Be Your Own Heretic

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

Be Your Own Heretic

Introspection Illusion

Bruce is in the vitamin business. His father founded the company when supplements were not yet a lifestyle product; a doctor had to prescribe them. When Bruce took over the operation in the early ’90s, demand skyrocketed. Bruce seized the opportunity with both hands and took out huge loans to expand production. Today, he is one of the most successful people in the business and president of a national association of vitamin manufactures. Since childhood, hardly a day has passed without him swallowing at least three multivitamins. A journalist once asked him if they do anything. He replied: “I’m sure of it.” Do you believe him?

I have another question for you: Take any idea you are 100 percent sure of: Perhaps that gold will rise over the next five years. Perhaps that God exists. Perhaps that your dentist is overcharging you. Whatever the belief, write it down in one sentence. Do you believe yourself?

I bet you consider your conviction more valid than Bruce’s, right? Here’s why: Yours is an internal observation, whereas Bruce’s is external. Crudely put, you can peek into your own soul, but not into his.

In Bruce’s case, you might think: “Come on, it’s obviously in his interest to believe that vitamins are beneficial. After all, his wealth and social status depend on the success of the company. He has to maintain a family tradition. All his life he has gulped down pills, so he’ll never admit that it was a waste of time.” For you, however, it’s a different story: You have searched deep inside. You are completely impartial.

But how pure and honest is internal reflection? The Swedish psychologist Petter Johannson allowed test subjects to glimpse two portrait photos of random people and choose which face was more attractive. Then he showed them the preferred photo up close and asked them to describe the most attractive features. However, with a sleight of hand, he switched the pictures. Most participants failed to notice and proceeded to justify, in detail, why they favored the image. The results of the study: Introspection is not reliable. When we soul-search, we contrive the findings.

The belief that reflection leads to truth or accuracy is called the introspection illusion. This is more than sophistry. Because we are so confident of our beliefs, we experience three reactions when someone fails to share our views. Response 1: Assumption of ignorance. The other party clearly lacks the necessary information. If he knew what you know, he would be of the same opinion. Political activists think this way: They believe they can win others over through enlightenment. Reaction 2: Assumption of idiocy. The other person has the necessary information, but his mind is underdeveloped. He cannot draw the obvious conclusions. In other words, he’s a moron. This reaction is particularly popular with bureaucrats who want to protect “stupid” consumers from themselves. Response 3: Assumption of malice. Your counterpart has the necessary information—he even understands the debate—but he is deliberately confrontational. He has evil intentions. This is how many religious leaders and followers treat disbelievers: If they don’t agree, they must be servants of the devil!

In conclusion: Nothing is more convincing than your own beliefs. We believe that introspection unearths genuine self-knowledge. Unfortunately, introspection is, in large part, fabrication posing two dangers: First, the introspection illusion creates inaccurate predictions of future mental states. Trust your internal observations too much and too long, and you might be in for a very rude awakening. Second, we believe that our introspections are more reliable than those of others, which creates an illusion of superiority. Remedy: Be all the more critical with yourself. Regard your internal observations with the same skepticism as claims from some random person. Become your own toughest critic.