I am fascinated by a concept I recently came across in Eating The Dinosaur. Author Chuck Klosterman and documentary filmmaker Errol Morris discuss whether people have “privileged access” to their own minds.
Privileged access is a weighty philosophical matter that is popularly stated as a question of whether a person has special access to his or her own thoughts that other people do not have. An intuitive answer is, “Of course I know my own thoughts better than anyone else does!” But this isn’t simply a question of what you are thinking at any given moment; it’s about whether what you think about yourself is more accurate than what any other people think about you.
Here’s a thought experiment: Do you know what you would do if you found a paper bag containing $10,000? What amounts would lead to a different decision, and why?
I think I would keep it. I would rationalize this action (which is probably illegal) by noting that there is almost never a legitimate reason to carry around that much in cash in a paper bag – this is almost certainly drug dealer money, and why should I give drug dealers a chance to recover it?
I would definitely keep, say, five dollars – maybe I would give it to a panhandler, maybe I would buy a sandwich, but I wouldn’t leave it on the ground. Unless someone nearby might have dropped it, I wouldn’t consider trying to find the owner, or turning the money in to the police – no one will ever come to claim $5. In contrast, if I found $100,000, I would definitely turn it in. When that much money gets lost, someone will look for it hard enough to make me uncomfortable – I don’t want to end up in jail, or worse, facing the guys who stole this money before I did (these guys would give up on $10K, but they would seek $100K with violent diligence). Even more complicated, I think that I would turn in $5000. There are plenty of legitimate reasons that a law-abiding person could be carrying that amount around, and I would want that person to have every opportunity to recover that money.
So in short, I think I would make a risk and fairness assessment, and act with a mixture of pragmatism and greed. (Don’t get me wrong – none of this is what I want to do. I want to believe that I would ignore any amount too small to turn in, and turn in any amount too large to ignore. But I’m not so self-deluded to think that I always live up to my ideal self-image.)
This thought experiment has one more part: If you polled a dozen people who know you best on the same questions, what would they say you would do? Who is likelier to be right, them or you?
I think the majority of this group would say I would turn in the $10K. In fact, I would guess that a plurality of people would say I would keep or ignore any amount under $100 and turn in any amount over $1000 – their assessment would be closer to my own ideal self, which I feel quite certain is not accurate. Their reasons for my choices would vary broadly, much more broadly than the pragmatic greed I expressed, and would include reasons that I would not expect.
Is this group likelier to be right about me than I am myself? I can’t answer that with an intuitive “I know my thoughts – I know myself – better than anyone else.” There have been too many times when I have been surprised to discover that someone was a better predictor of my actions than I was.
Now, I don’t think that I have particularly poor self-knowledge. In fact, as this post perhaps deplorably illustrates, I can examine my own navel to exacting excess. But where does that leave me if the fact that I know myself particularly well only means that I am especially aware that I don’t know myself any better than other people do? Makes my head hurt.