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The introspection illusion - the unreliability of our introspection

The introspection illusion is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly think they have direct insight into the origins of their mental states, while treating others' introspections as unreliable. In certain situations, this illusion leads people to make confident but false explanations of their own behavior (called "causal theories" or inaccurate predictions of their future mental states.
The illusion has been examined in psychological experiments, and suggested as a basis for biases in how people compare themselves to others. These experiments have been interpreted as suggesting that, rather than offering direct access to the processes underlying mental states, introspection is a process of construction and inference, much as people indirectly infer others' mental states from their behavior.
When people mistake unreliable introspection for genuine self-knowledge, the result can be an illusion of superiority over other people, for example when each person thinks they are less biased and less conformist than the rest of the group. Even when experimental subjects are provided with reports of other subjects' introspections, in as detailed a form as possible, they still rate those other introspections as unreliable while treating their own as reliable. Although the hypothesis of an introspection illusion informs some psychological research, the existing evidence is arguably inadequate to decide how reliable introspection is in normal circumstances. Correction for the bias may be possible through education about the bias and its unconscious nature.

  • Confusion between content and process: People are usually unable to access the exact process by which they arrived at a conclusion, but can recall an intermediate step prior to the result. However, this step is still content in nature, not a process. The confusion of these discrete forms leads people to believe that they are able to understand their judgment processes. (Nisbett and Wilson have been criticized for failing to provide a clear definition of the differences between mental content and mental processes.)
  • Knowledge of prior idiosyncratic reactions to a stimulus: An individual’s belief that they react in an abnormal manner to a stimulus, which would be unpredictable from the standpoint of an outside observer, seems to support true introspective ability. However, these perceived covariations may actually be false, and truly abnormal covariations are rare.
  • Differences in causal theories between subcultures: The inherent differences between discrete subcultures necessitates that they have some differing causal theories for any one stimulus. Thus, an outsider would not have the same ability to discern a true cause as would an insider, again making it seem to the introspector that they have the capacity to understand the judgment process better than can another.
  • Attentional and intentional knowledge: An individual may consciously know that they were not paying attention to a certain stimulus or did not have a certain intent. Again, as insight that an outside observer does not have, this seems indicative of true introspective ability. However, the authors note that such knowledge can actually mislead the individual in the case that it is not as influential as they may think.
  • Inadequate feedback: By nature, introspection is difficult to be disconfirmed in everyday life, where there are no tests of it and others tend not to question one’s introspections. Moreover, when a person’s causal theory of reasoning is seemingly disconfirmed, it is easy for them to produce alternative reasons for why the evidence is actually not disconfirmatory at all.
  • Motivational reasons: Considering one’s own ability to understand their reasoning as being equivalent to an outsider’s is intimidating and a threat to the ego and sense of control. Thus, people do not like to entertain the idea, instead maintaining the belief that they can accurately introspect.

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