Thursday, September 25, 2014

Three Kinds of Transparency in Self-Knowledge (Or Maybe 1 3/4 Kinds); and How the World Looks If You're Disagreeable

Transparency is a fun concept, as applied in the recent philosophical literature on self-knowledge (e.g., here; see also these past posts). I want to extend the transparency metaphor to self-knowledge of personality traits, where philosophers haven't yet taken it (to my knowledge).

First, the established versions:

Transparency 1: Sensory experience. As G.E. Moore and Gilbert Harman have noticed, when you try to attend to your visual experience you (usually? inevitably?) end up attending to external objects instead (or at least in addition). Attend to your experience of the computer screen. In some sense it seems like your attention slips right through the experience itself, lodging upon the screen.

Transparency 2: Attitudes. As Gareth Evans notices, when someone asks you if you think there will be a third world war, you typically answer by thinking about the outside world -- about the likelihood of war -- rather than by turning your attention inward toward your own mental states. More contentiously, thinking about whether you want ice cream also seems to involve, mostly, thinking about the world -- about the advantages and disadvantages of eating ice cream.

In both types of case, you learn about yourself by attending to the outside world. One feature of this metaphor that I especially like is that you can learn about distortions in yourself by noticing features of the world that don't align with your general knowledge. Gazing through a window, if the trees are a weird color, you know the window is tinted; if the trees wiggle around as you shift head position, you know the window is warped. If the lamplights at night radiate spears, you've learned something about distortions in your vision. If your paper is The Best Thing Ever Published, you've learned something about your egocentric bias.

This brings me to:

Transparency 3: Personality. Since I think personality traits and attitudes are basically the same thing, I regard Transparency 3 as a natural extension of Transparency 2. (And since 2 and 1 are also related, maybe we have 1 3/4 kinds of transparency rather than three kinds.) To find out if you're the kind of person who loves children, think about children. To find out if you're an extravert, think about parties. Since your personality colors your view of the world, one way to learn about your personality is to look at a relevant part of the world and notice its color. (You can also consider your past behavior; or directly try a label on for size; or ask friends for their frank opinion of you. Transparency-style reflection on the world isn't the only, or even always a very good, route to self-knowledge.)

This approach might work especially well for the "Big Five" personality trait Agreeableness. "Agreeable" people are those who self-rate, or are rated by others, as being concerned for other people, interested in them, sympathetic, helpful. Several recent studies suggest that people who self-rate as agreeable tend also to be more likely to rate others as agreeable (sympathetic, helpful, etc.), and also to rate other people positively in other ways too, especially if the other person is not very well known. If you're a sweetheart, the world seems to be full mostly of sweethearts and interesting people; if you're a jerk, the world seems to be full of jerks and fools. What I'm proposing to call the transparency approach to self-knowledge of personality simply involves running this observation the other direction: From the fact that the world seems full of uninteresting and disagreeable people, infer that you are a disagreeable person; from the fact that the world seems full of warm, loving, interesting people, infer that you are a relatively sympathetic, concerned person.

Now it would be really interesting if it turned out that these sorts of perceiver effects were actually better predictors of underlying personality as constituted by patterns of real-world behavior than are the typical self-rating scales used in personality psychology -- but it's probably too much to hope that the world would align so neatly with my own theoretical biases. (Hm, what does that last judgment reveal about my personality?)


Callan S. said...

Hi Eric,

Surely 'jerks' (probably by most measures of the term) generally rate themselves as agreeable, don't they?

It's the miserlyness of the attending to the outside world that's the thing I think (and not seeing that miserlyness in the attending like you don't see yourself seeing the computer screen) - they are agreeable, all around them are selfish jerks. They'd like to agree, but those folk are far too busy being jerks to be agreed with. No one gets to be the same sort of person the miserly observer is.

No, I worry about such an evaluation as a smile police. If you don't like the beheadings and rapes and ice related murders smattered across the world, down to the 'smaller' stuff like ruthless business practice and driving that bullies pedestrians and could see them run down, it must mean one is the jerk?

It seems like telling someone they have a desease if they diagnose desease in any other people? The very same desease, even?

Meanwhile the jerk rates himself very agreeable and drives off while texting at the same time after a liquid lunch, sending a message on who to fire to get a business into shape and maybe setting up with someone were he was on a certain night (since jerks are trying to tell him he did X...again! Seriously, he'd bought dinner after all!)

I think it'd be great if there was some sort of 'aha' moment you could deliver to people who don't quite get how they are acting in regards to general social contract.

Perhaps an alternative that's in regards to miserlyness. Perhaps people attend to the outside and see if you can see yourself there, fragmentally. This gets people who see flaws off the smile police hook, because if they see their own flaws living in others as well, they aren't being a jerk. Just seeing the human frailty they share. The desease they can just as much manifest.

Well, that's my wack of the ball back across the tennis net. Hopefully it has interesting spin.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Callan. I'm inclined to think that some jerks do recognize their jerkitude, at least in a superficial way ("ah, sure, so what, I'm a jerk").

On the "smile police" idea -- that is an interesting concern. I want to be careful in framing these ideas that it doesn't turn into that!

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, this is an appealing idea. I wonder why it seems to work for jerks and sweethearts, but not for other aspects of self-knowledge like: Are you good at math?

Your thesis is actually an error thesis, right? Since, if you are a jerk or a sweetheart, and we assume a Gaussian distribution, then it follows that the rest of the world is relatively different from you, not the same. So why should we be fundamentally incompetent with respect to these kinds of self assessments, and not others?

I also wonder if the normative significance of such reports is something we need to take into account here. Belief reports, e.g., typically express a normative dimension. When I say "I believe X," I am typically not just reporting a fact about me, but also implying that the belief meets basic rationality conditions that make it permissible for me to continue believing it, and perhaps recommend that you do too. Which seems to explain the outward focus rather than the inward one.

Because of this phenomenon I think we often misreport what we believe, and also how we feel. Introspective evidence says one thing, but rationality conditions imply another. So, e.g., if your wife asks you whether you are mad about something, you say no, because being mad at about something so stupid is irrational and not consistent with your self understanding as a reasonable person.

Callan S. said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for these thoughts, Callan. I'm inclined to think that some jerks do recognize their jerkitude, at least in a superficial way ("ah, sure, so what, I'm a jerk").

But doesn't the word get evangelised in the process, alot like rappers turned the N word* into an affirmative, though it's entirely derogitory otherwise? 'Jerk' has just become a badge of honour in this respect - not an acknowledgement of failing any particular social requirements.

To pitch my miser theory again, would they think other people are (to some degree) a jerk in just the same way as they call themselves a jerk? Or is only HE a jerk? If so, there you go, the word has been evangelicised. They have the good quality and no one else does. It's that the jerk cannot share - a prima donna, he never attributes the spotlight being cast on anyone else.

Or maybe that's just one species of jerkitude.

On a side topic I think you could get the same miserlyness in sweethearts - just the object of miserlyness is the other way around. The sweetheart that attributes good things to others, but is cheap on attributing themselves as having the same qualities (to some degree) that they attributed others as having.

* Pah! I'm such a prude to not just say it!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Randy: Yes! That sounds exactly right to me. I like how you bring it together.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: I do think that's *one* way it can go. Very much so. But I also suspect that sometimes things aren't miserly in that way. Now the *perfect* jerk, I think, can't feel authentically bad about his jerkitude; but no one is the perfect jerk.

Callan S. said...

That could be the case. I'd just watch how much time is spent chasing that remnant in the jerk as opposed to spending that time with people who are more in line with general social contract.