Important Things: How You Might Try to Understand Yourself

By Jarrett Retz -November 17th, 2018

I was listening to one of Sam Harris's recent podcasts with Johann Hari titled "Addiction, Depression, and Meaningful Life". They began discussing a topic that I have read a fair amount about, and I started linking concepts across certain authors, and books, to the point where I wanted to expand on something important here.

First off, Johann brought up the book Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson, which I had read after Malcolm Gladwell had recommended it on another podcast a couple years ago. My ears perked up because it is on my Favorite Books list. Johann went on to talk about a study in the book where young men misattributed an increased heart rate to feelings of attraction to a lady conducting the experiment. This is one among many studies in the book where the participants incorrectly identified reasons for why they felt, or reacted, certain ways.

A person feels something in their body, and they look for reasons why they feel a certain way. Sometimes, they literally look around for reasons why. Here's the important part; that's a really bad way to find cause-and-effect because a person believes themselves and misattributes too easily. This is not a new revelation to most people, but its worth being reminded about because it seem against our nature to not believe our own thoughts.

  • Why did you do bad on the last test? Is it because you have self-diagnosed A.D.D? Or is it because you get five hours of sleep every night? Or, is it because the class is between 1-3 P.M. when statistics show that cognitive ability to analyze decreases for most people?
  • Do your morning meetings make you anxious because of the people present, or because you drank three cups of coffee before it started?
  • Is your new job not right for you because it's not your passion, or is it because you stopped working out the same time you started the new job?

The amount of variables that can affect a bad mood are numerous, and many of them are unknown to the person trying to figure it out.

It usually starts with a feeling, mood, or other conscious state and ends with rationalization. HOWEVER, it should start with a feeling, mood, or conscious state, and end with a hypothesis.

Jonathan Haidt talks about the same rationalization technique, but in a different arena. He refers to it as "moral reasoning", as a part of the "social intuitionist model" in his book The Righteous Mind. His claim is that intuitions come first (the feeling, reaction, etc.) and then the explanation is concocted from whatever we can make sense of after the fact. Or better yet, the reasoning is constructed to, "find the best possible reason why somebody else ought to join us in our judgement."

So, sometimes the reasoning is to convince others, but almost always it's to convince ourselves.

A few more instances that fall into this category are:

  • The famous split-brain studies, show how one side of the brain reasons preposterously to figure out cause-and-effect when identifying images.
  • Daniel Kahneman discusses many fallacies of the mind in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow including, miscalculating probabilities, factors affecting job satisfaction (status/benefits compared with socializing with coworkers/time pressure/loud noise/presence of boss) among many others (I need to read that book again because it's very good)

So, why did I title this How you might try to understand yourself, as opposed to, How to understand yourself? Because all you can do is try. I don't think that someone can fully pass the class of mastering human reasoning. However, I have listed some resources to at least getting started on looking further into the subject of understanding yourself.

The best advice, that I would stand behind, is to pay close attention to the actions and circumstances of your life, try to change them, pay more attention, test your ad hoc hypotheses, and keep digging. Because anyone with a shovel can discover a whole new world just below the surface.

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