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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Getting To Know You

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Getting to know `you'
Mark Tyrrell
I was set up for a blind date once with a woman who described herself in a letter to me as `fun
and bubbly!' The way people describe themselves is sometimes rather sharply at odds with
the way others see them, I find. I spent the whole of that date wondering where the writer of
the letter had got to... But that's enough about me. What about you?
Do you know much about yourself? Or do you just think you do?
When you refer to your `self', do you mean the self that relaxes in front of the TV, the self that
dreams at night, the self that gets angry, sexy, curious ­ or all of these combined? Do we all
have multiple `selves' that get wheeled on and off again as circumstances require, obscuring
a truer, more timeless `self', as the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, for example, believed? And what
about the `average person'?
We get ourselves wrong
The average person doesn't think they are average. On average, people claim to be more
disciplined, more idealistic, more socially skilled, a better driver, better at leadership and
healthier than... the average person. Logically, this is impossible. The average person is not
`above average'. Average and above average people also believe themselves to be worse in
many of these areas than average. So low self-esteem is really just misperception. If you
really are as bad as you think you are, then you are ahead of most people, because you
really do know yourself.
How do you really know someone? How do you really know yourself? Would you eat your
best friend if you had to?
How to really know someone
After you meet someone for the first time, you might tell me "Wow, they were nice!" and I
would want to know: How do you know? Have you been shipwrecked and stranded on a
desert island with them, had to go into battle and trust your life to them, had to share your
wealth, or be sold into slavery with them?
The fact is you can't know someone just from socializing with them. The closest bonds are
forged in extreme circumstances. There will always be deeper and truer bonds between men
who have fought in battle together, or between women who have survived against great odds,
than the flimsy superficial associations that come from mere socialising. In extreme times the
outer layers of self are peeled away and a truer self emerges. Connections with other people
become more real. Team bonding isn't just about drinking in the same bar.
But what has Plato got to do with all this?
Getting to know `you'


Plato and you
Quite a long time ago the Athenian philosopher Plato (first known describer of the `platonic
friendship' between men and women ­ see beginning of article) famously told us, presumably
in Greek, to: "Know thyself!" This injunction implied, of course, that most of us don't and we
really need to. Accurate self-knowledge is vital for real fulfillment. Since then hippies have
gone to India to `find themselves' without first checking behind the sofa. People go on `self
development' courses. What are they developing, exactly, I wonder? Do they know, or are
they just after the warm fuzzy feelings?
All right, let's get to the crunch. Do people really perceive themselves accurately? On the
whole? Look around at the people you know. What do you think? Naaaah! Of course they
don't. Let's look at what people think they are like and what they are really like. Oh, and when
I say `people', I include myself.
Research Plato would have loved
Strong emotion always clouds perception and so distorts it. Self-perceptions of character and
abilities are often filled with high doses of bias, misconceptions, and vanities ­ leading to high
self esteem ­ or conditioned feelings of inadequacy ­ leading to low self esteem. People
routinely and grossly over- and under-estimate their own honesty, aptitude, courage and
attractiveness to others.
Researchers Mabe ,West and Dunning found that self-perception of ability and actual ability
have a very low correlation. I already mentioned that the average driver believes they are
above average drivers! Most people think they have an above average sense of humour
(including me). More worryingly, family practitioners rating their knowledge of thyroid
disorders failed to show any insight into their actual level of knowledge [1]. Other people can
sometimes see our situation clearer than we can ourselves. College roommate ratings are
better predictors of which romances will survive than self-impressions [2]. Peer ratings among
junior doctors strongly predict who will do well on a surgical exam; self ratings do not [3].
We get other things wrong too.
Not listening to Plato
People over-predict the likelihood that they'll perform generous, ethical and kind acts. They
overestimate the odds they'll buy a flower for charity, vote, maintain a successful romantic
relationship, volunteer for an unpleasant lab experiment so a 10-year-old girl won't have to,
and cooperate with one another when money is at stake. People consistently mis-predict
themselves even though they are roughly accurate in predicting how others will perform in
these areas [4].
It seems it is easier to know others than to know ourselves. This is why it is so important to
have honest and fair friends and to listen to them. It's not that people are entirely wrong about
themselves, but they tend to exaggerate their flaws or abilities. One of the roles of the court
jester during the middle ages was to tell the King things about himself that others dared not.
The rich and famous are often surrounded by people who never give them straight feedback
about themselves, so they can turn into prima donnas and lose sight of themselves
We don't like to see ourselves as greedy, cowardly or unkind, of course, but surely any
course in true `self development' would need to provide a way of encouraging the participants
to objectively observe these unacceptable parts of the self without tipping into self-
chastisement, low self-esteem or self-congratulation? We need to know something before we
can do something about it. Wouldn't you rather know?
Getting to know `you'


Bypassing self-esteem
To be more honest with ourselves we need to bypass the whole self-esteem question. If your
self-esteem is the most important thing to you (and in our society you'd be forgiven for
thinking it is the most important thing), then the need to feel good about yourself will always
push you into defending your self-esteem, and thus warp how you actually see yourself.
When we can a) spot our weaknesses and deficits and b) get to know them and know when
they'll arise and c) not be ruled by them, then we can start to develop real self confidence.
Not the fake confidence based on refusing ever to look at ourselves and maintaining our self-
The good old rationalisation
We use rationalisations all the time to explain away positively to ourselves and others why we
did ­ or didn't do ­ certain things. Rationalisations are biased creations of interpretation rather
than the fruits of self-observation. Pompous people use rationalisations (and so do
governments). Rationalisations can turn vice into virtue ­ for example, by describing lack of
generosity as `being cruel to be kind', or laziness as `thinking time'. Until we are clear about
ourselves and what we are really like, we'll go on repeating the same old mistakes and put it
down to that other popular rationalisation `fate', or `just my luck!' When you know yourself
more accurately you can be more effective and successful, as you won't need to waste time
and energy propping up your self-esteem though fabrication and self-deceit. Nor will you have
to `work blind', as you will know when fear, or selfishness, or whatever other weakness, is
operating in you and allow for it, rather than pretending it isn't there.
Of course, the `real you', your `self', isn't in an ashram in India or behind the sofa or on a
retreat ­ it's inside you right now. Possibly wrapped in layers of bias, habit, vanity, fear and
conditioning ­ but it's there!
More psychology articles from Uncommon Knowledge
Tracey et al, 1997; `The validity of general practitioners' self assessment of knowledge'.
Cross sectional study. British Journal of Medicine, 315, 1426-1428
MacDonald and Ross, 1999; `Accessing the accuracy of predictions about dating
relationships: How and why do lovers' predictions differ from those made by
observers?' Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1417-1429.
Risucci et al, 1989; `Ratings of surgical residents by self, supervisors and peers'.
Surgical Gynecology and Obstetrics, 169,519-526
Epley and Dunning, 2000, 2006; `Holier than thou: Are self-serving assessments
produced by errors in self or social prediction?' Journal of Personality and Social


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