life is great, then you should also be somebody who overestimates their abilities. Psychologically that’s important. But if you’re somebody who potentially wants to have the highest levels of performance in your job, then future research will determine whether that’s also a good idea."

Copyright: Lydia Denworth 2019. A longer version of this article originally appeared in Scientific American.

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He, Joyce C., and Stéphane Côté. "Self-insight into emotional and cognitive abilities is not related to higher adjustment." Nature human behaviour 3.8 (2019): 867-884.