Social Psychology Textbook audit: The (In)Accuracy of Self-Knowledge

Gilovich, Keltner, Chen, & Ones, 2019, Social Psychology (5ed), p. 65-66

To understand social psychologists’ claims about accuracy of self-knowledge, it is important to be aware of the person-situation debate in the 1970s. On the one hand, social psychologists maintained that self-concepts are largely illusory and do not predict behavior. On the other hand, personality psychologists assumes that people have some accurate self-knowledge about stable personality dispositions that influence their behavior.

It is also important to know that textbook author Nisbett was actively engaged in the person-situation controversy. It is therefore not suprising that the textbook chapter about accuracy in self-knowledge is strongly biased and fails to mention decades of research that has demonstrated convergent validity of self-ratings and informant ratings of personality (e.g., Connely & Ones, 2010, for a meta-analysis).

Instead, students are given the impression that self-knowledge is rather poor.

Recall the research described in Chapter 1 in which Nisbett and Wilson (1977) discovered that that people can readily provide explanations for her their behaviors that are not in fact accurate. Someone might say that she picked her favorite nightgown because of its texture or color, when in fact she picked it out because it was the last one she saw. Even our ability to report accurately on more important decisions – such as why we chose job candidate A over job candidate B, why we like Joe better than Jack, or how we solved a particular problem – can be wide of the mark (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977).

…much of the time, we draw inaccurate conclusions about the self because we don’t have access to certain mental processes, such as those that lead us to prefer objects we looked at last (Wilson, 2002, Wilson & Dunn, 2004).

… such mental processes are outside nonconscious, occurring outside of our awareness, leaving us to generate alternative, plausible accounts for our preferences and behaviors instead.

Given such roadblocks, how can a person gain accurate self-knowledge?

The textbook doesn’t provide an answer to its own question. One possible answer could have been that it doesn’t require introspection to know oneself. Later the textbook introduces self-perception theory, which states that we can know ourselves like we know other people by observing ourselves and making attributions about our behaviors. For example, if I regularly order vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate ice cream, I can infer that I have a preference for vanilla; I do not need to know why I have a preference for vanilla (e..g, my mother gave me formula as a baby with vanilla flavor).

In any case, Nisbett’s musings about limitations of introspection fail to explain how people acquire accurate self-knowledge about their personality, values, happiness, and past behaviors, nor does it cite relevant studies by personality psychologists.

The section on accuracy of self-knowledge ends with studies by Vazire (Vazire & Meehle, 2008; Vazire 2010; Vazire & Carlson, 2011). These studies show that, on average, self-ratings and informant ratings are equally good predictors of an objective criterion of behavior. They also suggest that the self is better able to make judgments about internal states.

“Because we have greater information than others do about our internal states (such as our internal thoughts and feelings), we are better judges of our internal traits (being optimistic or pessimistic, for instance).

Students may be a little bit confused by the earlier claims that introspection often leads us astray and the concluding statement that the self is most accurate in judging internal states. Apparently, introspective does provide some valuable information that can be used to know oneself.

In conclusion, social psychologists have ignored accuracy in self-knowledge because they were more interested in demonstrating biases and errors in human information processing. The textbook is stuck in some old studies on limits of introspection and does not review decades of research on accuracy of self-knowledge (e.g., Funder, 1995). To learn about accuracy of self-knowledge, students are better off taking a course on personality psychology.

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