Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Nisbett-Wilson Myth

It seems like every time I present my work on our poor knowledge of our own conscious experience (e.g., here, here, and here) before a large group, someone says, "But didn't Nisbett and Wilson show that back in the '70s?"

Richard Nisbett's and Timothy Wilson's 1977 essay, "Telling More Than We Can Know" is one of the most-cited papers in the history of psychology. Looking at cases in which, for example, people seem to show amazing ignorance of the bases of their preference for a particular pair of socks, Nisbett and Wilson conclude that "people may have little ability to report accurately on their cognitive processes" (p. 246). In the psychological and philosophical lore, this conclusion has been amplified into a general repudiation of our knowledge of our own minds.

Yet Nisbett and Wilson themselves are quite clear that they do not intend their thesis that way. In a section titled "Confusion Between Content and Process" they draw a sharp distinction between "cognitive processes" (roughly, the causal process underlying and driving our judgments, decisions, emotions, and sensations) and mental "content" including those judgments, decisions, emotions, and sensations themselves. They explicitly limit their skepticism to the former. Regarding the latter they say that such "private facts... can be known with near certainty" (p. 255). In other words, despite the mythology, Nisbett and Wilson are not skeptics about introspective report of conscious experiences. They are skeptics about introspective knowledge of the causes of those experiences. They are skeptical about our knowledge of why we selected a particular brand of socks, not about the fact that we do judge them to be superior or about our sensory experience as we select them.

Wilson continues to be explicit about this. In his recent (2002) book Strangers to Ourselves, he argues that we have poor knowledge of "the adaptive unconscious". He distinguishes this from consciousness and restricts his skepticism to the former (e.g., p. 17-18).

So enough sloppy, second-hand references to Nisbett and Wilson! If you want to cite psychologists who truly argue for the view that we often go wrong in describing our stream of conscious experience, look neither to them, nor indeed to the behaviorists (who were often suspicious of the very idea that the phrase "stream of conscious experience" referred to anything worth exploring at all), but rather to early 20th-century introspective psychologists like E.B. Titchener and G.E. Mueller!


Anonymous said...

Actually, it was Steely Dan who clearly expressed the position on their very philosophically titled 1974 album _Pretzel Logic_:

"...[Y]ou don't even know your mind / and you could have a change of heart..."

But we have you to thank for articulating the original insight of Becker and Fagen.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right! I think Fagen spent a lot of time reading G.E. Mueller in the original German, so no doubt he was thinking of that! ;)