Self-Awareness and the Adaptive Unconscious

I’ve been kicking around ideas in my head (and some on paper) for my book. I’m excited to write something of my own that I can put my name on. But more than that, I’m excited about what I can create out of all the possible topics swirling around inside of me.

So I have landed on a topic: self-awareness and leadership. It’s broad and I’ll be taking my whittling knife to the tree trunk that is the topic over the next several months. 

The big idea is this: self-awareness is everything. It’s the key to personal growth and success. It’s the key to being the best version of yourself. It’s the key to being a great leader. It’s the key to owning your expertise. And it’s mission critical if you want to own your business without letting it own you.

There’s just one really big problem. Research tells us that I, you, we don’t know ourselves all that well (record scratch). If self-awareness is everything, but self-awareness is all but impossible, what are we to do?

This is one of the big questions I’ll be trying to answer in my book. Let me see if I can start to spell out the problem clearly in this blog article.

Strangers to Ourselves

When I was in graduate school learning how to think like a philosopher, one of the books we were assigned was Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. It was an eye-opening book in many ways and a lot of the examples stick with me to this day (some 15 years later).

The big idea hatched by professor of psychology, Timothy D. Wilson, is that introspection is not the best path to self-awareness (notice he isn’t arguing self-awareness is impossible). Because we are prone to making up stories about ourselves, we can’t view our own thoughts or actions objectively—at least, not from the inside. If you want to know who you are or what you feel or what will help you succeed, you need to pay attention to what you actually do and to what others think about you.

Think you’re a good driver? How many car accidents or near car accidents have you had in your lifetime? Is it above the national average? Think you’re a neat and tidy person? Would your spouse or kids agree with you?

At the time, I had a really hard time wrapping my head around the idea that other people might know me better than I know myself. The thought literally kept me up at night. Had I attended grad school merely because of a story I was telling myself about myself? Was I and everyone else truly delusional?

Strangers to Ourselves challenged me to seriously entertain these and other uncomfortable conclusions. And now, the more I learn about imposter syndrome, procrastination, and other methods of self-sabotage, the more I return to this complex idea from my days in graduate school.

Research tells us:

  • Roommate ratings better predict whether college relationships will last than self-impressions of the romance.
  • The average person claims to be more disciplined, idealistic, socially skilled, a better driver, good at leadership, and healthier than the average person (ha).
  • Ironically, people also claim to be better than most other people at producing unbiased and realistic self-estimates.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg as it were. We could also talk about the Dunning-Kruger effect (the opposite of Imposter Syndrome) and overconfidence bias. 

In all these examples, it’s not that we’re willfully deluding ourselves. We aren’t consciously lying to ourselves about our abilities, we simply lack the cognitive capacity to make objective judgments about ourselves. The truth is we all know less about ourselves than we think.

I find this fascinating and wildly confusing. One of the traits that supposedly separates human beings from other animals is our ability for introspection. Personally, I find myself evaluating people all the time based on my assessment of what I perceive to be self-awareness. The best leaders are those who know themselves—both their strengths and their weaknesses—and adjust their leadership styles accordingly. The most successful business owners I know are incredibly self-reflective and seemingly self-aware. 

Now, it’s possible that I’ve gotten this all wrong. I could be misjudging others on their self-awareness abilities. Or I could be mislabeling the traits that impress me.

So where does this leave us?

If you are still with me, the crux of the issue is this: I need to know myself well to accomplish my goals and I have this thing called an “adaptive unconscious” that is a barrier to self-awareness. 

It would be easy to blame the adaptive unconscious at this point, but that would be too quick. The adaptive unconscious is a good thing. It’s what allows us to focus on the task at hand without getting distracted by literally everything else around us. We have to tell ourselves stories to get through the day. The adaptive unconscious is not something we should—or even could—stamp out.

As I see it, these are the major questions to explore:

  • If I accept that self-awareness is fraught with error, what does this mean for how I live my life?
  • How can I work with my adaptive unconscious to find deep self-awareness?
  • How do I train myself to recognize when I’m not seeing myself objectively?
  • How can I learn to recognize my own blind spots?
  • What do I do with all of this information?

I don’t think the answer is resisting these uncomfortable conclusions. I tried that angle for a while and it left me with more cognitive dissonance, not less.

The good news is that I haven’t (yet) found anyone defending the position that self-awareness is impossible or that we should give up on trying to understand ourselves. The arguments I’ve seen are more along the lines of figuring out how to change our approach to self-awareness. 

I’ll have more to say about how to change our behavior in light of this information in the coming weeks and months. For now, I’ll leave you with this thought: being self-aware encompasses the conscious belief in the adaptive unconscious. The paradox here is that the more we learn about self-awareness, the less we know about ourselves, but also, in a surprising way, the more self aware we become. 

It’s mind bending and oh, so much fun!

And speaking of self-awareness, if you’d like to find out more about your writer type and start exploring the answers to some of these questions yourself, check out my Writer Profile Quiz

Photo credit: archnoi1