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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 some examples.

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 his thinking.

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


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