How Well Do You Know Yourself? An Answer in Ten Minutes or Less

self-reflection

We spend more time trying to understand the motivations of others than our own. Not that we aren’t focused on ourselves, but our internal machinery is more likely to ask “How shall I handle this problem?” than why you did or didn’t do something.

“What caused me to do what I just did?” is not at the top of our self-examination question list.

If we are already sure of our motives, as most of us are, self-analysis doesn’t occur. The reasons for our actions seem obvious.

For example, Donald Trump recently said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. And they’re bringing those problems with us (sic). They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

In response to criticism over his remarks, Trump countered, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”  Mr. Trump is certain of his motives without even a bone scan to prove it, but I am much less confident than he is. Is his belief about himself correct? We might ask the same question of ourselves. Ergo, my title: How Well Do You Know Yourself?

I will give you a chance to find out shortly.

I raise the topic because we aren’t as insightful about ourselves as we might be. For example, in matters like politics and religion, we arrive at our opinions intuitively, but think we reasoned them out. In fact, according to Jonathan Haidt, our attitudes are driven by instinct and bubble up from our unconscious. Only later does our logical brain kick-in and generate reasons for those predetermined opinions. The thinking cerebral cortex therefore takes the job of defense lawyer or public relations advocate to justify attitudes and make them palatable to ourselves.

Haidt says we are like monkeys riding elephants. The emotional elephant is 90% in charge of leading the way, but the monkey logician on his back thinks he is in control. I imagine you believe this about some of the people you know — the ones who fool themselves. Perhaps not yourself, however.

You might consider Mr. Trump to be like a friend who doesn’t understand himself — isn’t honest with himself. “The Donald” denies any kind of dominant, irrational, and instinctive prejudice, despite his recent comments disparaging Mexican immigrants. If you believe you are more self-aware than Mr. Trump, his example won’t cause you to question your own psychological self-rationalizing process.

Nearly everyone believes himself to be thoughtful — careful not to jump to conclusions. Indeed, you might believe the two of us are like the majority of those who answered the following Gallup telephone survey with a “yes,” saying they’d vote for a woman, a black, or a Hispanic for President.

The Gallop poll results are below. The question asked of participants comes first, then their responses:

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I don’t believe the data, at least in the top few categories. Why?

First, most of us recognize the political incorrectness of saying we wouldn’t vote for a woman, black, or Hispanic. Even to someone on the phone who promised not to share the information. Second, we are hesitant to admit our bigotry to ourselves.

Finally, look at the question again. The second sentence reads (with my italics): “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be ____, would you vote for that person?” If you are prejudiced, you could well rule out most any woman, black, or Hispanic instinctively. At the same time, however, you might say to yourself, “but if (hypothetically) he has the right stuff, then he’d get my vote.” It wouldn’t take long before you pat yourself on the back for being enlightened. In effect, you have persuaded yourself, “the person’s gender, race, or nationality isn’t important, but only the ability to do the job.” The poll, in the example just described, would produce an inaccurate result.

Now is your chance to find out who you are. The good folks at Harvard developed something called The Implicit Association Test.  Their creation is not like Gallup’s poll. They don’t ask only about your beliefs, but measure your reactions to pictures and words to uncover what your implicit (unconscious) attitude is.

You might be sure you lack bias, but the test is capable of surprising you. No guarantees either way. Perhaps you are as color blind as you think you are.

Take the 10-minute measurement: Implicit Association Test. Click on “Social Attitudes.” Then you will have at least a partial answer to the question: how well do I know myself?

There are a great many tests on the site. They deal with our imbedded reactions to race, age, overweight, sexual preference, mental illness, etc. Don’t expect, if, say, you are black, to automatically have a more favorable implicit association to blacks than to whites on the test particular to such responses.

Another point. You are likely to ask yourself whether a connection exists between preferring “white” over “black” (for example) and your chance of discriminating against someone who triggers an implicit prejudice. Not necessarily. You will find a more detailed answer imbedded within the site after you decide to take a test.

Of course, I don’t know how you, dear reader, will score. Are you, as Dostoevsky wrote, a hostage to those “things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself?”

Do you have the courage to find out?

Defining Yourself by What You Hate

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Personality tests put us into categories: introversion/extroversion, thinking vs. feeling, etc. Today I’ll suggest a different method of evaluating yourself: what do you hate? And, by the way, what is the value of hatred?

Dating sites ask you to list your interests, loves, and desires: the types of music, activities, and vacation locations you favor. But wouldn’t you want to know what your prospective lover dislikes? Especially those things that make him red in the face when he speaks of them? What might be on such a list if he were honest?

  • People who are “over-emotional.”
  • Those of a different political party.
  • Humanoids of another religion, or particular ethnic or national group.
  • Children or pets.
  • Fans of a rival sports team (or the team itself).
  • The rich or the poor.
  • The homeless, the elderly, the infirm.
  • Elitists or populists.
  • New York, the West Coast, Texas, etc.

There are two qualities we should consider for each item on the “hate” list:

  1. What is the rationale given for the intense enmity? Does it seem reasonable to you? Is the person open to new information and reconsideration of his opinions or is he closed off?
  2. What is the degree of intensity to his emotion? Sure, most of us possess pet peeves, favor the home team, and wish a particular political party behaved itself. But some people hold such strong dislikes that any mention of the object of their distemper risks causing their heads to explode. Why? More worrisome, what might that tendency predict when they find something troublesome in you?

As Jonathan Haidt notes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why People are Divided by Politics and Religion, we tend to form opinions and beliefs intuitively — that is, before we evaluate the facts. Our reasoning brain is not only a step behind our intuitions, but inclined to act as a defense attorney or public relations specialist to justify the instinctive stance.

Haidt likens us to riders and elephants, both within the same person. You might believe your rider is in charge, directing the elephant. On the contrary, Haidt says the elephant — the intuitive and quick acting part of our emotional/intellectual being — is the one who determines beliefs for us most of the time. Only then does the rider get engaged and try to rationalize our convictions. To Haidt, we are 90% elephant-like and 10% rider-like regarding the extent to which our instincts or our capacity for thoughtful analysis, respectively, are in charge.

Haidt, Daniel Kahneman, and other social scientists point to the historical survival value of being able to come to quick decisions, decide who is a friend and who is a foe, etc. Moreover, strong dislikes and hatreds have been a necessary part of staying alive since the dawn of man. Even today, a too-rational soldier might question why he is about to kill another man who, in the abstract, deserves to live just as much as he does. The propagation of our species demands the capacities to love and to hate — the latter, at least, in extreme circumstances.

Now I’m going to throw you a curve. I will offer a thought experiment, meaning a hypothetical scenario, to help us understand the “role” of hatred. What would happen if we erased every dislike in the world and any recollection of those dislikes? How would we be different? Would we all live in peace?

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Well, to some extent we can already observe a variation of that thought experiment in the USA and other so-called “civilized” countries: political correctness (PC), an idea not yet in the culture in the 1950s. Back then it was not difficult to find people who were proud of stating their bigoted convictions about various racial, religious, and national groups. I’m not suggesting folks like those disappeared, but public discourse is more careful to avoid frank prejudice. Even some of the most intolerant main stage figures attempt to deny their bigotry, however obvious to the rest of us.

How successful has the PC movement been at tamping down outrage? While there are fewer cross burnings and lynchings, I imagine you’d agree we haven’t wiped out indignation and those who feed on it. Moreover, I believe a real life version of my thought experiment would reveal the invention of new hatreds to fill the role of those eliminated. Kind of like a spring-loaded Pez candy dispenser, once you remove the top object, an ill-willed person will find something else popping up to chomp on.

Those of you old enough to remember the ’90s will recall that once the USSR fell, US religious fundamentalists who could no longer rail against godless communism changed their focus to homosexuality. Their hell-fire and brimstone sermons were directed at “those people.”

Some of our fellow humans — not a small number — are better described by what they hate than what they love. Indeed, one might argue that in the absence of the hated “other,” the angry ones wouldn’t know who they are. Without “sinners” who must go to hell, there can be no humans who are given a heavenly reward because of their goodness — the opposite of whatever they deem bad and deserving of harsh judgment.

Anger is part of our nature; something too handy (necessary?) to completely discard. We bind ourselves together as much by the things we hate (such as, the Chicago White Sox) as the things we love (the Chicago Cubs). Not every sports fan is a maniac, but if even athletic teams can trigger out-of-control partisan riots, as sometimes happens in European style football (soccer), no wonder we are prone to other corrosive divisions: people of color vs. whites, Democrats vs. Republicans, Turks vs. Greeks, etc.

The human race turns with ease into good guys and bad guys, as demonstrated by psychologists like Stanley Milgram in his work on obedience to authority, and Philip Zimbardo in his prison experiment.

For a fictional view of whether hatred would be suppressed by my memory-wiping fantasy, I urge you to read Howard Jacobson’s brilliant novel, J, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. J presents us with a world without recollection, where history books and mementos are absent and one’s lineage is almost impossible to trace. Ancient enmities and prejudices are forgotten. Proper etiquette requires regular apologies to others in the face of even the small possibility of offense.

This sounds serene, but J describes a world inhabited by metaphorical ghosts who reside in a past never fully described. The negative afterimage of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED is always in the background — a distant, dark event so terrible (if it occurred, since no one is sure) discussion is discouraged. The book suggests our animal nature is not easily suppressed by laws or political correctness.

Who will win? Our better angels or those creatures who fit a Hobbesian vision where “the life of man (is) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?” I am rooting for love, but I think our best chance of self-correction is first to look at the human condition in all its imperfection. Jacobson’s J gives us an opportunity to do this. The novel is also LOL funny (at times) and beautifully written throughout.

Nonetheless, the author offers us a cautionary tale of what it means to be different in a civilization full of grievances an inch under the surface. It implicitly asks the reader whether love can triumph over the dark side of human nature — the worm at the heart of the rose.  J will get you thinking about who you are and who we are. The greatest books do.