The Importance of Self Awareness
In Part One of The Intelligence of Self Observation
I point out how at the highest levels, better brainpower cannot
be separated from higher self awareness. How do you become more
self aware? Some people turn to meditation, and this is a good
start. This helps one deal with the "monkey mind,"
which describes how the mind often jumps from thought to thought
like a restless monkey in a tree, jumping around from branch
to branch. The idea is to "tame" that busy barrage
Meditative practices help you observe things more clearly,
concentrate better, and perhaps think more efficiently. Efficient
doesn't necessarily mean effective, however. A perfectly tuned
car can still take you to the wrong destination, right? Self
awareness, then, starts with this meditative observation of the
"chatter" in your mind, but for more powerful thinking
you have to look deeper, to see the content of those thoughts
and identify the patterns and biases working there, often unnoticed
With that in mind, here are some more of the common biases
and other patterns of thought that can get in the way of better
Effective Thinking - Three Stumbling Blocks
We're not always aware that we're under the influence of a
bias against the source of an idea. For example, even a very
rational scientist may discount the theories of another, without
realizing that it has as much to do with his dislike of the person
as with the merits of the ideas. If you doubt this, you can prove
it to yourself with an experiment. Tell 100 people, "John
Wayne said that citizens have a duty to fight for their country
when their government asks them to. Do you agree?" Then
make the same statement to another 100 people, but start with
"Adolph Hitler said..." See how many agree with each
You can guess the results without doing the work. We know
from experience that where information, ideas, or even evidence
comes from helps determine how people perceive these things -
even when there is no rational reason to differentiate (it is
rational, of course, to be more skeptical of information from
a source with a justified reputation for being unreliable). It
is common to note this bias, but it is also common to assume
that "I'm not like that." Of course we are all subject
to this ordinary pattern of thought.
To get past this, then, we have to become aware of it in ourselves.
We can start by asking questions like, "How do I feel about
this source, and could that be affecting my thinking?" You
might hate the slant of a particular news channel, for example,
and so discount the importance of something they report on. Upon
reflection, you realize that despite the political slant to their
reporting, they never invent facts, and that if you saw the same
story on a different station you would have thought about it
Here's another approach: When you feel a strong negative or
positive reaction to some idea, evidence or information, imagine
for a moment what your response/reaction would have been if you
heard the same thing from a different source. In fact, imagine
several sources and pay attention to what your mind does. We've
probably all heard a friend defend the ideas of a favorite politician,
even though we know he would denounce the same ideas if they
came from someone he didn't like. To see if, and to what extent,
this is happening in yourself, do this little mental exercise
as honestly as possible.
We all have some fundamental ideas about various aspects of
life. I hesitate to call this a "philosophy," because
these thoughts are not always consistent nor consciously formulated
in a person. In fact, many people's unconscious philosophical
perspectives contradict conscious beliefs. For example, a man
might openly express capitalistic beliefs and yet still feel
like business is somehow "dirty," perhaps because of
Whether conscious or not, our philosophical "leanings"
can affect our ability to clearly and rationally think about
things. For example, suppose a woman has a basic feeling or philosophy
that hard work toward goals is what makes us happy. Then she
reads about a study which found that those who could not quickly
name three specific personal goals were actually happier than
those who could. What might her response be?
I made that study up by the way. If it was true, though, it
might be fascinating to take it further and see why people without
definite goals were happier. However, given this woman's basic
philosophical bias, it seem likely that she might start asking
questions like, "How did they measure happiness?" and
"Why did they have to name their goals quickly?" These
are valid questions, but probably a reactive challenge to the
validity of the study rather than an attempt to get at the truth.
Or to put it another way, the "truth" she wants to
get at is getting in the way of honestly looking at the evidence
and learning something new.
Before we consciously see the logical implications of an idea,
our unconscious mind has already figured them out, and caused
an uneasy feeling if they contradict other important beliefs.
We then react according to this "processing," and we
may even feel obligated to defend our response -that's where
rationalization enters. If we asked this woman why she so quickly
attacked the study rather than exploring the fascinating implications
of its findings, she might say, "Because there is so much
bad science out there." True, perhaps, but we would have
to wonder if she did the same with studies that confirmed her
With self observation we develop more self awareness. How
do apply that here? When you react quickly to something, don't
allow yourself to create "reasons" to defend your reaction.
Instead look for causes that may have been hiding just below
the surface. What important beliefs do you have that might be
challenged or confirmed by this new information or idea?
If we think a certain way because all of our associates and
friends do, that can be fear of being ostracized from the group.
Imagine if a scientist found evidence of a physical aspect of
thoughts. Perhaps his mind races ahead to imagine the ridicule
he'll face from his peers if he mentions such a radical hypothesis,
so he ignores what he found, and stops thinking about it.
This bias is commonly used against us. A person starts a statement
with, "We all know that..." and whether what "we
all know" is true or not, we have been warned that we will
be looked at as an "outsider" if we disagree. This
is less a statement of the obvious than an argument from intimidation,
but it is often more subtle than this. For example, there is
an unspoken agreement among many people that they should never
point out that affirmative action (purposely hiring minorities)
fits the exact definition of discriminatory hiring. I propose
that such social "correctness" not only intimidates
people into silence, but it prevents clear thinking (and certainly
rational discussion) on some topics.
There may be good reasons to limit what you say, but why limit
what you think about? Ask yourself what uncomfortable thoughts
you've entertained at times. Then do a simple experiment. Imagine
if you lived in a place where everyone agreed with those ideas.
Would you feel more comfortable exploring them? You may be biased
and limited by the beliefs of those around you.
Note: I hope to soon put together a larger list of
common biases that affect thinking in general. I will also have
more on self awareness. When these other pages are ready, I will
link to them from here, as well as announce them in the Brainpower