Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Also at the You Are Not So Smart blog is an article on the introspection delusion. That's the delusion that you always know why you feel how you do or act how you do, when often you don't. And that, when asked about feelings or actions you've taken, you will actually make up a story to explain your feelings and behavior that you may actually believe, but is total bullshit.

This one is interesting to me because I have known for a long time that I often don't know why I did something or why I felt a certain way. I've even said, in conversation, "Well, I think that's why I did it. I'm not sure, I could just be making it up." And I've caught myself making up stories about why I did things, too. Often, when I've taken action X, and someone says, "Why didn't you just do Y," I will find myself coming up with a reason, on the spot, why I didn't do Y. It'll be something that is logical and makes sense but is just a story. Because the real reason is that I just didn't think to do Y, but for some reason I never want to admit that. I don't know why.

It's not like I think, "Oh, crap, I didn't think of that. I better make something up!" Instead, I immediately think of the story and start telling it without ever really even considering just admitting I didn't think of action Y. In fact, on a few occasions I have even told the story, then immediately afterwards thought to myself, "What the hell did I say that for? Why didn't I just say I didn't think of it?" and then said, "Wait, that's wrong, what I just told you. I don't know why I said that. In fact, I just didn't think to do Y." But it's hit or miss whether I actually admit that or not. And it's also hit or miss how quickly I realize I've just made up a story. Sometimes I make up the story and later realize that the story wasn't true.

But I have no earthly clue why I do that. Why, somewhere inside my mind, I think rationalizing a reason for why I didn't do something is better than admitting I just didn't think to do it.

But I've long known that the causes of many of my actions and emotional states are opaque to me. Which is very frustrating, especially when I've done something stupid or when my emotional state is causing me to think or do stupid things. And, because many people are unaware of the introspection delusion and think they always know the reason for their actions and feelings, I have often had people accuse me of being "difficult" or "too complicated" when I admit to being unable to explain my actions or feelings. Since they think they always know why they think and feel the way they do, everyone does, and so if you don't, you are weird or there's something wrong with. People get frustrated when you can't explain yourself if they think they always can.

Conversely, I have sometimes caught myself making up a story for my actions -- to myself -- when I actually do know, but don't like, the actual reasons. Not just rationalizing, but just wholesale coming up with a whole other explanation that is more palatable. I'm not sure if this ever works, if I managed to convince myself of the story instead of the actual explanation, because I don't think I could know if it did. But I suspect I must have been successful in the past or I wouldn't keep catching myself doing it. If I have been successful, then I have actually managed to induce the introspection delusion in myself.

Anyway, it's interesting how the mind works. One of the funny things I have noticed in the comments at the You Are Not So Smart blog is that a lot of people post to say that they don't fall for whatever delusion the post is on, despite the fact that part of the whole point of self-delusions is that you often aren't aware of them! And a lot of times people demonstrate the delusion in their defense of themselves as not having fallen for the delusion. It's a fascinating feedback loop going on there.


At 11:19 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I think there's a fine line between post-rationalization and expository analysis. Often we begin to understand things by constructing artificial explanations. I think this is natural and good, as long as we can keep a "reality check" in place somehow.

Often we can't, though, of course. But just as often (I believe), it isn't important whether we do or not.

When I'm asked about my emotions, I'm typically doing a fair bit of fiction. This is in part because I actually don't experience very many emotions in strong ways (aside from, perhaps, anger), and I've been steeped in a culture that believes that being emotionally "aware" is important. So I frequently have to concoct something just to get through the absurd question in the first place. My real answer in most of those cases would probably be, "Why is it important?" or "Eyes on your own paper."

And, as often as not, I'll adopt a "reasonable sounding" explanation for an apparent emotional response because I'm human and humans need the inexplicable to become facilely explained (see religion). Much less frequently, but sometimes, this gets weaved back into my own narrative, and in later reflection I wonder how much of my explanation is meaningful and how much is BS.

But constructing a story for the purposes of analysis is more than a reasonable activity, it's the very nature of science: build a model, test a model, reject what doesn't fit the evidence. Nothing about that process suggests that the model is "Correct" (TM) afterward ... just useful (hopefully).

I'm an epistemological relativist, so asking me what is "True" about an internal model is like asking me whether or not I think Han Solo liked pasta (assuming they had pasta way back then and so far away): Han Solo is a fictional character, he neither liked nor disliked pasta. Asking me whether the post-rationalized narrative of why I felt the way I seemed to feel is "True" or not is similarly pointless: Of course it isn't "True" ... it's just my best guess *after* having observed all the facts. The "Truth" is that there aren't simple emotions, and most people are motivated most of the time by many, many things.

A better question (in my mind) is why we feel the need to explain our emotions at all? To ourselves or others. Perhaps we should just learn to be and feel, and forget the explanations altogether.

Like you, I sometimes call myself out when I've caught myself manufacturing something in a discussion. But sometimes when I do so, I try to acknowledge that this is not an inherently bad thing to do: "Wait, I think I just made all that up. But let's assume for the moment that this is a reasonable explanation ..." Then continue the discussion. Supposition is a powerful pathway to comprehension, I think.

P.S., I'm very glad your back to your blog.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

Thanks. Who knows if I'll keep it up or not.

I think the need to explain our emotions to others probably comes from the idea that one's motives are relevant in judging one's actions, not just the actions themselves. In law it is called mens rea, the idea that some crimes require a certain state of mind in order for an act to be criminal. Some crimes, to be crimes, require you to intend to commit a crime, while, for example, premeditated murder is worse than murder committed on the spur of the moment.

So, I think, people often want others to explain how they felt because they are using that information in part to judge you and your actions.

For myself, I have, I think, a lot more strong feelings than you do, so I spend a lot of time analyzing my feelings in order to attempt to understand how and why I do things and feel things in order to understand and (hopefully) improve myself and/or to become more emotionally healthy. Not sure how much good it does, though, so your point about just having feelings and not trying to explain them is well taken.

After all, I've had a number of therapists tell me that I am the most self-aware patient they've ever had. But that doesn't mean I'm the happiest or healthiest patient they have. So it isn't necessarily good to understand/be able to explain one's emotions, and not necessarily bad, I think, if one can't.

At 8:07 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

A Long-Winded Reply in Two Parts: Part I

I do a lot of introspection as to my reasoning process, actions, latent and manifest motivations, etc. I've even (historically) spent a fair bit of time considering the underlying causes and utility of my emotions. Indeed, for a long time, I engaged in the same kind of emotional analysis that (for example) my wife does.

She's always been a lot more comfortable with dealing with, understanding, and "processing" emotions than I have. So I used her as a template for a while to try to "grow" regarding this. I also spend a lot of time around psychologists and cognitive scientists because the labs I've worked at for nearly a decade tend to have an abundance of them. This has had me listening to many talks and reading many papers that have, at least in part, something to do with the importance of, and purpose for, emotions in our decision making, etc.

Of course, Andrea is (in general) also a lot more comfortable believing that random nonsense has a meaningful, detectable signal in it. And while the psychologists I work with are often brilliant and clearly know more than I do, I frequently cannot connect their results with their theses in any logical way. Whether through my own failing or less rigorous experimental design, I cannot say.

In the last few years, I've become much more skeptical that there's much that's useful or meaningful to get from most emotional analysis. Like most people, I experience a complex array of layers of emotions at any one time stemming from sources both external and internal. Since I think about many things at a time, my emotions have many sources at one time, which makes them that much more difficult to unravel. Moreover, since the *process* of unraveling them changes them, and (as you point out in your initial post) we have a tendency to rationalize to make explanations clean and make sense, I've found that almost all "explanations" are wrong and unhelpful.

It isn't that I don't think emotions have causal factors, I just seriously doubt that we have the ability to fish the complex, undirected signal out of the sea of noise for all but the simplest and most obvious cases. I know from observation that both: 1) My internal models of the emotional states of others tend to be wrong more often than right, and 2) When other people guess at my emotional state (including those who know me well, like my wife), they are also wrong more often than right. So I've little confidence in descriptive models of emotional state, much less explanatory ones. To be honest, I think we'd all be better off if we stopped trying to model other people's emotions, but that's another discussion.

At 8:08 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

A Long-Winded Reply in Two Parts: Part II
More importantly, I am totally unconvinced that were we able to do so effectively that the information would serve us particularly well. To believe this is so seems to bring with it the implied assumption that emotions serve a productive purpose for us as cognitive beings. I know that this is the common view among those who study such things, but I have to be the heretic here: I see little evidence of it.

During my stint of "emotional growth", I fully embraced this notion: Emotions are neither good nor bad but serve a fundamental purpose -- understanding this purpose may often enrich my understanding myself. I believe I gave the thesis (vague and ill-defined as it is) it's fair due. It may indeed be true but evidence is lacking, I think.

I don't even think emotions are productivity-neutral. I think they are by and large unproductive. The emotions of others appear to me to be mainly a hindrance that cloud clear thinking and judgement. I can talk more strongly about emotions in me: While some emotions may be enjoyable (happiness, etc.), I have never found any emotion to be productive or useful. Moreover, the emotion that I experience most strongly, anger, has universally proved to be strictly unproductive.

It is not through lack of analysis or introspection that I come to this result, but precisely through introspection. Also, Andrea and I have had many (many, many) conversations about precisely this point, and she has yet to demonstrate any specific example where (for example) my anger provide necessary or useful. I've not attended a lot of therapy, but the few therapists I have seen have also never passed the "vague axiomatic assertions" or "contrived hypothetical examples" stage in this respect.

So I've reformed my view of all of this as of late. I think we want to believe emotions are useful and necessary, and so we are highly skilled at rationalizing them to be so. This confirmation bias is a part of the problem, I think. I earnestly believe we'd all be better off with a more zen-like approach: let emotions occur and let them go. Accept the possibility that they have no discernible meaning, purpose, or importance.

Or maybe we need the Kolinar, I don't know.

Andrea, of course, vehemently disagrees. And when I ask her to consider (at least) the possibility that emotions have no fundamental (measurable) purpose but are merely cognitive flotsam (or something like that), she steadfastly refuses. Also, it's a view that I cannot express among my colleagues without being shouted down and deluged with citations to papers that offer some evidence that emotions have measurable impacts on our cognition in some way and are traceable to environmental factors, which doesn't really address my position at all.

[By the way, you should see how worked up cognitive scientists get when I make the assertion, "I'm not convinced there is such a thing as a 'consciousness'." There's a lot of spluttering and gaping with incredulity. But that's another discussion, again.]

It just seems to be a generally accepted modern axiom that emotions are functionally important aspects of our cognition, and that "growth" involves increasing and incorporating a better understanding of our emotional state and its cause into our understanding of ourselves. So I guess I'm emotionally devolved because I cannot recognize the importance, necessity, and meaning of emotions.

Of course, my irritation at being considered so is ironic ... but not useful or meaningful.


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