writer and domestic dude

Who Knows the Most About You?

I do a lot of dumb things. Things I can’t always say I’m prepared to be responsible for. Things I forget. I forgot how to dress my daughter, Lennyn, for dance class just yesterday. She wears leotards and tights. Not the short pink dress. That’s her tutu. Not the tap shoes. The soft ballet ones. Thus, I did not have Lennyn ready by 5:15.

Another thing about myself: Shelley tells me I talk a lot. My children’s eyes do sometimes glaze over when I talk. Hmm.

There are clearly ways in which our unconscious minds don’t let us know as much about ourselves or what’s happening around us as we’d like to assume we do. This is nothing new. In fact, it’s about a century old from pioneers like Freud and Jung. But does this really mean what the latest (summarized) research is trying to tell us, that others know more about us than we know about ourselves? Does this mean that without feedback from “them” followed by a little self-reflection that we’ll be too blind to see or understand our behavior?

Well, that’s what the latest analysis seems to be leading us to. Motivational psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson has summarized it well in a recent blog, “You Are (Probably) Wrong About You,” which springs from her book, Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. Why would our brains not be directly accessible to us even with loads of introspection? The answer seems to be because it’s so efficient. Halvorson makes the following analogy:

If our nonconscious mind’s processing power is like that of a NASA super-computer, then by comparison, our conscious mind can handle roughly the contents of a Post-it note. It’s limited and slow, and when too much is asked of it, it starts dropping things.

It’s the whole idea of how our mind’s capability not to remember, but to forget, is a kind of survival mechanism. “By handing operations over to the nonconscious mind — including high-level, complex operations like pursuing goals — we make productivity possible.” This makes sense, and again isn’t really anything new.

Halvorson seems to have a source book for some of her concepts, psychologist Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. His book, too, summarizes a great deal of research and does come to some insightful conclusions. If we don’t know ourselves–our potentials, feelings, or motives–it is most often, Wilson tells us, because we have developed a plausible story about ourselves that is out of touch with our adaptive unconscious. One suggestion to “know thyself” a little better is to  learn who we are by what we literally do. In fact, a recent CNN blog would say that your “digital reflection” shows others who you really are.

I do love to learn about these social interpretations of our culture–because that’s what this really is more than universal human prescriptions–although that may be unavoidable. It’s also perfectly fine that it may be “nothing new” in particular. In fact, it seems Halvorson is doing a fine job processing and organizing some timely research, which adds to our knowledge socially about ourselves. What do we actually do with this information? That’s not always as clear, neither is the degree to which we decide to learn more about ourselves from others, as opposed to methods of introspection.

The downside to our uber-efficient brains? When things go wrong we have a difficult time figuring out why. And maybe there’s just no cure for dumb.

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