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The Black Boxes of our minds

Even to Ourselves

The stories we tell about our mental processes are logically appealing but fatally flawed more often than not.

We all have our own theories about how our minds work. Unfortunately evidence based psychology demonstrates that our theories are often wrong. The differences between how we think our minds work and how they actually work can be quite startling, especially when we try to judge others. What we think are important factors in others often are not at all, while what we think is unimportant can make all the difference.The black box of our mind

Social Psychology Study

In their classic study Nisbett and Bellows (1977) asked 128 women to judge if a person called Jill matched the requirements to work in a crisis centre. 'Jill', was a creation of the investigators, consisting of 3 pages of information: an interview transcript, answers to a questionnaire and a letter of recommendation.

The information presented to the women about Jill was the same except for 5 crucial factors which changed amongst the participants. The women were told that:

  • Jill has an attractive appearance or nothing about her looks
  • Jill's academic qualifcations are good or nothing about her studies
  • Jill had had a car accident before or not
  • Jill spilled coffee on the interviewer's desk or not
  • Jill would meet the women subjects soon or not

This meant that each woman saw a different combination of items in Jill's profile.They were then asked to judge Jill on how much:

  • sympathy she would have for others,
  • the women would like her,
  • flexibility she would have in problem solving,
  • intelligence she had.

The women were then asked to rate how much each of the above factors influenced  their rating on a scale of 1 to 7. The experimenters wanted to see whether the womens' judgements were controlled by factors they thought influenced them. In other words, do people know how their own minds work?

Poor judgement

The women turned out to be surprisingly poor at predicting the ratings of sympathy, likeability and flexibility and the effect of each on their own judgements. For example the women thought if Jill was good-looking she would be more sympathetic to others. But, it had the opposite effect; if Jill was described as good-looking the women thought others would find her less sympathetic.

They thought that the car accident would make Jill more likeable, but it made her less likeable. They thought the coffee-spilling would make her seem less flexible in problem solving; but those same women rated Jill as more flexible. And so on.

The interesting thing

All the women were wrong to the same degree. All the women probably used similar 'common sense' theories about how the mind works, which were mostly wrong. The results suggest that most of us have similar 'theories' about the way the mind works, from our culture or we worked it out from 'common sense'. The only area in which the women were accurate was intelligence. The women thought they could rely on the academic records to judge Jill's intelligence and, they could.

The weakness of introspection

This study shows how poor we are at understanding what will affect our judgement of another's personality, besides intelligence. People might know what they like, but they usually don't know why they like it. Similar results are repeated in other studies showing our lack of understanding of who we're attracted to, how we solve problems and where our ideas come from.

These results are a real challenge to psychologists like myself. The most important decisions in our lives, like choosing how we spend our time and with whom we spend it, are challenged. The stories we believe about ourselves are appealing, but are wrong more often than not.

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