Protecting Our Beliefs

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.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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4 Responses to Protecting Our Beliefs

  1. jss says:

    “The road to self-insight really runs through other people”.

    Hmm… I have to give that some thought but I don’t think I agree with that at all. Depending of course on whether or not I understand his meaning in that statement as it stands alone.

    As always interesting stuff on your site. Lots of food for thought around these here parts.

    • norasblog says:

      Thanks for your comment. He seems to be saying that there are attitudes and behaviors that we cannot see ourselves, and we can pay attention to reflections from other people for more information. That is why psychotherapy is helpful: you have another person, with different blind spots, who can give you, hopefully, accurate reflections of what you are saying and who you are. You may accept or not accept these reflections, but it gives you another perspective. It does not mean that any other person or any other opinion is more valuable than your own. It’s kind of like if you look in a mirror, you can see your own face, but without the mirror, you cannot. Some mirrors are more accurate than others. Regardless, you still own and control your own face. His point is that we cannot see where we are not seeing something because we do not realize there is something to see.

  2. jss says:

    I do understand that however the problem I have with it is that it can lead one to the feeling that all that I am, my behavior, my thoughts, my feelings are somehow dependent on others or rather only dependent on others. While I am a big proponent of psychotherapy this ‘holding the mirror up’ can be over-emphasized. If that mirror is constantly being held in front of me I can tend to only think in terms of how I appear to others. It is a subtle trap that I constantly try to be aware of in my own therapy.

    What I am saying here is that the road to self-insight runs through me. It must always remain front and center in that mirror that I matter in terms of me. I don’t want to be concerned only with how I appear to others. Sometimes I decide that whether or not others respond positively to a particular aspect of me if that aspect is something that I value in myself and is instrumental is acheiving that which I desire to acheive than others be damned.

    It is to be sure a fine line to walk.

    • norasblog says:

      You are exactly right: it is a fine line. As therapists we also balance between autonomy and intimacy. Each person is in charge of his or her own life and at the same time we live in a world of people. One of the benefits of close relationships is the way they can help us see ourselves better. At the same time, as you say, we do not want our decisions about ourselves to be determined by other people. Each person is the star of his or her own life. We spend a lifetime learning how to be close without merging and how to be autonomous without being isolated.

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