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.