The Intelligence of Self Observation
Why is observing yourself so important to the exercise of
your intelligence? Because much of what gets in the way of thinking
effectively and powerfully is not a lack of ability or brainpower,
but the interference of ones own reactive mind. Let's look at
John opens up a book about moral philosophy, and he is excited
to read it. But what has him excited is not exactly the prospect
of discovering new ideas. What he's really looking forward to
is the confirmation of his own beliefs, and the discovery of
new arguments to defend them and push them onto others.
This is common, of course. Many of us buy books that are based
on ideas we already agree with after all, don't we? Capitalists
buy books about the virtues of free markets, creationists buy
books about the flaws in evolutionary theory, and environmentalists
buy books about the damage we're causing to the planet. By itself,
this tendency is not harmful, and certainly not surprising. It
limits our thinking, though, when we do not recognize it in ourselves
and therefore don't make allowance for the bias it creates.
This isn't just about books, of course. In fact, we "buy"
ideas all the time from the intellectual environment around us.
We "pay" for these ideas by investing our time and
thought and ego into them. But we don't see how often we are
only interested in those that fit our existing way of thinking.
And because of that lack of awareness resulting from a lack of
self observation, we pass over facts and ideas that may lead
to a better understanding.
Seeing Our Own Biases
Suppose a man has a strong belief that "a person is responsible
for his or her actions." As a result of this and his accompanying
philosophy, he not only dismisses certain ideas, but finds them
offensive. For example, when he hears about a study showing that
most criminals have a deficiency of copper in their bodies, he
is annoyed and assumes it is an attack on the idea of personal
responsibility. "They're just helping people excuse their
bad behavior," he says.
Now, if he's not in the habit of self observation, he won't
notice that this isn't reasoning, but a reaction. It may even
seem perfectly clear to him that such science is dangerous and
ill-intentioned. On the other hand, what if he does watch himself,
and catches the reactive nature of his thinking? Then he can
question what he believes, or find a way to fit new facts into
With this and other scientific information about the physical
and psychological "causes" of behavior, he might come
to a better understanding. He might even decide that people generally
aren't responsible for their actions, but that they can
be if they so choose. Upon having this thought, he might notice
that his reactive mind is saying, "but we have to hold them
responsible or people will all be criminals." This, he sees,
is the fear that supports his prior belief. Upon seeing that,
he can think, "no, they just have to be locked up if they
are dangerous to others - that doesn't require a belief in personal
guilt" nor suggest that others will become criminals if
we don't call them "sinners."
That is one possibility. The other is that upon seeing that
there are things which encourage people to commit crimes, he
still believes that people are responsible for their actions,
but now recognizes that context is not irrelevant. We're all
weaker at points in time after all, for all sorts of reasons,
and recognizing this isn't a denial of responsibility for our
actions. Perhaps correcting nutritional deficiencies, treating
psychological problems and providing a better environment for
people will lead to many less of them choosing to do bad things.
However he changes his thinking or broadens his understanding,
it happens because of self observation. The resulting self awareness
lets him see his biases and work past them.
This isn't just about philosophical examples like those given,
either. Simple pride about ones theory in biology, economics
or family life can blind one to better ideas if it is not recognized
as a limiting force. Being afraid to admit ignorance is another
mind-killer. There all sorts of other things going on inside
us too. One's own unconscious mind throws many obstacles in the
path of clear thought, and self observation is what allows us
to clear the way for better brainpower.
Part Two is here: Self Awareness