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OPINION | DAVID BROOKS: The mirage of self-awareness

by DAVID BROOKS NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE | September 19, 2021 at 1:50 a.m.

We often don't know why we do what we do. You can ask somebody: Why'd you choose that house? Or why'd you marry that person? Or why'd you go to graduate school? People will concoct some plausible story, but often they really have no idea why they chose what they did.

We have a conscious self, the voice in our head, but this conscious self has little access to the parts of the brain that are the actual sources of judgment, problem-solving and emotion. We know what we're feeling, just not how and why we got there.

But we also don't want to admit how little we know about ourselves, so we make up some story, or confabulation. As Nicholas Epley puts it in his excellent "Mindwise," "No psychologist asks people to explain the causes of their own thoughts or behavior anymore unless they're interested in understanding storytelling."

This finding hurts my sense of dignity. I like to think that I am in some way living my own life for reasons I understand.

George Orwell wrote a great essay called "Why I Write" that offered reasons for why he became a writer: He desired to appear clever in public, to play with language, to understand things, and to alter the direction of events. I like to think the rest of us can achieve at least half as much accurate self-knowledge into our motivations as Orwell did.

Finally, I feel bad for all those people--from René Descartes to modern commencement speakers--who said the key to life is to "know thyself," "look within" and "do the inner work." This advice seems like narcissistic nonsense in light of recent research.

I asked Mary Pipher, the legendary therapist and author of "Reviving Ophelia" and many other books, if she asked her patients "why" questions. She said she prefers "what, when, where and how" questions. She wants clients to become closer observers of their own behavior. She is asking them to use the mental equipment people might use to evaluate the behavior of others and to use it to evaluate their own behavior, to think about yourself in the third person.

Then I contacted Dan McAdams, the Northwestern scholar who specializes in how people tell their life stories. McAdams also doubts that we can ever really know why we do anything, so we are compelled to fall back on narratives or what he calls "personal myths."

Our pasts are not a stable body of evidence from which we can derive explanations for our actions. We are constantly reconstructing our pasts based on current goals. Moreover, our explanations for our behavior may simply be wrong or self-serving.

For McAdams, stories that are closer to "what really happened" are more reliable than ones that are distorted by self-flattery and self- affirmation. On the other hand, we want our stories to be positive and affirming. Americans, McAdams has found, tend to tell redemption stories: I was rising, I faltered, and I came back better.

Shouldn't there be some institution that teaches us to revise our stories through life so we don't have to suffer for years and wind up in therapy?

I called Lori Gottlieb, the author of "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone." She also sees therapy as a form of story-editing. But she is much more optimistic that we can get down to the sources of our behavior.

Humans have made enormous progress in understanding the roots of their behavior. If you fear intimacy and tend to be emotionally avoidant, you can consult attachment theory to gain insight into how the attachment model you learned as a toddler is influencing your relationships today. If you look at the patterns of your life--you tend to get dumped about three months into a relationship--you can discern the underlying causes.

Gottlieb says that if you just try to change your behavior without understanding the source, you will never achieve lasting change.

Finally, I called Epley, the "Mindwise" author. "Spending two decades studying mind reading really highlighted the importance of humility in life," he said. "Both recognizing that we don't have privileged access to our minds, so tone down your self-confidence, and we also don't know other people as well as we think we do."

Maybe we can't know ourselves through the process we call introspection. But we can gain pretty good self-awareness by extrospection, by closely observing behavior.

In telling ever more accurate stories about ourselves, we send different beliefs, values and expectations down into the complex nether reaches of our minds, and that leads to better desires, better decision-making and more gracious living.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Print Headline: The mirage of self-awareness


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