Blind spots to the self: Limits in knowledge of mental contents and personal predispositions

TitleBlind spots to the self: Limits in knowledge of mental contents and personal predispositions
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsChin J., Mrazek M.D., Schooler J.W.
EditorVazire S., Wilson T.D.
Book TitleThe Handbook of Self-Knowledge
PublisherGuilford Press
CityNew York, NY

In a world filled with mysteries, one might hope to take solace in there being at least one thing we can know with certainty, namely, ourselves. While the privileged knowledge of the existence of our own experience may well represent a critical foundation for constructing an understanding of reality (e.g.. Schooler, Hunt, & Schooler, 2011), alas, even this apparent epistemological stronghold has its weaknesses. In particular, while our knowledge of the existence of our experience may be unassailable, we can nevertheless be victims to major blind spots with respect to both the contents of our thoughts and the nature of our personal dispositions. The example of mind wandering while reading nicely illustrates the limitations of our knowledge of the current contents of thought. In many situations there can be some genuine practical advantage to mind wandering. But reading is a special case, in that there is arguably no circumstance in which it is possible to read successfully while simultaneously thinking about topics entirely unrelated to what is being read. While our awareness of the current contents of thought is one domain in which our self-knowledge can be sorely lacking, it is not the only area. Given that we are constant witnesses to our every experience, it might seem as if we should have a reasonably firm understanding of our basic traits and predispositions. And indeed, such a view has some merit. The predictive success of personality measures stems to a significant degree from the fact that individuals are in many cases able to provide reasonably accurate reports of their general predispositions. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that there are times when individuals can be notably uncertain about important personal predispositions, and in particular, their capacity for generous behavior. As will be argued, not only do people maintain significant uncertainty about such traits, but this uncertainty can also serve as motivation for prosocial behavior. Accordingly, when uncertainty about their capacity for prosocial behavior is made salient, people become motivated to resolve the ambiguity by engaging in prosocial behaviors so as to persuade themselves that they do in fact possess this trait. In this chapter we review evidence for blind spots both in our awareness of the current contents of thought (in particular, the occurrence of mind wandering), and in our certainty regarding personal predispositions (in particular, the capacity for generosity). As will be seen, an understanding of blind spots in mental contents and personal traits is markedly enhanced by a consideration of the role of motivation. Under some circumstances individuals may be motivated to turn a blind eye to genuine self-knowledge, whereas in other contexts, self-knowledge can be an important motivating factor driving people to engage in behaviors that may (accurately or inaccurately) inform their self-understanding. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)(chapter)