Thursday, December 05, 2019

Self-Knowledge by Looking at Others

I've published quite a lot on people's poor self-knowledge of their own stream of experience (e.g. this and this), and also a bit on our often poor self-knowledge of our attitudes, traits, and moral character. I've increasingly become convinced that an important but relatively neglected source of self-knowledge derives from one's assessment of the outside world -- especially one's assessment of other people.

I am unaware of empirical evidence of the effectiveness of the sort of thing I have in mind (I welcome suggestions!), but here's the intuitive case.

When I'm feeling grumpy, for example, that grumpiness is almost invisible to me. In fact, to say that grumpiness is a feeling doesn't quite get things right: There's isn't, I suspect, a way that it feels from the inside to be in a grumpy mood. Grumpiness, rather, is a disposition to respond to the world in a certain way; and one can have that disposition while one feels, inside, rather neutral or even happy.

When I come home from work, stepping through the front door, I usually feel (I think) neutral to positive. Then I see my wife Pauline and daughter Kate -- and how I evaluate them reveals whether in fact I came through that door grumpy. Suppose the first thing out of Pauline's mouth when I come through the door is, "Hi, Honey! Where did you leave the keys for the van?" I could see this as an annoying way of being greeted, I could take it neutrally in stride, or I could appreciate how Pauline is still juggling chores even as I come home ready to relax. As I strode through that door, I was already disposed to react one way or another to stimuli that might or might not be interpreted as annoying; but that mood-constituting disposition didn't reveal itself until I actually encountered my family. Casual introspection of my feelings as I approached the front door might not have revealed this disposition to me in any reliable way.

Even after I react grumpily or not, I tend to lack self-knowledge. If I react with annoyance to a small request, my first instinct is to turn the blame outward: It is the request that is annoying. That's just a fact about the world! I either ignore my mood or blame Pauline for it. My annoyed reaction seems to me, in the moment, to be the appropriate response to the objective annoyingness of the situation.

Another example: Generally, on my ten-minute drive into work, I listen to classic rock or alternative rock. Some mornings, every song seems trite and bad, and I cycle through the stations disappointed that there's nothing good to listen to. Other mornings, I'm like "Whoa, this Billy Idol song is such a classic!" Only slowly have I learned that this probably says more about my mood than about the real quality of the songs that are either pleasing or displeasing me. Introspectively, before I turn on the radio and notice this pattern of reactions, there's not much there that I can discover that otherwise clues me into my mood. Maybe I could introspect better and find that mood in there somewhere, but over the years I've become convinced that my song assessment is a better mood thermometer, now that I've learned to think of it that way.

One more example: Elsewhere, I've suggested that probably the best way to discover whether one is a jerk is not by introspective reflection ("hm, how much of a jerk am I?") but rather by noticing whether one regularly sees the world through "jerk goggles". Everywhere you turn, are you surrounded by fools and losers, faceless schmoes, boring nonentities? Are you the only reasonable, competent, and interesting person to be found? If so....

As I was drafting this post yesterday, Pauline interrupted me to ask if I wanted to RSVP to a Christmas music singalong in a few weeks. Ugh! How utterly annoying I felt that interruption to be! And then my daughter's phone, plugged into the computer there, wouldn't stop buzzing with text messages. Grrr. Before those interruptions, I would probably have judged that I was in a middling-to-good mood, enjoying being in the flow of drafting out this post. Of course, as those interruptions happened, I thought of how suitable they were to the topic of this post (and indeed I drafted out this very paragraph in response). Now, a day later, my mood is better, and the whole thing strikes me as such a lovely coincidence!

If I sit too long at my desk at work, my energy level falls. Every couple of hours, I try to get up and stroll around campus a bit. Doing so, I can judge my mood by noticing others' faces. If everyone looks beautiful to me, but in a kind of distant, unapproachable way, I am feeling depressed or blue. Every wart or seeming flaw manifests a beautiful uniqueness that I will never know. (Does this match others' phenomenology of depression? Before having noticed this pattern in my reactions to people, I might not have thought this would be how depression feels.) If I am grumpy, others are annoying obstacles. If I am soaring high, others all look like potential friends.

My mood will change as I walk, my energy rising. By the time I loop back around to the Humanities and Social Sciences building, the crowds of students look different than they did when I first stepped out of my office. It seems like they have changed, but of course I'm the one who has changed.

[image source]


howard b said...

Eric, though your firsthand account has as much validity as mine or anyone's you are overgeneralizing from your own case, I think. I think self knowledge is not directly measurable, but can be seen indirectly in everyday life, just as the sun can be seen by the moon, and it requires a certain openness,
I mean people say that Montaigne had self knowledge and maybe Freud, or some other analyst or psychologist.
Further,some psych and sociology and philosophical theories must be given due consideration.
I don't think it's as simple as "this is a hammer," or "these are my two hands."
Just a few thoughts.
I think like any variable it well varies within the day and between people

Mike Roche said...

Great post, Eric! I think this is all very plausible.

One initial worry I had is that the inferential base seems to include information about your mind (how things seem too you, what you're thinking, etc.). Upon a careful re-reading, however, I see that you (mostly) describe the inferential base in purely first-order terms: they are beautiful but unapproachable; they are obstacles; etc. NOT: they *seem to me* to be beautiful but unapproachable, *I regard* them as obstacles, etc.

This strikes me as being very much in the spirit of transparency theories of self-knowledge (Alex Byrne's recent work, for example). Since we perceive the world via our minds, our judgments about the world can provide us with an indirect means of learning about our minds.

I'm very sympathetic to this approach myself. In keeping with your pluralism, however, perhaps you regard this kind of procedure as being merely one part of the very messy and complex story.

Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SelfAwarePatterns said...

One of the things I find interesting about perception is that, at least according to a lot of current theories, a perception is a prediction, or more accurately, a cluster of predictions. When we perceive something, the various attributes tell us whether it's food, a predator, or an affordance useful to us in some other manner.

What I've only started realizing is that these predictions are always for a purpose. Some artificial intelligence researchers are now thinking that in order for a system to have general intelligence, it may be necessary for it to have a physical body, and some even argue that it might be necessary for it to have homeostatic feelings. Only then would it perceive, that is, predict things similar to what we perceive.

Reading your account Eric, I suddenly realized that our dispositions alter our current purposes, which means that the affordances in the environment are different from when we're in a good mood vs an angry one vs a fearful one, which means we're going to predict different things. All of which is to say, it might be that we literally perceive different things when we're in different moods. And there is no pre-mood version of the perception, only the perception relative to our current dispositional state.

George Marshall said...

This is a lovely post, and, I think, begs for a psychoanalytic interpretation - I think that what you're describing are projective processes (seeing your mood in the world around you) and, by reflecting on this, the gathering-in of these projections. I can't help but wonder whether, as you become more aware of these projective tendencies, you might start employing them less - and have a more immediate awareness of your feelings.

As a secondary thought, I can't help but wonder if there's a gendered element to this. I have very similar conversations with my girlfriend about often lacking immediate awareness of my (negative) emotions and inferring them from my behaviour, and she thinks that it's a masculine trait.

cathalcom said...

very interesting. Isn't this one of Sartre's core insights? That we see ourselves first through other people's eyes. There is a growing literature showing humans are 'super charged' for social cognition - we are very good at seeing things from others' perspectives, in some cases such that what others' can see influences our own judgment of how the world is (even when we can see it to be otherwise). Here's a discussion:

No reason why we wouldn't also see our moods primarily from other people's perspectives, great topic for a study.

Anonymous said...

"I've increasingly become convinced that an important but relatively neglected source of self-knowledge derives from one's assessment of the outside world -- especially one's assessment of other people."

There is no doubt that the solipsistic self-model is the arbiter in these matters. A young boy was taken to a pasture outside of his village and asked by a wise man to lie down in the grass facing the village and to describe the village. The young boy expressed that he could not see the village because the grasses blocked his view. The young boy was then asked to stand, facing the village. Every time the young man attempted to look at the village, the wise man put his own face directly in front of the young man's face so he couldn't see. As the young man was becoming more and more frustrated, the wise man briskly slapped the young man across the face, replacing his frustration with irrepressible rage.

The moral of the story? The village is the same, it never changed. The only thing that changed was the mood of the arbiter.


Arnold said...

My wife this morning announced: we could go to Disney Hall new years eve to hear someone sing...I'm a 76 year old, I almost don't want to do anything anymore...but...

I was introduced to practicing-searching for self-knowledge over 55 years ago, and slowly thru the years empirical-knowledge has become self-knowledge. With others I have had to learn to continually verify, what about myself is actually real.

As your posting notes everything takes us from ourselves, "this is the reality of self knowledge", "self knowledge is oneself as knowledge", returning again and again to this, more and more...

Some philosophical terms in coming to terms with self-knowledge, minding-reasoning, seeing-reporting, allowing-sensing,'s to openness...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments, folks!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

There isn’t much for me to disagree with in what you all have said!

chinaphil said...

This post left me wondering what the difference is between mental states that I'm aware of, and mental states that I'm not aware of. Sometimes I know that I'm feeling happy/sad/grump/excited/curious; but sometimes I don't. And maybe that's just it: sometimes you realise, and sometimes you don't. But that's a bit unsatisfying as an answer! I wonder if there's anything more systematic that we can say about the difference between the situations.
Perhaps there's more of a tendency to deny to oneself and others that one is in a "negative" state - grumpiness or depression. But that's definitely not absolute. And there are some well-known examples where we neglect our own happiness: times when you're in "flow", concentrating on an enjoyable activity.
There are some states where the way you interact with people is integral to the state itself. For example, feeling maternal, or feeling jealous. If you notice that you're experiencing one of those feelings, you might choose to moderate, exaggerate, or otherwise modulate it; if you don't notice, then you wouldn't have the ability to do that... But that aside, I can't think of any key differences.
I can't think of any key differences! In which case, why do we sometimes notice our moods. You suggest that some of our moods are literally inaccessible to us without using third-person evidence... but why would that be so? What is it about that grumpiness that is hides it from our inner eye? I'm stumped!

alg said...

If you can only know your state of mind by how you tend to react to things, then could you design a procedure for measuring your state of mind by always exposing yourself to standardized neutral stimulus and observing your reaction? For instance, it could be an image of a face with an ambiguous smile, or a song that sits at the threshold between inspiring and insipid. When you want to know how you feel, just take a moment to contemplate the picture and listen to the song, and see how it strikes you.

Would long use “wear out” the effects, or or allow you to develop a more finely calibrated sense of your own reaction and therefore your own mood?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

ALG: I wouldn't say *only*, since there are other ways too, -- but yes, that's an interesting idea and probably underrated as an approach.

D.W. Brown said...

I have been training of actors in the Meisner Technique for over 30 years and, consistent with the adage “don’t act with animals or children, they steal all the attention,” the primary goal is to get performers to be fully present in the moment. The practice is to constantly be pursuing a more specific answer to the question, “What are they doing and how do I feel about it?” Not, “What do I make of it?” Not, “What would that be called?” (We live and feel in one world, we think and name in another). If you arrive at an answer, you’re wrong: it’s now something else. To give up your sense of yourself (“the swinging door”) and be all experience is simple, but it’s very scary because you can’t monitor how you’re coming across and you kill that voice you believe is the captain of the ship... although, in truth, it’s just its noisiest passenger.

The inner life is only awakened by the outer, not by cold speculation, which only dries up the sap of life. - Johan Wolfgang von Goethe