Errol Morris has written an interesting five part article in the New York Times called “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is. In it, he explains that when we do not know something or we have a problem, we use a variety of resources to find out or solve the problem. But sometimes we do not know that we do not know something or we do not know there is a problem. Then we do not seek solutions because we are not aware that something is wrong. This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect after psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. Dunning says, ” You can call it self-deception, but it also goes by the names rationalization, wishful thinking, defensive processing, self-delusion, and motivated reasoning. There is a robust catalogue of strategies people follow to believe what they want to, and we research psychologists are hardly done describing the shape or the size of that catalogue.”
In other words, we want to believe certain things and we go to great lengths to protect those beliefs even when they are not doing us much good. The problem is, built into this mind structure is the very inability to see the flaws in our thinking. We go through our lives believing we have good judgement, that we are doing our best, and that we are understanding who we are and what we are doing. We cannot see what we are missing, and for the most part, it seems to work out okay.
What Dunning says is that there are two ways of seeing those gaps. First, we can look at the evidence: How is my life going? Am I mostly happy? Getting along with the people I care about? Doing pretty well at work? Taking care of my health? The evidence for our judgements is the outcomes we attain, even though we cannot control outcomes and we will not always get what we choose. Still, looking at the big picture, if we are making good judgements, we should see our lives mostly tending in a direction of growth and building.
The second way we can become aware of what we are unaware of is listening to the viewpoints of other people. This is also not a foolproof measure. Other people have gaps in their viewpoints also. They have areas of good judgement and areas of bad judgement. So within the context of other people, we can assess whether the person with the other viewpoint is mostly doing pretty well in life or mostly not. That gives us an approximate measure of that person’s judgement. And, another way to do it is to see if we are getting similar opinions from a number of people. If most of my friends think I am moody, chances are it’s me and not them.
The way Dunning puts it is this: “The road to self-insight really runs through other people. So it really depends on what sort of feedback you are getting.” It is painful to realize we have been wrong, or unkind, or uninformed. We would rather be illusional and feel good about ourselves. But over time, an inability to examine our assumptions can lead us to lose the opportunities that would otherwise be possible as well as causing us losses and creating errors that are unnecessary.
It takes courage to wade into our own minds and try to understand where we are clear minded and where we are unaware. Like any developmental process, it is two steps forward and one step back as we move toward a more open relationship with ourselves. The crucial crossroads is the point and points where we choose what relationships we gather close to us and how we value those people. Sometimes a constructive relationship can feel easy, but sometimes it can feel difficult. It pushes us out of our comfort zone-gently, respectfully, but seriously.