Your self-image fluctuates

Self-knowledge: Ten things you should know about yourself

Ten Things You Should Know About You - Page 1

Sure, we all think a lot - if not the most - about ourselves. Accordingly, we believe that in the course of our lives we know more and more precisely what makes us tick, what we feel, what kind of people we are. And of course also how we affect others. Research only knows that knowing about yourself is such a thing. "Brain & Mind" author and psychologist Steve Ayan has put together ten important insights into self-knowledge.

1. Your view of yourself is distorted

Your ego lies in front of you like an open book. You just have to look to read it. What defines you as a person, what you like and what you don't, what you are good at, what you hope or fear is revealed to you very directly. As common as this notion is - it is most likely wrong! Because, according to psychologists, we do not have privileged access to our own selves. Rather, when we look at ourselves, we poke in the fog as much as we do with a stranger.

Princeton University personality researcher Emily Pronin calls this an illusion of introspection (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology: Pronin, 2009, pdf). Our subjective introspection is distorted, but we do not notice anything. The result: our self-image often has surprisingly little to do with our real actions. For example, when it's freezing cold, we can walk past a homeless person and at the same time be convinced that we are compassionate and generous.

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According to Pronin, there is a simple reason for this. Because we are not stingy, haughty, or opinionated want, let's assume that neither are we. To support her thesis, the researcher refers to the poor time management of many people. In the case of office colleagues, we can easily see how getting lost in details increases the mountain of unfinished business. It is different with ourselves: because we set out to do our job well, we never get the idea that a lack of effectiveness is the problem. Because that would mean denying yourself the ability to have your own actions under control.

Pronin put her thesis to the test in various experiments. The researcher had test participants complete an application test, among other things. They were then told they had failed and asked to identify any weaknesses in the procedure. Although the test persons' verdict was declared one-sided - they not only had an unresolved issue with the test, but were also supposed to criticize it - most of them stated that they had approached the matter neutrally. Similar to works of art: Although the participants explained in accordance with the order why a given painting was "aesthetically poor", they found their own judgment balanced. According to Pronin, we like to ignore our own overt bias.

Is the word introspection (from Latin: introspicere for "looking into") just a nice metaphor? Are we not really looking inside ourselves, but instead drawing a flattering picture of ourselves that is tainted with typical flaws? The psychology of self-knowledge provides a wealth of evidence for this. We think we would look at each other directly and undisguised - but that's only because the processes involved run unconsciously (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: Hansen et al., 2014).

2. You often do not know what is on your mind

How well do people know themselves? If you want to answer that, you run into a problem: In order to assess a person's self-image, one would first have to know how they are really is. Researchers make do with different methods. For example, they compare the self-assessments of test subjects with how they behave, whether in laboratory tests or in everyday life. You ask other people, such as relatives or friends, to judge them. And they use special procedures to explore the unconscious tendencies that remain closed to you.

In order to measure this "implicit self", roughly speaking, one determines how closely I-relevant words are mentally linked to certain concepts. Test subjects should, for example, press one of two keys as quickly as possible when a word appears on a screen that describes a characteristic such as sociability ("talkative", "exuberant", etc.). The same key should be pressed when a self-referential word such as "my" or "I" appears. On the other hand, you have to press the other key when talking about an introverted train ("quiet", "withdrawn") or someone else ("you"). Of course, the words and key combinations are swapped over and over again in a large number of cycles. If, however, the reaction occurs faster on average when "I" meet "extrovert", then this characteristic is particularly strongly present in the self-image.

This procedure, also known as the implicit association test (IAT), was developed in the late 1990s by Anthony Greenwald and his colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle to identify covert attitudes. There are now many variants that target anxiety, impulsiveness or sociability, among other things. The calculation: lightning-fast reactions do not allow thinking. In this way, the unconscious parts of the personality can be brought to light.

Your looks reveal a lot about you

Such implicit self-concepts generally agree only weakly with the open assessments made in questionnaires. The image that we give of ourselves in surveys consequently has little to do with the lightning-fast reactions to stimulus words. However, implicit self-image often predicts a person's behavior well. This is especially true for qualities like nervousness or sociability. In other respects, for example with regard to conscientiousness or openness to new things, questionnaires provide better information on the bottom line. The psychologist Mitja Back from the University of Münster explains it like this: Implicit procedures tickle automatic impulses that make people act in a certain way. The spontaneous desire to produce in front of others, for example, can be explored so well. On the other hand, a conscientious or curious streak tends to lie on a mental level - and that is precisely what is activated during self-reflection.

Whether open questioning, implicit character test (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Greenwald et al., 1998) or soliciting judgments, none of these techniques reveal the whole truth about a person. Only in combination with each other does the personality take on measurable contours. And in the end, all procedures have to prove themselves on what the person concerned does and doesn't do.

3. Your looks reveal a lot about you

Much research in recent years suggests that our neighbors often see through us better than we do ourselves. As the psychologist Simine Vazire from the University of California at Davis has shown (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 2010), others easily recognize who we really are under two conditions: if the property in question can be easily read from external features and if it is associated with a clear positive or negative evaluation. Intelligence or creativity are desirable, unlike dishonesty or egocentrism. What nobody likes to be, we reject accordingly; On the other hand, we willingly ascribe positive things to ourselves. In the case of more neutral traits such as good-naturedness or punctuality, on the other hand, judgments by yourself and others are much closer together.

On the other hand, those traits that shape our behavior can be seen from the outside. Sociability, for example, is expressed in the fact that someone likes to talk a lot and mixes with people; Uncertainty about kneading your hands or avoiding the other person's gaze. The tendency to brood, on the other hand, takes place primarily in the head.

However, it is often hidden from us how we affect others, because we are quite blind to our own facial expressions, gestures and body language. I hardly notice whether I look stressed or whether my stooped posture reveals how heavy something is on me. Because we often have difficulty observing ourselves, we need help from others, especially from good joys (Frontiers in Psychology: Bollich et al., 2011). True to the motto: How do I know who I am before you tell me how I look?

4. You will recognize yourself better with a little distance

Keeping a diary, reflecting on yourself and having profound conversations with others - such methods of working on the ego have a long tradition. But whether you have to concentrate intensely on yourself in order to understand yourself better is questionable. On the contrary, it often helps more to gain distance from yourself - for example by letting go. In 2013, Erika Carlson from the University of Toronto (Canada) reviewed the literature on the question of whether and how mindfulness meditation sharpens the self-image (Perspectives on Psychological Science: 2013). According to her, it helps overcome two major hurdles: distorted thinking and too high standards. Mindfulness practice teaches you to let your thoughts wander by and to identify with them as little as possible. Thoughts are "only thoughts" and not an absolute truth. To stand next to oneself and look benevolently at what goes through one's head often brings a clearer self-judgment to light.

Martin Köllner and Oliver Schultheiss from the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg were able to show that our well-being grows on average, the more our conscious and unconscious motives resemble each other - so we don't toil for a career, although money and power are actually not that important to us (Frontiers in Psychology: 2014). How do you achieve this harmony with yourself? For example, through imagination. Imagine as precisely as possible what it would be like if your greatest wish came true. Would that make you a happier person? Often we succumb to the temptation to aim only for higher goals without paying attention to the stages on the way there. Just dreaming of the top figure or the executive chair is more likely to reach limits than if we look at smaller goals and possible challenges.

Those who struggle with themselves often look for failure

5. Most of the time, you think you are better than you are

Do you know the Dunning-Kruger Effect? It says: the more incompetent someone is, the less they suspect it. Not being able to do something well - be it logical reasoning, multitasking or planning - also increases the chance that you will overlook your own inability. The effect's namesake, David Dunning of Cornell University and his former PhD student Justin Kruger, were honored with the satirical Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 for their discovery.

Dunning and Kruger had given their subjects a series of tasks from IQ tests and had them estimate how well they did on them. It turned out that the top 25 percent of the participants rated their performance fairly realistically; often they even underestimated themselves a little. The worst quarter, on the other hand, had an exaggerated idea of ​​their own ability. So are showing off and failure two sides of the same coin?

As the researchers point out, it is a general characteristic of our self-perception: each of us tends to overlook our cognitive deficits. According to Dunning, the statistical correlation between perceived and true IQ is only 0.29 on average. That is poor to say the least. For comparison: the correlation between body size and gender is around 0.7. Why is there such a wide gap between would-be and real performance? Wouldn't we have every reason to assess ourselves more accurately? After all, that would save us a lot of wasted effort and so many defeats. However, a moderate degree of overconfidence clearly has advantages. According to a review by psychologists Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown (Psychological Bulletin: 1994) a pink view of the ego enhances our well-being and productivity. Depressed people, on the other hand, tend to judge themselves realistically. A subtly embellished self-image obviously helps to better cope with the ups and downs of life.

6. Those who struggle with themselves often seek failure

Even if most contemporaries have overly positive views of themselves and consider themselves, for example, more intelligent or more honest than they are - there is also the reverse case: people who notoriously belittle themselves. Disregarding and disregarding one's own wishes in childhood, often paired with experiences of violence, can trigger such a negative perception. It turns out to be a major obstacle because it leads to mistrust and doubts up to and including suicidal thoughts.

But shouldn't people with a negative self-image strive to enhance themselves? As psychologists around William Swann from the University of Texas at Austin found out, many self-doubters even seek confirmation of their fatal self-perception. Swann first described this in a study on the satisfaction of married couples. The researcher questioned couples on three topics: How do the partners rate their own strengths and weaknesses? How much do you feel valued by the other? And how satisfied are you with the marriage? As expected, those who were positive about themselves found their partnership all the more beautiful the more praise and recognition the "better half" gave them. However, those who struggled with themselves felt that they were in better hands in the marriage if their partner reflected the negative image! No trace of the desire for respect and admiration - those concerned wanted to hear exactly what they thought: "You can do nothing."

On the basis of such findings, Swann developed his theory of self-affirmation. Accordingly, we want others to see us as we do ourselves. This sometimes goes so far that those concerned literally provoke negative judgments from their environment in order to be confirmed in their self-devaluation. Behind this is not masochism, but the desire for coherence: If you tell us back what we already believe, the world appears to be in order to us.

Therefore, if you think you are a failure, you are often trying Notto make the best of yourself. Often he even works unconsciously on his own failure, because from his point of view it has to be. He misses appointments, lets his work drift and challenges the boss's criticism because he is convinced that it is correct. Swann's approach contradicts the theory of self-exaggeration advocated by Dunning and Kruger. The bottom line is that both camps are probably right: while the inflated ego is a common pattern, there is also a tendency to cement negative self-images.

Our tendency to delude ourselves

7. You are deceiving yourself without even realizing it

According to one influential theory, our tendency to self-deceive is a by-product of trying to prevail over others. Because in order to be convincing, we must first be convinced ourselves; we have to believe in the bear we tie up - at least that helps.

This is supported by the observation that successful manipulators are indeed often very impressed. Good salespeople, for example, can exude enthusiasm; conversely, procrastinators and doubters have little chance of charming others. Second, exaggerated self-judgments can also be generated in the laboratory, with the result that those concerned then appear more engaging. In one study, the participants were offered money so that in a kind of interview they could credibly demonstrate that they had excelled in an IQ test. The more the candidates tried, the more they personally believed they had a high IQ. How this actually turned out seemed secondary.

Our self-delusions turn out to be extremely changeable. We often adapt them flexibly to new situations. This was shown by researchers working with Steven Sloman from Brown University in Providence (Cognition: 2010): Your test subjects should complete a skill test in which they controlled a target object as quickly as possible with the mouse pointer on a screen. If the participants were told that good performance in this task was a sign of high intelligence, they promptly showed greater commitment and did better. Of course, they themselves did not believe that they had tried harder - which the researchers saw as evidence of successful self-deception.If, on the other hand, they led the test subjects to believe that such a stupid task could only be mastered well by less gifted minds, the performance suddenly plummeted.

But how is self-deception even possible? Can we know something without being aware of it? Absolutely! The experimental proof works like this: You play sound recordings of human voices to test subjects, including their own, and ask them to indicate whether they can hear themselves. The recognition rate fluctuates depending on how clear the recordings are and how loud the background noises are. If you measure your brain waves at the same time using the EEG, you can use certain signals to tell with great certainty whether someone has recognized your own voice or not.

Most people are rather embarrassed when they hear themselves speak on tape. Ruben Gur and Harold Sackheim made use of this in a classic study in which they compared the test subjects' statements with their brain activity (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 1979). Lo and behold: A “That's me!” Signal was often heard in the EEG without the person consciously identifying his or her voice. If you also threatened the self-image of those concerned by certifying a supposedly miserable performance in another (irrelevant) test, they said they would recognize themselves even less often. Nevertheless, her brain was well informed.

For a recent study, researchers used the academic practice tests that are so popular in the United States (Journal of Economic Psychology: Smith et al., 2017). The aim here is to correctly process as many tasks as possible in a short period of time. The result should help to assess one's own level of performance in order to fill the knowledge gaps accordingly. Cheating during such dry exercises makes little sense, on the contrary: If the result is embellished, you tend to let the learning reins drag and in the end rush through the exam. Anyone who deceives by exceeding the processing time, for example, is cutting themselves into their own flesh.

Many volunteers did just that. They just wanted to look good - unconsciously, of course. For example, the cheaters explained the excessive time budget by saying that they had been distracted and just wanted to make up for the wasted seconds. Or they said the souped-up result was getting closer to their "true potential". According to the researchers, behind this is a mix-up of cause and consequence. Smart people do better on tests; So if I manipulate my test value by simply puzzling a little longer than allowed, then I'm also more of a smart one. Conversely, telling people that doing well indicates an increased risk of developing schizophrenia slows people's ambition. Steven Sloman calls this "diagnostic self-deception": We manipulate the image we give off to suggest flattering conclusions, including towards ourselves.

The "real me" is a moral authority

8. The "real you" is good for you

Most people believe that they have a solid core, a true self. What defines them in their innermost being, their essence, is based primarily on the moral values ​​of the person and is relatively stable. Other preferences may change, but the real you remains the same. A team led by Rebecca Schlegel and Joshua Hicks from Texas A&M University asked test subjects to keep a diary of their everyday life. As it turned out, the participants mostly felt alienated from themselves when they had done something morally questionable: If they had been dishonest or selfish, they showed themselves unsettled. Experiments have also confirmed the connection between the self and morals. If test subjects are reminded of previous misconduct, their self-confidence suffers.

George Newman and Joshua Knobe from Yale University presented test subjects with case studies of liars or racists (Cognitive science: 2015). The test subjects usually attributed their offenses to unfavorable circumstances such as a hard childhood - the true nature of the person concerned is certainly different. This also suggests that we consider people to be good "at the bottom of their hearts".

Another case study by Newman and Knobe was Mark, a devout Christian who, however, is attracted to his own gender. The researchers wanted to know how the participants assessed Mark's dilemma. For conservative subjects, Mark's "real me" wasn't gay; he should resist the temptations of his environment, they recommended. Liberal-minded people felt that Mark should act out his homosexuality. If, on the other hand, Mark was portrayed as an open-minded free spirit who, however, harbored reservations about same-sex couples, conservatives promptly identified this aversion with Mark's innermost being; Liberals saw this as an expression of a lack of enlightenment. Such mind games show that what we declare to be the essence of others is primarily rooted in our values self value highly. The "real me" is a moral authority.

This is probably why we can reconcile improvements with our being more easily than deficits. Apparently, we even actively use it to upgrade ourselves: We tend to ascribe some dark side to our former selves, because then we are better off in the here and now. Anne Wilson and Michael Ross from the University of Waterloo in Canada have shown this in several studies (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 2001). Accordingly, people like to draw their former selves in gloomy colors, and the further they move into the past, the more negative the balance. As a teenager I was unbearable, for example, as a young adult I was uptight. But today it's different. To believe that you have become closer to your "real self" over time just feels good.