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The Limits of Introspection

By: Michael Lundie

Self-portrait by Escher

Why do we adopt a double standard when judging the actions of others in contrast to our own? In a recent exchange on Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam interviewed psychologist Emily Pronin about the findings from her research on this double standard. The essence of the problem is that we vastly overestimate the quality of information available to us by introspection, and we selectively engage in introspection only when evaluating our own actions compared to those of others. She notes that we are capable of easily spotting biases in the thinking of others whereas we are apt to consider ourselves immune or at least less susceptible to the same errors. A contributing factor to this asymmetry is an illusory depth of access to our own psychological states. I may assume that I know why I like chocolate better than vanilla, or why I prefer certain genres of music to others, but the subconscious processes that calibrate those preferences are in fact inaccessible to me. They are hidden beneath the surface of awareness. This “introspection illusion”, as Pronin refers to it, also leads us to make similar errors when thinking about the factors that shape our own beliefs, particularly in the political domain.

The next time you’re engaged in a disagreement with someone about politics, take note of how easily you are able to spot mistakes in your opponent’s arguments. We quickly recognize inconsistencies, ad hominems, confirmation bias and all manner of biased thinking in others. As Pronin points out, though, we have a bias blind spot when it comes to our own thinking. Her research has shown that people assume political ads work on others but not themselves, or that marketing and advertising campaigns powerfully influence the preferences of others but not their own. This pattern also comes into play when judging missteps in the behavior of others in contrast to ourselves. We look at mere actions when evaluating others, but we introspect deeply into our own minds when scrutinizing our own behavior. We look at our intentions, not just the consequences of our actions. It is easier to excuse our own behavior when we tilt the scales of judgment by weighing the good reasons (or so we think) that inspired our actions.

It has occurred to me that this asymmetry does break down in some cases. Something peculiar happens when we judge the behavior of someone we regard as an ally, perhaps a close friend or a fellow member of a political organization we belong to. There is a reliable tendency to rationalize the behavior, root about for nuance and scrutinize the intentions of that individual. It may have something to do with breaking down the boundaries that separate ourselves from others. When our group’s interests are at stake, we interpret an attack on one of our compatriots as an attack on ourselves. There is an extensive literature on the relation between empathy, the ability to mentally simulate the feelings of others, and group membership (see Eres & Molenberghs (2013) for a review).We use our introspective states to draw conclusions about the behavior of those from our in-groups whereas as we look at mere actions when judging those from the out-group. One interpretation of these findings is that we infer the mental states of group affiliates by simulating what we would have felt had we been in the same situation. Likewise, when a group affiliate engages in morally questionable behavior, we introspect and simulate what our intentions would have been under the circumstances, making it easier to rationalize and perhaps excuse the behavior. On the other hand, we erect sharp boundaries in our minds to separate ourselves from those of the out-group. There are profound implications for how this asymmetry plays out in discussions about political behavior. Extending Pronin’s insights into this domain, we don’t just have a bias blind spot when it comes to ourselves, this blind spot also shows up when we evaluate the behavior of our ideological kin.


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