Earlier today I listened to a RadioLab podcast in which the neurologist Oliver Sacks talked about one of his patients who, to put it bluntly, was slow.
Describing the motion of this patient, Sacks explained how the patients hand would seem to hover in the air moving imperceptibly slow as if the patient were a glacier changing at the slowest possible rate. To get a feeling for just how slow we’re talking, Sacks explained how it took two hours just for the patient to wipe his nose!
When asked about this slowness the patient seemed indignant. He had no appreciation that he was moving at a slower rate than usual, and, “seemed utterly shocked,” that the movement had taken two hours.
Although this example is a fairly extreme case, I think it shows something quite profound about human nature: the fact that we often have blind spots that are impossible for us to see.
This raises the question of how well we know ourselves. We often feel that we know ourselves better than anyone else does because we have privileged access to the subjective experience of what it’s like to be us. It seems, however, that sometimes this information can bias our perception.
Consider another example, this time coming from academia. During my freshman year I took a course that was a series of seminars related to introductory psychology. The graduate student who was teaching the course, Erik Helzer, explained a study he was conducting that explored how students predict their future performance on exams.
Having just taken the first exam in Psych 101 imagine that you are asked to predict your performance on exam two. At the same time a friend of yours, who knows what you scored on exam one, is also asked to predict your score on exam two. Who do you think will make the better preditiction?
It turns out that your friend will make a better prediction than you. This is because, as Erik explains, “peers tend to avoid the degree of over-optimism so often seen in self-predictions.” In other words, while our peers base their predictions pretty much exclusively on our past performance, we tend to rely a lot more on how we think we will improve. In general, however, we overestimate how much we will improve and this leads to erroneous predictions.
I’m not suggesting that our overconfidence is a bad think. A bit of reality distortion can often go a long way towards stimulating creativity and getting stuff done. Nevertheless, in some situations it is better to have a clear view of how things really are.
For example, if you’re trying to loose weight then it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re doing great on the new program when in reality you may only have lost a minimal amount of weight. Likewise, it’s easy to be overconfident about investments, to think that we are doing better in school than we really our, or even to believe that we are more liked than is really the case.
Instead of blindly relying on your intuitions, I think that in some situations it is better to rely on objective measures to evaluate how you are doing.
Instead of studying until you ‘feel good’ about the upcoming test, it might be more helpful to set an objective measure such as getting 85% on a past prelim. Similarly if you’re trying to become more extroverted, an objective measure, such as comments from a public speaking club or data on the number of new people you talk to each day, is probably better than relying on intuition.
The key point is to find a measure that will prevent you from becoming a victim of your own internal biases. If you were measuring someone else’s performance what metrics would you use? Determine a set of measures, then stick to them. Keep yourself honest!
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