Finding The Surprising Gaps in Your Self-Knowledge

Portrait Grid

Are you an independent person? Classic social psychology research suggests some people can’t tell.

Why are people so blissfully ignorant of certain aspects of their personalities?

Take an everyday example: there are some infuriating people who are always late for appointments. A few of these people explain it by saying they are ‘laid-back’, while others seem unaware that they’re always late.

For laid-back people, their lateness is a part of their personality, they are aware of it and presumably not worried about appearing unconscientious. For the unaware it’s almost as if they don’t realise they’re always late. How is that possible?

It’s probably because they’ve never noticed or paid attention to the fact that they are always late so they never learn to think of themselves as lacking conscientiousness. Or so suggests a psychological theory describing how we think about ourselves called self-schema theory.

This theory says that we have developed ‘schemas’, like internal maps of our personalities, which we use to understand and explain our current and future behaviour to ourselves, e.g. I’m always on time for meetings so I’m a conscientious person.

Are you an independent person?

However schema theory also suggests that these maps have uncharted areas, leaving people with certain blind spots in their self-knowledge. This aspect of self-schemas was investigated in a classic social psychology study by Professor Hazel Markus (Markus, 1977) who examined not conscientiousness but whether people thought they had independent or dependent personalities.

To do this she gave 48 female participants questionnaires which assessed their self-perceived independence. It asked whether they were individualists or conformists and whether they were leaders or followers. From their answers the women were sorted into three groups: independents, dependents and a third group that showed no clear pattern.

This third group that showed no clear pattern was labelled ‘aschematic’, i.e. having no schema about independence or otherwise — for one reason or another it was a hole in their self-knowledge. Crucially, though, this group was only arrived at after discarding the people who thought the dependence/independence dimension was important but happened to think they were independent in some situations but not in others. Only those who truly didn’t care either way were labelled aschematic.

So there were some people who appeared not to notice or even care about their independence (or otherwise) while others did notice it. But Markus wanted to see if people were just saying these things, or whether they actually behaved as though they were true. To find out she invited the same participants back to the lab a few weeks later to give them a few more tests.

This time she flashed up words on a screen, some of which were related to being independent, some dependent and some neither. It emerged that participants who had said they were independent endorsed more words associated with being independent and did so quicker. Dependents did the same with words related to being dependent but those who were aschematic showed no preference either way.

In further tests those who had identified themselves as independent remembered more examples of independent behaviour as well as resisting an experimental suggestion that they weren’t independent. The same pattern was seen with the dependents. The aschematics, however, could remember few examples demonstrating either dependence or independence and could easily be swayed by experimental suggestion towards believing they were dependent or independent. It seemed they simply hadn’t been paying any attention to situations which marked them out as either dependent or independent people.

Building self-awareness

What these results confirm is that the three groups of participants did actually think in different ways about the idea of independence. Some believed they were independent, some not and the others didn’t know or, apparently, care. In some ways the aschematics are the most fascinating category because they are the people that seemed not to realise whether or not they were independent.

And we all have these aschematic areas in our self-knowledge, traits which are blind spots to us but are perfectly obvious to others. Unfortunately the only way for us to find out is to ask other people, but this may prove difficult or embarrassing. Still, while our hidden traits might be negative, they might also be positive: people are sometimes surprisingly unaware of their charm, warmth or conscientiousness.

Whether or not we pluck up the courage, this research reveals the fascinating and unnerving idea that some aspects of our own personalities may be completely mysterious to us only because we never bothered to take any notice of them.



Want to understand your mind?

Get FREE email updates from PsyBlog.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 5 January 2010

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License