Friday, June 08, 2007

Why Are People So Confident About Their Stream of Experience?

One theme in my work is this: I don't think people are generally accurate in their reports about their stream of experience, even their concurrently ongoing conscious experience. But if people are so wrong about their phenomenology -- their imagery, their dreams, their inner speech, their visual experience, their cognitive experience -- why are they nonetheless so confident?

My suspicion is this. When we're asked questions about our "inner lives" ("a penny for your thoughts") or when we report on our dreams, our imagery, etc., we almost never get corrective feedback. On the contrary, we get an interested audience who assumes that what we're saying is true. No one ever scolds us for getting it wrong about our experience. This makes us cavalier and encourages a hypertrophy of confidence. Who doesn't enjoy being the sole expert in the room whose word has unchallengeable weight? In such situations, we take up the mantle of authority, exude a blustery confidence -- and feel that confidence sincerely, until we imagine possibly being shown wrong by another authority or by the unfolding of future events. (Professors may be especially liable to this.) About our own stream of experience, however, there appears to be no such humbling danger.

Suppose you're an ordinary undergraduate, and your job is to tutor a low-performing high school student. You are given some difficult poetry to interpret, and the student nods his head and passively receives your interpretation, whatever it happens to be. Then you do it again, the next week, with a different poem. Then again, then again. Pretty soon -- though you'll have received no significant feedback and probably not have improved much in your skills at poetry interpretation -- I'll wager you'll start to feel pretty good about your skills as an interpreter of poetry. You've said some things; they seemed plausible to you; the audience was receptive; no one slapped you down; you run no risk of being slapped down in the future. Your confidence will grow. (So I conjecture. I don't know of any psychological experiments directly on this sort of thing. Although the eyewitness testimony literature shows people's confidence will increase as they repeat the same testimony over and over, that's not quite the same phenomenon.)

Here's another case: Those of us who referee journal articles don't really receive any serious feedback about the quality of our referee reports -- just appreciative remarks from the editors and occasionally (not often, in my experience) very polite letters from the authors explaining how a new revision addresses all our "very useful" criticisms. Yet I'd wager that our confidence in the quality of our referee reports goes up over time; and I'd also wager than the quality of the reports themselves does not go up. Rather, whatever gains we might have in our actual refereeing skills are counterbalanced, or more than counterbalanced, by an increasingly rushed and cavalier attitude toward refereeing as our experience and status increases.

That feeling of being taken seriously, and of saying things that seem plausible to you, without any actual feedback about the quality of your performance -- that is, I think, essentially the situation people are in when reporting on their stream of conscious experience (at least until they meet me!). If I'm right that those are excellent conditions for confidence inflation, that might partly explain our feeling of infallibility.

(I had a nice chat about this yesterday with UCR psychologist Steven Clark.)


Sam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ADHR said...

I'm not confident that people don't receive feedback, particularly from people close to them (parents, spouses and close friends, in particular). Let me throw out a couple of examples.

Suppose a child falls and cries out in pain. To make it sufficiently lurid, suppose the child is bleeding -- so, we have visible signs of genuine injury. Now, add in the child's mother, who quickly picks the child up and says: "Stop crying -- you're not really hurt." I distinctly remember my own mother doing this to me (and she has corroborated it), and it actually did work to stop my crying. This seems to suggest that my report of my inner experience was corrected, or at least responded to a critique.

Taking a later example, suppose that my wife and I attend a party and I happen to find it extremely boring. So boring, in fact, that I'm rolling my eyes, looking for the exits, etc. My wife notices this and, turning to me, says "You can't really be bored." I consider what she's saying and, attending more closely to the events of the party, find that I'm actually not as bored as I thought I was.

Finally, let's consider the case of the philosophy freshman recently exposed to Cartesian skepticism. I've noticed that many students seem to think the argument's simply stupid, but there's always been at least one who finds it oddly compelling. (Full disclosure: I was that student, back in the day.) Such a student, I think, is relentlessly self-correcting in terms of their inner experience, at least for some time: questioning whether they really see something, or if they just think they see it.

I think these at least suggest that my reports of my inner experiences can be corrected by observers, including myself.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting, thoughtful comment, ADHR! Your examples are nice -- although I wonder if any of them really has to be interpreted as involving a correction in a judgment about a stream of experience. The mother might be pointing out the lack of serious physical injury so there's nothing to be upset about, even if there's some pain. (Maybe.) Your wife might be willing to agree that you are bored, but be saying that the party doesn't justify that reaction. The skeptic might well think he's totally infallible about his *experience*, just unsure about the outside world.

Still, I accept that we may on some occasions be corrected in our statements about our stream of experience -- I'd just say it's rare.

Jim said...


It may also be the case that, in many instances, the confidence and power of inner speech tends to grow the more that it is followed by the observer of that speech.

The humbling process may not be primarily an external exercise (ie. a critique from outside) but rather the internal discipline of allowing moments of hesitation in following, what are often instructions on how to behave, from that interior monologue.

My inner voice is quite convinced that it knows what is best for me but I am increasingly skeptical and that is a humbling process.

Please keep up the discussion on this fascinating topic.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, Jim! I wonder about the extent the voice of inner speech has causal influence over our behavior vs. the extent to which it simply expresses what was already cooking anyway...?

Jim said...


The possible casual role of the inner voice is a good one. I like the way Searle indirectly frames this topic. He argues in "Freedom and Neurobiology" that "...we have the first person conscious experience of acting on reasons. We state these reasons for action in the form of explanation. To account for these actions we must see that they are not of the form A caused B. They are of the form a rational self S performed act A and in performing act A, S acted on reason R. This formulation requires the postulation of the self or ego."

My assumption is that, in some cases, reason R is internal speech.
and we often choose to follow the
dictates of such speech as it appears in our stream of consciousness.

Your comment that such internal speech simply expresses what may have been cooking anyway seems to deny the experience of free will in favor of a neurobiological system that is totally deterministic and also seems to support a form of epiphenomenalism which says that our experience of freedom plays no casual role or explanatory role in our behavior.

Searle, on the other hand, seems fascinated with an alternative hypothesis. He seems to be trying to place rational indeterminism into our account of how the brain functions. Near the end of his book he states "First, we know that our experiences of free action contain both indeterminism ad rationality and that consciousness is essential to the forms that these take. Second we know that quantum indeterminism is the only form of indeterminism that is indisputably established as a fact of nature. It is tempting, indeed irrestible, to think that the explanation of the conscious experience of free will must be a manifestation of quantum indeterminism."

I realize that what we end up with is a wild brew of inner speech, steam of consciousness, free will and quantum mechanics--enough to keep us speculating for many lifetimes!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sure thing! I wish I knew how it went -- but I don't think that the fact (if it is a fact) that we have an experience as of freedom means that we really are uncaused in our behavior! -- but that's more the domain of my colleague John Fischer. Have you seen the group blog he has organized, The Garden of Forking Paths"?

Jim said...


Thanks for the web site suggestion will ck it out.
One other comment on this indeterminism thing. It is certainly viable to assume that simply because we have a first-person experience of freedom does not mean that our actions are uncaused. My guess is that Searle may have been influenced by the writings of Henry Stapp of the Theoretical Physics Group at the Lawrence National Lab.

Stapp is coming at this issue from the physics side, not from the philosophy/psychology side. He has written many recent papers and a new book on this topic. One paper that is a fairly good summary of his position is called "Mental Causation" and is available, along with many of his other writings, on his web site.

Take Care

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Okay, thanks!