Mind & Body

Asymmetric Insight Is Why You're Not as Mysterious as You Think You Are

Think about your best friend. How well do you know them? Do you know their favorite things, pet peeves, social tendencies? If they got the wrong order at a restaurant, would they choke it down or send it back? Do you think you could accurately predict how they'd act in any given situation? If they're a good enough friend, the answer is probably yes. Now turn the tables. How well do they know you? Do you think they could predict your behavior just as easily? According to research, you probably don't. Most people believe they see much more of other people than people see of them. That illusion is called asymmetric insight.

You Don't Know Me, But I Know You

In 2001, researchers from the University of Illinois and Williams College performed a series of studies looking into how people's perceptions of others compared to the perceptions they thought others had of them. In one experiment, volunteers were asked to think of a best friend and rate how well they believed they knew the person. The questionnaire included a series of illustrations of an iceberg submerged in gradually greater levels of water. The volunteers were asked to circle the one that represented how much of their friend's "essential nature" they could see — in other words, how much of your friend's true self is hidden beneath the surface?

Next, they filled out the same questionnaire a second time, this time indicating how much of themselves their friend could see. As you might guess by now, most people rated their friend's iceberg as barely submerged but their own as mostly submerged. They believed they knew more about their friend's true self than their friend knew about them.

In another experiment, volunteers were asked to complete words with missing letters — something like s--r, which could be star, spur, stir, and so on — then say how much they thought their responses said about their true selves. Most people thought it didn't reveal anything at all. But when they looked at other people's responses on the same exercise, they were suddenly full of descriptions: they were positive thinkers, they were vain, they loved nature, they were sleep deprived or in a dishonest relationship. One volunteer wrote, "He seems to focus on competition and winning. This person could be an athlete or someone who is very competitive." And yet another experiment showed the same thing in ideological groups: liberals believe they know more about conservatives than conservatives do about liberals, and vice versa.

Bye Bye, Bias

Asymmetric insight may sound like a harmless quirk, but it gets dark fast: If you see yourself and your group as nuanced and mysterious, but other individuals and outsiders as open books, it's harder to take their perspective. You won't walk a mile in someone's shoes when you think you already know what their shoes feel like. That leads to conflict and hostility, not reasoned discourse and understanding.

This is just one shade in the rainbow of your own cognitive biases. You also tend to think everybody else thinks like you; that other people's behavior is because of who they are, not their circumstances; and that ad campaigns only convince other people. Our brains are wired to hold ourselves above all others, and as a result, we're full of biases that make other people look pretty bad.

But for the world to be a more reasonable place, we've all got to fight those tendencies. Luckily, you've got the first step covered: You know they exist. All it takes now is to remember that when the next conflict arises.

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For more on how your brain tricks you, check out "You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself" by David McRaney. The audiobook is free with a 30-day trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer January 16, 2018

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