Blinded by Unawareness: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think Ourselves to Be

By Dr Eugene YJ Tee|03-12-2019 | 1 Min Read

How self-aware are you?

If I were to ask you to rate yourself on how self-aware you are on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being completely lacking in self-awareness and 10 being fully self-aware), how would you score? If you’re like most people, I would guess perhaps a modest, yet still respectable 6. Maybe a solid 7? Or an 8 if you’ve embarked recently on a self-improvement crusade.

Self-awareness is the ability to see oneself truthfully and honestly. This includes recognising our personality traits, the motivations for our actions, our habits, interests, and acknowledging how we are perceived by those around us. Most importantly, self-awareness helps clarify our limitations and obligations to those we share our lives with.

Self-help gurus, coaches and psychologists advocate the importance of being self-aware. Feel-good movies starring inspirational protagonists overcoming personal hurdles revolve around themes of ‘being true to oneself’. We are told that being sincere to who we are enables us to become who we wish to be.

We’ve recognised the importance of self-awareness for a very long time; the value of being self-aware predates modern psychological research. As early as 320 BC, the Greeks inscribed onto the walls of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi a phrase that translates simply to ‘know thyself’.

Ruins of forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where know thyself was once said to be inscribed. By Edward Knapczyk

This maxim – a proverb that holds general truth and wisdom, remains a popular and relatable expression in our modern-day personal development efforts. The maxim encourages introspection and self-reflection as ways to enhance our self-awareness.

To be emotionally intelligent, for instance, we are asked to start by labelling our feelings and the triggers of our emotional states. For all the ‘success’ of the self-help industry today (an industry worth USD 9.9 billion in the United States alone at time of writing), we’re still no less anxious or pessimistic about our personal growth and development.

Mid- and quarter-life crises are still prevalent, and the World Health Organisation projects that rates of depression are expected to rise in the coming years. There is no single prescription that guarantees health, well-being and success, nor is there is a single cause for this decline in our mental health.

But if we have tried to chart our paths for personal improvement by starting within ourselves and are still failing, we need to ask an important question: Are we going about enhancing our self-awareness in the wrong way?

Read: Why Self-awareness Is The Key To Great Leadership

Blinded by unawareness

Perhaps we’re not as self-aware as we think ourselves to be – a point highlighted by organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich in her book Insight. Eurich points to an unexpected finding in her large-scale study of self-awareness to back her claim.

Her research team expected self-aware individuals – those who regularly engaged in reflections of their thoughts and feelings to be happy and fulfilled in their lives. Instead, the research team found the opposite: people who engaged in more introspection reported greater levels of stress, depression, were more dissatisfied with their jobs and felt less control of their lives.

These counter-intuitive findings would lead Eurich to question how valuable introspection is in influencing our lives. In her TED talk, Eurich distinguishes between two kinds of people: those who think they are self-aware, and those who really are. Eurich estimates that just 15 per cent of us are authentically self-aware, highlighting how poor we can be at introspecting and self-reflection. She concludes with the statement that:

“On a good day, 80 per cent of us are lying to ourselves about whether we are lying to ourselves.”

Recall the score of 1-10 you gave yourself on self-awareness earlier at the start of this article. Would you now change your score? Which of these two categories do you really think you belong to now? Many of us engage in self-reflective practices thinking that it is benefitting our personal growth and development. Many of us, are, quite simply, doing it wrong.

Read also: How Self-Awareness Impacts Your Work

Right in front of us, where we can’t see them: Cognitive biases

Cultivating self-awareness is important, but we first need to recognise the many cognitive biases – deviations in our thinking that hinder us from well-reasoned and justified assessments of ourselves. When we don’t know what we don’t know about ourselves, it is impossible to be truly self-aware.

Self-serving bias

The self-serving bias occurs when you attribute your past successes as being due to personal attributes, while your failures are caused by external forces. David McCraney, author of You are Not so Smart, explains that this bias occurs when ‘you excuse your failures and see yourself as more successful, intelligent, and more skilled than you are’. Brutal, but honest and true for most of us.

Competitive corporate environments value confidence, assurance and assertiveness as indications of ability and success potential. The modern-day workplace is oftentimes unforgiving towards failures and mistakes.

For that reason, the self-serving bias serves an important self-preservation function – safeguarding our status and reputation in the eyes of others. Indeed, the self-serving bias is meant precisely for that – preservation of self-esteem and self-worth.

Psychologist Robert Trivers argues that the tendency to selectively and inaccurately attribute successes to our skills, talents, charisma and dashing appearance serves a self-deception benefit. We believe the lies we tell ourselves so that we can better lie to others. Self-deception, as a bias, has been beneficial to us, as it has been for our ancestors – enhancing survival and acceptance by our social groups.

Who amongst us hasn’t realised or encountered (or heard stories of) bosses who hoard the credit for a successful project while blaming their team for an unsuccessful one? And who amongst us, hasn’t shifted the blame to our colleagues or bosses to protect our ego for a failing project or assignment we know we’re personally responsible for?

The idiosyncratic rater effect

Coaches, mentors, managers, leaders and anyone who gives performance appraisals might find this a relatable bias. The idiosyncratic rater effect simply states that people are not good raters of other human beings. Instead, how you rate others rests largely on your own personal, unconscious biases.

Author and business consultant Marcus Buckingham argues that this bias as essentially why so many performance evaluations fail to motivate desired or intended improvements. Evaluators are essentially rating performance as how they perceive it, not how performers actually are. Buckingham even goes so far as to claim that ‘most HR data is bad data’ because of this bias.

When performance appraisers are called to assess others, their judgements of ‘quality,’ ‘productivity,’ ‘effectiveness,’ and ‘promotability’ are based on subjective evaluations of these performance metrics. If you are in a role that requires you to evaluate and rate others’ performance, are you aware of how much of your personal subjectivities and past experiences are being projected onto your ratings? Is it really others’ performance you are rating? Or are you simply projecting and imposing your own definition of performance onto others’ efforts?

The curse of knowledge

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls the curse of knowledge ‘the inability to imagine what it’s like to not know something you already know’. How many times have you delivered what you thought to be a riveting presentation on your area of expertise, only to have your audience respond with confused looks and blank stares?

The curse of knowledge bias states that those of us with an expert-level understanding of our subject matters often overlook the difficulties first-time learners face when approaching a new topic of study. You get annoyed by seemingly simplistic questions from the audience later, asking yourself whether anyone in the audience paid attention to you in the first place.

Experts, consultants and university lecturers with deep, technical and expert knowledge need to ask themselves if they are aware of how they are seen, perceived by outsiders and non-experts. Understanding one’s knowledge forms just one side of the self-awareness coin. Recognising how you are perceived by others and how best to convey your knowledge to your audience forms the other.

The bias blind spot

At this point, you may have thought to yourself, “Yes, I know what the self-serving bias is, I’ve seen the idiosyncratic rater effect in my workplace (and that’s why I didn’t get that promotion!) and yes, I’ve been bored to tears by that ‘scientist’ who presented that change management strategy in dense, academic jargon. But one other hurdle to self-awareness comes from simply finding it easier to recognise biases in others than in oneself.

This is essentially the bias blind spot – others’ cognitive biases are more apparent to us than our own biases. It is essentially the flip side of the question you were asked at the start of this article. Ask yourself now: How biased do you think you are relative to the average Malaysian? Chances are, you will rate yourself as being less biased than your fellow Malaysian. Other people are more biased, more likely to stereotype others, and harshly judge others. But not me.

You may be interested in: 5 Signs You Lack Self-Awareness

Remedies for better introspection

These are just four biases which I’ve argued as being barriers in our efforts towards being more self-aware. Wikipedia lists 191 cognitive biases that affect our memory, social relationships and decision-making. We can, fortunately, counter the effects of these biases and help ourselves be more self-aware in two ways.

Ask what, not why

Eurich highlights one key difference between individuals who are genuinely self-aware, compared to those who (merely) think they are: it boils down to how individuals engage in self-reflection. Analysing transcripts from her study, she found that those who asked ‘why’ questions when self-reflecting were more likely to experience negative consequences.

Recall the last time you were asked to reflect on why something at work that didn’t quite go to plan. Why am I am experiencing so much conflict with this colleague? Why didn’t my sales team perform as expected during the last quarter? Why is my boss such a…?

Eurich encourages us to instead begin our self-reflection by asking what instead of why. What are the personal factors causing this conflict between me and my colleagues? What didn’t my sales team do that could have led them meeting targets last quarter? What might be causing my boss to act against me?

‘Why’ questions lure us into a myriad of possible explanations – none of which may necessarily be true or based on fact. ‘Why’ questions increase our tendencies to second-guess, assume, and accuse. ‘What’ questions, conversely, challenge us to confront the facts and actual details of the situation. We obtain a clearer realisation of what is contributing to our experiences and benefit from a kind of introspection that fosters growth and improvement.

What did you realise from this article that can encourage more reflective, accurate introspection?

Cultivate intellectual humility and honesty

Recent psychological studies show that individuals who are intellectually humble are more likely to be better judges of their own knowledge and limitations. Intellectual humility is ‘the awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge and the confidence in the knowledge that one possesses…[and] the mid-point between intellectual ignorance and intellectual arrogance’.

The researchers also found that individuals who were aware of their knowledge limitations were better learners, engaged in more reflective and open-minded thinking, and were generally more curious. Being comfortable with the limits of one’s knowledge is essential towards better self-awareness and crucial in limiting how biases affect us.

Be honest with yourself when asking ‘what’ questions. What don’t I know well about myself? What am I not learning well enough? What aspects of my job knowledge could really use an improvement? It takes courage to admit our biases, ignorance, flaws, and lack of experience in our work and lives. And the doubt it generates on our abilities can be uncomfortable.

If we are to be truly self-aware, however, then honestly, courageously confronting our limitations is that non-negotiable first step. Perhaps no one said it better than the enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Apt as a conclusion to our suggestion here on the importance of intellectual humility, honesty and self-awareness, the witty Frenchman quotes:

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

And for self-awareness, such blind certainty will surely stifle our personal growth and development.

Listen to: Self-Awareness: The Good and The Bad


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Dr Eugene YJ Tee is presently Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology, HELP University. He is the author of two books – “Of Bromances and Biting Cute Babies”, and “Mindfulness and Emotions,” and has research interests in the role of positive emotions and positive psychology in organisational contexts. Eugene enjoys video games and is currently binging a little too much on Netflix.
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