The Elusiveness of Self-KnowledgeYesterday's post is an example of how routinely assessment instruments come up in discussions of how to characterize the qualities and competencies of effective businesspeople. These references to assessment tools that include self-assessment beg the question, How well are people able to do a self-assessment?
Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has been investigating this question for many years, and his answer is cautionary. It seems that people often do not know themselves well and can only improve their self-knowledge by taking particular steps to uncover nonconscious traits and motives that play an important role in determining their decisions and actions.
As Wilson explains in his book, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, "Understanding the causes of our responses is crucial to avoiding unwanted influences on our feelings and behavior." Unfortunately, "much of what we want to know about ourselves resides outside of conscious awareness."
Wilson offers two approaches to achieving accurate self-knowledge. One is captured in the rationale that lies behind 360-degree evaluations: Learning what others think about your behavior and performance can be enlightening.
The other tack to improved self-knowledge is observing one's own behavior and the conditions under which it occurs, as opposed to trying through introspection to figure out why one does X rather than Y.
If you don't have access to Wilson's book, you can get a good idea of his thinking from "Self-Knowledge: Its Limits, Value and Potential for Improvement" (pdf), a 2004 article he co-authored with Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia.