Introspection and Self-Awareness

05.04.2023 |

Episode #4 of the course Psychology of the self by Psychology Insights Online


Welcome back! In the last lesson, we talked about how the self-concept develops in childhood through to adulthood. The emphasis was on the importance of self-schemas and self-efficacy for integrating our experiences into our self-concept. In this lesson, we are going to examine more closely how we think about ourselves and our place in the world.

Do you know yourself? This may seem like an easy question to answer. Many of us would say, “of course, I know who I am!” In reality, though, it often turns out that there are aspects of our self-concept that are hidden in psychological blind spots. Human beings rely on introspection as a method for understanding who we are and how we feel. It is a process of “thinking about our thoughts.” While it might seem that this would be an accurate way of gaining information about yourself, research has found that it actually isn’t (Wilson & Dunn, 2004). For instance, studies on attitudes have commonly found that a person will say they have a positive attitude on a particular issue (e.g., environmentalism), yet their behavior doesn’t always match the attitude (e.g., not recycling or composting waste).

Not only are we not good at understanding our current selves, but we are also often wrong about our future selves. Affective forecasting describes the process in which we attempt to predict how we will feel about events that occur in the future. In other words, we try to guess today about how we will feel toward an event that will happen years later. However, research has found that we are usually quite bad at estimating our feelings for both positive and negative future events (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005). For instance, somebody may feel that a divorce would be devastating and that they would not be able to recover. Yet, the vast majority of people do recover from a divorce, and we often underestimate our future ability to cope. The reality is that we can’t comprehend all the other events (good and bad) that are also happening to us at that same time. These other events also contribute to our ability to cope with negative life situations.

Given all of this, how do we come to truly understand ourselves? Well, there are methods for increasing our self-awareness. In particular, if we feel that we have a certain belief or attitude, we can pay attention to our behavior, and then assess to see if it matches our attitudes. Psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund introduced Self-Awareness Theory (Duval & Wicklund, 1972). This theory suggests that if someone is made aware of their behavior, and if that behavior does not align with their values or beliefs, they will be forced to either change the behavior or the initial attitude.

Let’s look at an example. Picture someone who is thinking about shoplifting from a clothing store. As they are walking down an aisle, they see their reflection in a mirror. At that point, they become more aware of themselves in that situation. If they believe that “I am an honest person who doesn’t steal,” they are forced to decide, carry out their plan to steal something, or act in a way that matches their belief that they are an honest person (and not steal anything). Self-awareness increases the likelihood that we will think about who we are as people and try to align our actions with those beliefs.

A more modern theory has expanded the idea of self-awareness by also including the opinions that other people have of us. The Self-Other Knowledge Asymmetry (SOKA) theory (Vazire, 2010). SOKA suggests that we are quite good at identifying some of the personality traits that we possess but not so great at detecting others. In addition, other people are quite good at identifying some of our traits, but not other traits. For example, research on SOKA has found that we have more insight into internal traits that are more difficult for others to see, such as how “optimistic” we are. In contrast, other people are often more accurate than we are in judging traits that are more observable. For instance, other people might be able to more accurately assess how creative we are. Why? It is because we often have a blind spot for potentially negative parts of the self. In this case, let’s say that we are not as creative as we think we are. Well, this would be more noticeable to other people but likely less obvious to ourselves. In short, we have more information and access to some traits, whereas other people have more accurate information about other traits.

How can we see ourselves more accurately? First, try to be honest with yourself and take time to reflect on your own behavior and attitudes. Second, challenge any long-held assumptions about yourself against the evidence from your behavior. Lastly, listen to feedback from other people. They will often have insight that isn’t available to us otherwise.

In the next lesson, we are going to discuss the role of Self-Perception Theory in the self. See you tomorrow!


Recommended book

Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life by Tasha Eurich


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