The Blindness of Self-Perception: Why We Misread Our Motives

5 min read
Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

Grasping the deeper meaning behind our efforts is crucial for successful goal attainment. After all, if we don’t know why we do something, we may not devote the necessary effort to achieve the outcome and may give up prematurely when a hurdle is encountered. Uncovering the reasons behind our actions is complicated because motives are often unconscious. However, when we accurately determine our purpose, we can adapt our strategies in the face of obstacles and reassess our expectations to avoid potential setbacks. In this discussion, I’ll delve into the concealed influences that shape our decision-making process and explore why these factors are critical to master everyday life challenges.

From science to pseudoscience

Personal expectations are heavily influenced by scientific findings. For instance, let’s say you want to lose 20 lbs before the new year. Contemplating a diet likely means we think about conceptions of health (e.g., “I heard Keto really works.”), recommendations from experts (e.g., “My doctor loves the Keto diet.”), as well as cultural norms (e.g., Thin people get better job offers according to Agerström and Rooth, 2011.).

The conundrum begins when we accept what we hear and feel as correct and believe our view represents evidence-based truth, which is often a misconception. In reality, many of the perspectives advanced in the media are unverified or based on the interpretation of science by nonexperts, who summarize and dilute scientific findings. The scientific purpose of the original author may not be the message that is ultimately heard. The reinterpretation often results in the broadcasting of pseudoscience. In addition, there are several other reasons why our personal perceptions may become distorted.

Science knowledge evolves.

What’s right today may be wrong tomorrow. Scientific sources, while generally reliable, are prone to inaccuracy. Scientific knowledge is dynamic; as new discoveries unfold, previously accepted theories may be challenged or revised. Additionally, the peer-review process, while essential for maintaining integrity, is not foolproof and may not catch every potential error or bias. Funding sources can also play a role, as studies financed by certain entities might introduce conflicts of interest when making scientific recommendations (Krimsky, 2013). Individual researchers may bring their own perspectives and biases into their work, influencing the interpretation of data including blatant falsification (O’Grady, 2023). Additionally, incomplete or selective reporting of results can occur, leading to a skewed representation of the overall scientific phenomena under investigation.

Cultural and social media amplification promote misinterpretations.

People often accept culturally accepted practices as truth due to the powerful influence of tradition and social conformity. Individuals within a culture often display behaviors without questioning their validity, because, when we act in a certain way, we feel closer to others who have similar beliefs and behaviors. Take, for example, two daughters who for years observed their mother cut the ends off their Thanksgiving turkey and throw the cuttings in the garbage before cooking. Years later, when they cooked their own turkeys, they also cut off the ends and trashed them. One year, the mother asked the older daughter why she did this. The daughter said, “It was what you always did, so I thought I should do it, too.” The mother laughed and replied, “I only cut the ends off the turkey because the whole bird wouldn’t fit in our little oven” (Hoffman, 2015).

Why do meaningless practices persist?

The psychological comfort derived from conformity to established norms can lead individuals to accept these practices as unquestionable truths, reinforcing a cycle of adherence to tradition. The problem gets amplified when people post their practices on social media. Powerful players also cultivate misconceptions intentionally. Questionable health gurus leverage pseudoscience to market supplements and self-help books. Social media channels algorithmically amplify content that provokes engagement over accuracy. These practices become deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness and are passed down from generation to generation, creating a sense of continuity and deeply ingrained cultural beliefs that are embraced with little resistance. As a result, the culturally accepted practices become truth, with sometimes little if any evidence justification for the practice or belief.

Personal perceptions are skewed.

Research in psychology has consistently shown that people are often poor at understanding their own motives (Feldon, 2013). One explanation for this phenomenon is that introspection—the process of looking inward to examine one’s thoughts and motives—is limited and often unreliable. Many mental processes occur outside of conscious awareness, making it challenging for individuals to accurately report on the underlying reasons for their behaviors. Another problem is the reality of social desirability. We tend to exhibit behaviors we are told are appropriate but may not completely endorse the behaviors we display. The discrepancy between what we say and do and our inner feelings reveals the inherent challenges individuals face when attempting to fully understand the reasons for their actions.

Bias beware.

Cognitive biases can significantly contribute to false self-perceptions by distorting the way individuals interpret and remember information about themselves. One key bias type is confirmation bias, where people tend to seek, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs (Peters, 2022). This bias can lead individuals to selectively attend to information that aligns with their self-concept while ignoring or downplaying contradictory evidence. For example, someone with a positive self-image might emphasize and remember compliments while dismissing or forgetting criticism. Furthermore, the availability heuristic can influence self-perceptions by causing individuals to rely on readily available information when assessing themselves (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). This bias may lead people to give undue weight to recent or memorable events, potentially overlooking more comprehensive information that could provide a more accurate self-perception.

What preventive measures can I take?

By raising awareness of how misconceptions arise and spread, we can dampen the cycle of misrepresenting and oversimplifying science. Careful transmission prevents unreliable factoids from hijacking our self-concepts and behavioral choices. With more rigorous skepticism and clear communication, evidence can enlighten us without distortion—leading us away from alluring falsehoods and toward empowering truths.

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