We are not aware that we are unaware

You are unaware of how unaware you are”

David McRaney in his book ‘You Are Not So Smart’.

McRaney says ‘We are constantly observing our own behaviour and then explaining it in a way which corresponds to whatever positive self-image keeps us sane. These narratives are sometimes realistic, and sometimes pure fiction. Either way, they build up and become the story of who we are. When you look back on your life, those stories are you, but you remain blissfully unaware of how inaccurate they are’.

I will first talk about our lack of ability to understand ourselves. I will follow it up with reasons on why our understanding of others is also quite faulty.

Tasha Eurich, author of the book ‘Insight’, explains that self-awareness, at its core, is the ability to see ourselves clearly. It is to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us. She points out that we are notoriously terrible at guessing how others see us. It is lot easier for us to choose self-delusion which is the antithesis of self-awareness over the cold hard truth about our behaviour. To know ourselves better, it would make sense to seek out the people in whom we have full trust. They can tell us truthfully, various aspects of our behaviour that they observe in us.

Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us…

Robert Burns

Ezequiel Morsella and his colleagues came up with “Passive Frame Theory”. They postulate that most of our brain’s work is conducted at the unconscious level, completely without our knowledge. It is now well established that in all our daily interactions, it is our unconscious brain that does all the requisite processing to arrive at our decisions or to act in certain ways. It is just the small job of a physical action that our conscious mind executes.

The conscious part of our brain is, thus, like a CEO, whose subordinates do all the needed research, then draft all the documents, lay them out and say, “Sign here, sir.” The CEO just signs these documents presented to him and takes the full credit.

One important reason why approximately 95% of everything we do is unconscious is due to the limitation of conscious thought. Thinking brain is too slow to initiate behaviour, whereas unconscious processes work very fast, operating in milliseconds. Our unconscious brain can process eleven million bits of information every second, whereas our conscious brain can handle only forty to fifty bits of information in a second. It should therefore come as no surprise that it is the unconscious brain that determines most of our behaviour.

Daniel Kahneman in his famous book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ explains that our brain deploys two systems. One is the automatic System 1 and the other is the effortful System 2. He says “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 on the other hand, allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it”.

We feel the experience of being alive and we execute all our decisions when System 2 is operating at the conscious level. However, System 2 consumes glucose at a fast rate, making it difficult for us to stay in this mode for too long. All the processing for making our decisions is made by System 1 operating at the unconscious level and then the decisions are passed on to System 2. Once they are brought to our conscious awareness, we act on these decisions.

The unfortunate aspect here, is that we have no ability to tap into our unconscious mind.

In his book “Strangers to Ourselves”, Timothy Wilson observes “The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try. This is mainly because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of our consciousness.”

It therefore makes sense to heed the advice of Nicholas Epley, author of the book “Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want”. He says “Spending two decades studying the mind, really highlighted to me the importance of humility in life.” He underscores the point that we really do not have privileged access to our minds and therefore it is much wiser for us to tone down our self-confidence and to act with humility.

Every decision that we take and every move that we make at any time, is determined by all our past experiences up to that very second. It is how every living creature evolved and stayed alive over hundreds of years.

It is the unconscious that manages all our habitual behaviour, and we are blissfully unaware of it. As much as 40 per cent of our daily behaviour is habitual and this, in fact, is very useful. For example, on most of the days when we drive to work, we are not conscious of how our brain coordinates various parts of our body, like our eyes, our ears, our legs, our hands etc to manoeuvre our car through our journey, navigating many obstacles including the traffic lights on our way. Our conscious mind is generally lost on other thoughts till we reach our destination. Thus, while our unconscious was busy driving us to work, our conscious mind was free to focus on other things.

What is then, the role of the conscious mind? Its power is not in the decision making of what action to take, but in performing the decided action. We need to appreciate that we are all programmed from birth to act and behave in certain ways by our parents, peers, educators, and society. The mental models that we construct from these experiences are stored away in our memories and are updated from new experiences continuously by our brain. These mental models become our version of reality and our unconscious brain uses these models to drive our behaviour.

Michael Shermer says ‘We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and society at large. After forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments and rational explanations. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow. In my book The Believing Brain, I call this process, wherein our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it, belief-dependent realism. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends on the beliefs we hold at any given time’.

Time after time, experiments show that introspection is not the act of tapping into our innermost mental constructs, but instead, is a fiction fabricated by our brains. Psychologist Emily Pronin specializes in human self-perception and decision making and calls this as “Introspection Illusion.” She recommends that we are better off in getting the inputs on our behaviour from others, especially those who know us well. She emphasizes that it is hard to know who we are unless others let us know how we affect them.

We infer what we think or believe from a variety of cues, just as we infer what others think or feel from observing their behaviour. For instance, we might infer that we are anxious about an upcoming presentation because our hearts are beating faster, and our breathing is heavier. But this inference could be wrong. These bodily reactions could be because we are feeling excited about the prospect of making a great presentation. This kind of psychological reframing is often used by sports coaches to help athletes maintain composure under pressure.

If we do realize that our behavior needs to be corrected, we may sincerely try to alter our behavior. Unfortunately, this does not yield results. What we need to do instead, is to alter the causes of such behavior, which are our embedded internal beliefs and “mental thermostat.” However, as all our beliefs operate at the unconscious level, we have really no control over them.

We are generally quick to criticize behavior of people under a variety of circumstances. But, if we can appreciate that their behavior, just like ours, is driven by the unconscious and is the result of many factors beyond their own conscious control, we may be more tolerant. We may then be less critical and may even condone such behavior.

We need to recognize that respecting the perspectives or habits of others by offering them empathy is crucial for our own development. This occurs through perspective-taking, or the act of perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from an alternative point of view, such as that of another individual. But actively considering other people’s points of view happens only when we try our best to suspend our own judgement and then understand the other person’s thoughts, motives, and emotions. We also need to try to understand why they think and feel the way they do.

In this sense, perspective taking is an intentional process rather than something that is automatic. This means that we have to make a focused effort to do it. It’s also an active process that requires intentional distancing from our own perspectives. In order to do it properly, we have to have the thinking capacity, emotional resources, and proper behavioural strategies. Research finds that it becomes easier to take on someone else’s perspective when we experience positive emotion toward them, such as empathy and compassion. We also need to possess requisite emotional intelligence.

However, some researchers question our own ability of perspective-taking. Psychologist Tal Eyal says ‘We assume that another person thinks or feels about things just as we do, when in fact, very often they do not. We often use our own perspective to understand other people which could be very different from the other perspectives of others’.

Our “egocentric bias” thus can lead us to make inaccurate predictions about the feelings and preferences of others. Instead, if we allow the other persons to express their feelings and opinions freely, before making any predictions about them, we are likely to be more accurate. Tal Eyal calls this as “perspective getting” as opposed to “perspective taking”.

Apart from enabling us to understand others better, perspective-getting allows for the growth of our own knowledge base by expanding our own perspectives. It is the equivalent of seeing life as if through a tunnel and having someone break down the sides of the tunnel to create a more expansive perspective on life. Multiple perspectives are critical to gain a more holistic understanding of any concept, experience, or the environment.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of the book ‘No One Understands You and What to Do About It’ explains why we’re often misunderstood. Most of us assume wrongly that other people see us as we see ourselves. We also assume that they can understand our true character and behaviour. But both these assumptions are wrong.

“We don’t see things as they are,
We see them as we are”

Anais Nin

Theory of Mind (ToM) is our ability to understand the perspectives, mental states and beliefs of others in order to anticipate their behaviour. This ability is particularly crucial for meaningful social interactions. Though all of us employ ToM to understand others, the accuracy of our judgements is suspect. Research makes it very clear that people have a hard time recognizing the ways in which their own perceptions are biased by the interpretive lens of beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge that they view it through. This handicaps our ability to understand the minds of others in two ways. First, we tend to overestimate the extent to which others believe, think, and feel as they do. Second, when we find out that others perceive the world differently than we do, we fail to recognise our own biases and think that it is the others who are biased.