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Chapter: Psychology: Consciousness

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Consciousness: Mistaken Introspections

Let’s pause to take stock. Introspections are certainly a valuable source of information, and for some purposes they are the only form of inquiry open to us.

Mistaken Introspections

Let’s pause to take stock. Introspections are certainly a valuable source of information, and for some purposes they are the only form of inquiry open to us. At the same time, there are limits on what we can learn from introspection. Some of the limits involve the communication of introspections—that is, difficulties in translating introspections intowords. Other limits arise because much of our mental life takes place outside of our awareness, so that introspections are almost invariably incomplete as a source of information about our thoughts and beliefs.

Worse, our introspections are sometimes wrong—they systematically misrepresent our thoughts. This situation is evident in the electric shock experiment just described: Participants who took the pain pill in that study confidently reported that they weren’t influenced by the pill, but the data say they were. Clearly, then, these participants didn’t know what was going on in their own minds.

Related cases, also involving mistaken introspections, are easy to find. In one experiment (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), shoppers announced that they preferred one nightgown over another because of the feel of the fabric. However, we know this self-report is mistaken because the nightgowns being compared in this study all had the same fabric! Moreover, the study’s data tell us that the participants showed a strong preference for the nightgown that was in the rightmost position when the options were presented. But, if researchers asked the participants directly whether they were influenced by the positioning of their choices, they steadfastly insisted they were not. Hence, the participants were not influenced by the factor (fabric) they mentioned in their self-reports; but they were influenced by a factor (position) that they denied.

How should we think about this pattern? How could people be certain about the source of their own actions—and be wrong? One proposal is that the knowledge we each have about ourselves is in many cases the result of an after-the-fact reconstruction, created just moments after we acted in a certain way (or moments after we made a choice or reached a conclusion; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). In other words, we might think we’re recalling why we acted as we did just a few seconds ago; but instead we’re (unconsciously) reasoning this way: “I know I did X. I believe that, in general, people do X because of Y. Therefore, I bet I did X because of Y.” This process often leads us to cor-rect conclusions because, in many cases, we have sensible beliefs about why people do what they do. Sometimes, though, we have an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of why people act in a certain way. In such cases, our reconstruction will lead us to the wrong conclusion. In this way, our self-understanding may be limited—even when we feel quite certain that we know the sources of our own feelings and behaviors.


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