know thyself

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.

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2 thoughts on “know thyself

  1. I’m not sure if I’d turn it in or ignore it, but those are the only two options I’d seriously consider for most amounts of money. Not out of any real nobility, but purely out of a rather conservative risk-reward analysis, since the odds would seem pretty high that $10,000 is closely monitored bait (see http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=3962387 and http://thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=394 ) or perhaps some other trouble that I really wouldn’t want to be a part of.

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  2. Those news stories are news because they are unusual – “Man Bites Dog” rather than “Dog Bites Man” – I think the odds of entrapment bait are exceptionally low.

    Nevertheless, I just realized that now that I have posted on this topic, the odds are incrementally higher that I would be targeted for jailbait or scam. In addition, my embarrassment and self-disgust with a bad outcome is significantly increased. So now it is much more certain that I would turn in any significant amount of money.

    But who knows what would really happen? Personality is quantum like Schrödinger’s cat – it exists in a mixture of states until you open the box.

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