Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How Well Do You Know Yourself? How Much Does It Matter?

Does self-awareness pave the way toward happiness? Do you make better choices when you know your own mind?

If you know your likes and dislikes, your tastes and distastes, even your personality traits, will you be more or less likely to choose a course of action that will make you happy?

These are the questions that preoccupied Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert. Link here. For good reason: people justify modern psychotherapy-- the kind of mind-exploration that has gotten beyond childhood traumas-- on the grounds that the better you know your mind the more likely you will make choices that will you happy.

To address the issue Gilbert invented an experiment. Say that you are considering whether or not to go on a cruise to the Caribbean. How should you go about making the decision? There are two ways:

Way 1: you search your mind for past experiences... of cruises, of trips to the beach... and sort out how much each made you happy. Then you do some research about the cruise line, the itinerary, and the ship itself. In part, this involves introspection; in part, it involves research. You can do it all in isolation.

Way 2: you go down to the dock where cruise ships arrive from the Caribbean. You choose a perfect stranger, someone with whom you may or may not have anything in common, and you ask him whether he enjoyed the cruise that he had just completed.

Which should matter: your ideas or the experience of a stranger?

An easy question, one that yields a counterintuitive answer. Gilbert's research has demonstrated that if you allow the stranger to guide your choice: "... you'll be 30 to 60 percent more likely to accurately predict your own experience than by basing your decision on painstaking research and inner speculation."

So, skip all of the introspective psychotherapy. It is just going to lead you astray. You do better to rely on the experiences of strangers.

Take another example, from another experiment. You have a group of women and ask them to predict whether they will enjoy a "speed date" with a stranger.

You provide half the group with a profile of the man in question, picture and all. You tell the other half the opinion of a stranger who had had a "speed date" with the man.

As you have surely guessed, the second group predicted more accurately whether or not they would enjoy their "speed date." The experience of another woman, a stranger, was a better indicator than a study of the profile of the man in question.

I can easily imagine that these results will not show up on the Match.com website.

Now, after the women had undergone the experiment, the researchers went back to them and asked them whether, the next time they go on a blind date, they would rather have the profile or the testimony of a woman who had gone out with the potential date.

Their response: they preferred to have the profile. Evidently, they had had too much therapy.

Which goes to show you that when people have been taught to believe in independent, autonomous judgment they are capable of denying reality, even to the detriment of their own happiness.

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