How to Live With an Unknowable Mind

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We know surprisingly little about our own personalities, attitudes and even self-esteem. How do we live with that?

How do you imagine your own mind?

I sometimes picture mine as a difficult and contrary child; the kind that throws a stone at you for no reason and can’t explain itself. Or while at the beach it sits silent, looking miserable. But, at a wedding is determined to scream at the top of its lungs through all the quiet bits.

One reason minds can be frustrating is that we only have access to part of them, by definition the conscious part. The rest, the unconscious, lies there mysteriously, doing things we don’t understand and often don’t seem to have requested.

Except we don’t know it’s doing things we haven’t asked it to, because we can’t interrogate it. It turns out that the unconscious is mostly inaccessible (Wilson & Dunn, 2004).

This is quite a different view of the mind than Freud had. He thought you could rummage around and dig things up that would help you understand yourself. Modern theorists, though, see large parts of the mind as being completely closed off. You can’t peer in and see what’s going on, it’s like the proverbial black box.

The idea that large parts of our minds can’t be accessed is fine for basic processes like movement, seeing or hearing. Generally I’m not bothered how I work out which muscles to contract to pedal my bicycle; neither do I want access to how I perceive sound.

Other parts would be extremely interesting to know about. Why do certain memories come back to me more strongly than others? How extraverted am I really? Why do I really vote this way rather than that?

Here are three examples of areas in which our self-knowledge is relatively low:

1. Personality

You’d be pretty sure that you could describe your personality to someone else, right? You know how extroverted you are, how conscientious, how optimistic?

Don’t be so sure.

When people’s personalities are measured implicitly, i.e. by seeing what they do, rather than what they say they do, the correlations are sometimes quite low (e.g. Asendorpf et al., 2002). We seem to know something about our own personalities, but not as much as we’d like to think.

2. Attitudes

Just like in personality, people’s conscious and unconscious attitudes also diverge.

We sometimes lie about our attitudes to make ourselves look better, but this is more than that. This difference between our conscious and unconscious attitudes occurs on subjects where we couldn’t possibly be trying to make ourselves look better (Wilson et al., 2000). Rather we seem to have unconscious attitudes that consciously we know little about (I’ve written about this previously in: Our secret attitude changes)

Once again we say we think one thing, but we act in a way that suggests we believe something different.

3. Self-esteem

Perhaps this is the oddest one of all. Surely we know how high our own self-esteem is?

Well, psychologists have used sneaky methods of measuring self-esteem indirectly and then compared them with what we explicitly say. They’ve found only very weak connections between the two (e.g. Spalding & Hardin, 1999). Amazingly some studies find no connection at all.

It seems almost unbelievable that we aren’t aware of how high our own self-esteem is, but there it is. It’s another serious gap between what we think we know about ourselves and what we actually know.

Road to self-knowledge

So, what if we want to get more accurate information about ourselves without submitting to psychological testing?

It’s not easy because according to modern theories, there is no way to directly access large parts of the unconscious mind. The only way we can find out is indirectly, by trying to piece it together from various bits of evidence we do have access to.

As you can imagine, this is a very hit-and-miss affair, which is part of the reason we find it so difficult to understand ourselves. The result of trying to piece things together is often that we end up worse off than when we started.

Take the emotions. Studies show that when people try to analyse the reasons for their feelings, they end up feeling less satisfied (Wilson et al., 1993). Focusing too much on negative feelings can make them worse and reduce our ability to find solutions.

Perhaps the best way to gain self-knowledge is to carefully watch our own thoughts and behaviour. Ultimately what we do is not only how others judge us but also how we should judge ourselves.

How to live with an unknowable mind

Taking all this together, here are my rough-draft principles for living with an unknowable mind:

  1. The mind is a tremendous story-teller and will try to make up pleasing stories about your thoughts and behaviour. These aren’t necessarily true.
  2. Using introspection you can’t always (ever?) know what you really think or who you really are.
  3. Using introspection to work out what you are or what you think can be damaging, encouraging rumination and depressive thoughts.
  4. This isn’t depressing, it’s liberating: now you know it’s perfectly normal not to understand some/most aspects of yourself, you can relax.
  5. If you must push for greater self-knowledge, try to become a better observer of your own thoughts and behaviour. Notice what you do and when, then try to infer the why. But don’t push it, always remember points 1-4.

Image credit: Kathryn

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: 26 April 2011

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