You 2.0: How To See Yourself Clearly

How well do we know ourselves? Maybe the better question to ask is how well can we truly know ourselves? Psychologist Tim Wilson says introspection only gets us so far, and that we often make important decisions in life and love for reasons we don’t even realize. But he says there are some simple ways to improve our self-knowledge.

This is the second episode in our You 2.0 series. Here you can listen to the first one on befriending your inner voice.



Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, by Timothy D. Wilson, 2002.


Predicting What We Will Like: Asking a Stranger Can Be as Good as Asking a Friend, by Casey M. Eggleston et al., Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2015.

Your Friends Know How Long You Will Live: A 75-year Study of Peer-Rated Personality Traits, by Joshua J. Jackson et al., Psychological Science, 2015.

Blind Spots in the Search for Happiness: Implicit Attitudes and Nonverbal Leakage Predict Affective Forecasting Errors, by Allen R. McConnell et al., Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2011.

The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice, by Daniel T Gilbert et al., Science, 2009.

Failure to Detect Mismatches Between Intention and Outcome in a Simple Decision Task, by Petter Johansson et al., Science, 2005.

Knowing What You’ll Do: Effects of Analyzing Reasons on Self-Prediction, by Timothy D. Wilson and Suzanne J. LaFleur, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1995.

Introspecting about Reasons Can Reduce Post-Choice Satisfaction, by Timothy D. Wilson et al., Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1993.Thinking Too Much: Introspection can Reduce the Quality of Preferences and Decisions, by Timothy D. Wilson and Jonathan W. Schooler, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1991.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. From high school football coaches to career counselors, professional advice givers often have a simple mantra. Look within. You have the answers you've been searching for. Ask yourself the important questions and then listen to your inner voice. Such advice is especially common in countries with individualistic cultures, such as the United States. We believe our answers have to come from within because each of us is a unique individual on our own special journey. We celebrate the idea of marching to our own drummer. We disparage people who follow the herd.

In recent years, however, a variety of psychological research experiments have raised serious questions about how well we know ourselves. Some of these experiments raise profound questions about how well we can know ourselves. This is the second installment of our annual series You 2.0, where we try to answer some of life's most profound questions with wisdom and compassion. Last week, we considered how we can take advantage of our capacity for rumination. This week on Hidden Brain, we ask, is the best path forward to look within or without?

Every day throughout our lives, we have to make decisions big and small. We have to decide what to eat, whom to hang out with, when to call it quits on a job that's gone sour. We have a simple way to confront these choices. We ask ourselves what we should do. This process is so routine and automatic that most of us never stop to ask, is there a better way? At the University of Virginia, psychologist Tim Wilson thinks long and hard about stuff most of us don't think much about. One area that has fascinated him is how we decide what's best for us and how we ought to be going about it. Tim Wilson, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Tim Wilson: Great to be here, Shankar. Thanks for inviting me.

Shankar Vedantam: Tim, I want to start with some examples from your own life on how people make choices. A friend of yours, whom you call Susan, was in a relationship with a guy named Steven, both names are pseudonyms. How did Susan describe Steven to you?

Tim Wilson: Well, she was in a relationship with him for well over a year, and was convinced that she was in love with him, that he was a perfect match for her. He kind of checked off all the boxes of what she was looking for. He was a really nice guy, sweet and kind. They were both social workers. The only problem was that for those of us who knew them, it didn't ring true. We weren't convinced that Susan really felt the way she said she did. And she would sometimes seem to make excuses not to see him on weekends. And she just wasn't acting the way someone who is in love, deeply in love with someone typically would act, or in fact how she had acted in some previous relationships.

Shankar Vedantam: Sometime later the relationship came to an end. Tim didn't tell Susan, "I told you so." That's partly because he's a nice guy, but it's also because while he had misgivings about Susan's relationship, he never actually confided his concerns to her.

Tim Wilson: I have to say, I just didn't feel it was my place to sort of puncture the balloon. I kind of wanted to, but I didn't think she would be terribly receptive to it, I guess most of us wouldn't, to hear someone tell us that we didn't know what we're doing.

Shankar Vedantam: There have been other times Tim has picked up things about his friends, that they didn't seem to perceive themselves. One glaring example, a friend who claimed to be a social introvert.

Tim Wilson: Mike has always referred to himself as being shy and introverted, which is quite surprising to those of us who know him, because he seems anything but. He's quite gregarious and can be in a circle of people at a party and be telling funny stories, and seems quite at ease in social situations, and doesn't seem introverted at all.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to look at a third example in your own life about the mismatch between how people perceive themselves, and how others perceive them. You know of a couple, both of them psychologists, in fact, who told you they were house hunting. What kind of a home were they looking for, Tim?

Tim Wilson: I have to chuckle at this story because, in order to figure out which house to buy, they decided to use their professional training and use the proverbial seven point scale to rate every aspect of every house. On a seven point scale, how good is the layout? How good is the broom closet? How good is the location? Aggregate all these data at the end and compute what the best house was for them. Well to their credit, they realized after a few houses, this was ridiculous. And if anything, confused them more than clarified which house they wanted. So they finally abandoned the seven point scale.

Shankar Vedantam: Now you've also had the opportunity to observe people who are experts in dealing with others. And one of them is a real estate agent, Nancy Caperton. Does she indulge people like your friends who have detailed wishlists for their homes?

Tim Wilson: Well, Nancy was our real estate agent. My wife's and mine. I loved Nancy, she was so smart and insightful. She would, in a first meeting with clients, sit down with them and ask them in detail what they were looking for and listen carefully. And she told me this later, that she would then ignore everything they said. She just didn't trust that people knew themselves what they wanted. So what she'd do is take them to a variety of houses, some in town, some out of town, some with big yards, some with small yards, some old, some new, and she would watch very carefully for their emotional reactions when they looked at the house and try to deduce how people felt. And she often felt, and I think probably rightfully so, that she would discover what people wanted more than they knew. And people in fact, often bought houses that had nothing to do with their original wishlist.

Shankar Vedantam: You gave me some examples of friends who failed to understand important things about their own preferences, important things about themselves, but you have evidence that the same thing might also be true of yourself. Your daughter recently demonstrated an understanding of you that was greater than your own self understanding. And it had to do with some plans you had for re-landscaping your lawn. Tell me that story, Tim.

Tim Wilson: Yeah, my wife and I are doing construction in our backyard. We're building a screened pavilion in our backyard, but what this meant is it would cover a small gardening plot that I've had for years, where I would grow a few tomato plants and a few other things. And I told my daughter that this was our plan. It was going to be great. And she said to me, you know, over the years, you've enjoyed that little vegetable plot so much, why are you giving that up? That's ridiculous. And I realized she was right. And we made part of the plan to move my garden plot to our front yard. So I now have thriving tomato plants in my front yard and enjoying it more than I imagined.

Shankar Vedantam: It's the most self-evident idea in the world. When we want to know how we feel and what we want, we ask ourselves, how do I feel? What do I want? But as Tim started to see gaps between what his friends said they wanted and what actually made them happy, he began to run experiments to explore the underlying psychological question. How well do we really know ourselves? When we come back: the obstacles to self knowledge and the surprising path around them. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Tim Wilson studies the curious gaps between what we think will make us happy and what actually makes us happy. Between the people we think we are, and the people we actually are. At a deeper level he studies the nature of self knowledge, and the obstacles to achieving it. Tim, you run experiments where you ask people to analyze their own attitudes. What kind of attitudes have volunteers in your studies talked about?

Tim Wilson: We've had them think about a variety of things, such as how they feel about a romantic relationship they're involved in. And we ask them to make a list of all the reasons why it's going the way it is. Give us the pluses and minuses.

Shankar Vedantam: Tim has asked other volunteers about political candidates they support, about hot button issues and the news, even about works of art. The volunteers have shared a range of opinions as you might expect. But when Tim and his colleagues have asked them why they have the opinions they do, no one has ever, ever given Tim one particular answer. No one ever says, I have no idea.

Tim Wilson: That has been striking. So we've asked people that question in lots of studies, hundreds of participants. And I don't remember anyone ever saying, I don't know. They come up with reasons pretty easily.

Shankar Vedantam: So one possibility of course, is that when people tell you very confidently why they have the opinions they do, it's because they actually understand themselves well, and they're just telling you, here's why I believe what I believe. But there's been some interesting studies of people who have some neurological problems related to memory, and these people in fact do not have an accurate recollection of why they did certain things. And yet when we ask them questions, when researchers ask them questions about their actions, what did they say Tim?

Tim Wilson: Yes. I mean, there are some fascinating case studies where people who have lost the ability to make short term memories really have no idea why they're in the particular situation they are. But they quite freely give explanations. They spin stories, they come up with a rationale. Oliver Sacks talks about a particular patient who would with great facility say, oh, you must be a doctor because you're wearing a white lab coat. And I guess you're here to examine me or, no maybe you're the butcher from down the street. And every five minutes he would lose track of what had happened previously. But nonetheless, he was able to come up with a story to explain his situation and Sacks reports that this patient didn't even know he had a deficit, that he was so good at explaining his current situation, that he didn't even know he had a problem.

Shankar Vedantam: So what we see in this instance is someone basically actually having gaps in self knowledge, but almost seamlessly filling in those gaps to persuade himself or herself that the stories were actually true.

Tim Wilson: Yes. It's just fascinating how easily people can convince themselves that they know what they're doing, even when we know they don't.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, some people might say these confabulations might be true of people who have neurological disorders or brain damage or psychiatric conditions. It doesn't describe me. One of your favorite studies was carried out by a group of researchers in Sweden. Tell me what they did, Tim.

Tim Wilson: Yeah, just a fascinating study. They presented participants with two photographs of two different women on each trial, and they simply asked the participants, pick the one that you think is most attractive. And they would also ask them, could you tell me why you picked the one you did? And people would say, oh, well that woman, she had particularly pretty eyes or whatever. Well unbeknownst to the participant on some trials, they would show people the picture they actually had not chosen, and pretended it's the one they had. So they say people chose picture A on a particular trial, instead of B. The researcher would pick up picture B, show it to the participant and say, well, tell me why you chose this one? Now the first remarkable thing was that people didn't detect the subterfuge most of the time.

I think only about a quarter of the time, did they realize that the experimenter had switched the pictures. But even more remarkable, they quite easily explained the reasons why they had chosen this particular picture. Even though it's not the one they chose. They quite easily said, oh, it's because of her eyes or her hair or whatever. And the researchers went to some lengths to try to see, is there a difference in the reasons people give for the wrong picture compared to the reasons they give for the right picture? And they couldn't find any differences, they weren't of different length and different detail, different content. It's as if people could just make up an explanation, even when we know in this case, it was for something they hadn't actually chosen.

Shankar Vedantam: In one case, there was a male participant who was shown a picture that he hadn't chosen. And he says that the woman in the picture, she's radiant, I would rather have approached her in a bar than the other one. I like earrings, even though he initially found the other woman who was not wearing earrings more attractive. And it's kind of remarkable, not just that people were willing to go along with the replacement photograph that the researchers picked, but were effortlessly coming up with explanations for why they in fact had picked the picture that they didn't pick.

Tim Wilson: Yes. Yes. And it makes you wonder about how much we're confabulating, even when we're explaining our real choices.

Shankar Vedantam: So when most of us ask ourselves how we think about something, we introspect, we look inward, and studies like this make you wonder how useful is introspection?

Tim Wilson: Well, let me say Shankar, that I don't mean to imply that introspection is always wrong. It's not like we're totally clueless to why we're doing what we're doing. Of course we have a great deal of knowledge about ourselves, but it certainly can go wrong. And in my research, I've shown this particularly when you ask people to give a lot of reasons that they can sometimes mislead themselves.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to stop here to underscore the irony. Many of us think that the more rational and deliberate we can be in our decision making the better. Surely we think the person who is asked to come up with a list of reasons for her decision will be happier with a decision, because she has arrived at her conclusion deliberately and thoughtfully. Tim has found the opposite is true.

Tim Wilson: We've done a lot of studies where we ask people simply to write down privately and anonymously, why they feel the way they do about something. In some studies, it was a dating partner, in some it was food items like strawberry jams. And then there'd be a control group of randomly assigned participants who told us how they felt without first giving reasons. And the question was, which group made wiser decisions or knew best how they felt. Common wisdom is that well, it's the people who made the list of pluses and minuses that this is a wise way to make a decision, or analyze our feelings. But we've often found the opposite, that the people who give detailed reasons, particularly for things that are hard to explain like a romantic partner, they mislead themselves. Things come to mind that maybe didn't match their actual feelings, but they convinced themselves that, oh, that must be how I really felt. I just thought about that time my partner did some really annoying thing. Maybe things aren't going as well as I thought they were. So that proverbial list of pluses and minuses, aren't always a great thing to do.

Shankar Vedantam: In another experiment, you ask people to pick one of two art posters that were on display, and allowed them to take home that chosen poster. But for half the volunteers, you just left it at that, but for the other half, you asked them to analyze why they chose the poster they did. And then three weeks later you surveyed all the people who took those posters home about how they felt about that choice. What did you find?

Tim Wilson: Well, again, I think common wisdom is that the people who made their choice thoughtfully by first listing pluses and minuses, should be the ones who made a decision that they would end up liking the best. But again, we found the opposite, it was the group that just kind of went with their gut feelings without analyzing why, that told us later that they really like their poster, they were more apt to have put it up on their wall. I think what happened to the reasons group is that they focused just on what was easy to put into words. And in the moment that we've come up with these reasons, we talk ourselves into this feeling, oh, I must like this poster because I was able to put into words reasons why it was the best one. But that as time goes by those reasons kind of fade, we're not thinking as much about exactly why we like it, and our original feelings probably return. And so, why did I choose this poster? It's really not very attractive now that I think about it.

Shankar Vedantam: Your research on the barriers to self-knowledge has found that our efforts to know ourselves also are challenged by another obstacle. We commonly experience a failure of imagination when we try to predict how we'll feel in the future. Can you explain the idea of effective forecasting to me, please?

Tim Wilson: Sure. With my friend and colleague Daniel Gilbert, we've done a lot of research looking at how well people can predict their future feelings. And we find some systematic errors. I mean, first of all, let me say people aren't terrible at this. I mean, we know generally things that will make us happy and things that will make us sad, but exactly how sad or how happy or how long that happiness or sadness will last, we do make mistakes. And we actually tend to think things will have more of an impact on us than they typically do.

Shankar Vedantam: So back in 1980, Tim, I understand you had a very joyful experience that was connected with your hometown team, winning the world series. Tell me about that moment and how long you thought that feeling would last and how long it lasted.

Tim Wilson: I am a long suffering Philadelphia Phillies baseball fan, having grown up in Philadelphia. And for people who know their baseball, the Phillies went many, many years without winning the World Series, until finally in 1980, they went all the way and won.

Speaker 3: Well in Philadelphia, the Phillies are the world champions, it's happening here in the stands.

Speaker 4: Everybody said we couldn't win. They said, no, the Phillies aren't good enough. They don't have heart. They don't have character. We have all of the above. Believe me.

Tim Wilson: And I remember vividly watching the last game of the World Series in my living room with a good friend who had also grown up in Philadelphia, and was an avid baseball fan. And once the final out was recorded, we were just speechless, we were so happy that finally this goal had been achieved, but life went on. And the interesting thing is how long did that happiness last? When I thought about it over the next couple of days, it was pleasurable, but it's not like my life changed in any appreciable way. And it certainly didn't last as long as I thought it might have.

Shankar Vedantam: And this sort of return to an emotional baseline also happens with negative emotions as well. So negative events don't bother us as long as we might forecast that they will.

Tim Wilson: Maybe even more so with negative events because we have this, what we've called a psychological immune system, that is able to ward off negative events and recover from them quickly. Now don't get me wrong, painful things feel painful. And when tragic things happen, it's awful. But the good news is that we have this psychological system that's able to reach some understanding of the event, find some meaning in it and not think about it as long as we might anticipate.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that in your own lifetime, you've lost both your parents, but also a brother. What were these events like when they happened, and how did they change over time?

Tim Wilson: Well, like most people my age, I've experienced a lot of loss of family members and friends in the last 10 years. I lost both my parents, and as sad as it was, I think I recovered fairly well from it. Both my parents lived long and happy lives, and so it's something that when I think about, I'm able to feel sad, but life goes on. My brother's another situation, tragically he took his own life when he was 25. And that is a much more difficult event to try to come to terms with, understand. And so I think it's fair to say that had a much longer impact on me, I think about it more. But even there, if you had asked me in advance of these tragedies, what will the lasting impact of them be? And this is what we find in our research, that people tend to say, the grief will last much longer than it does.

Shankar Vedantam: What is your theory, Tim, about why we have these gaps in self knowledge when it comes to our preferences, when it comes to our forecast? Why is it that our internal mechanisms, which most people imagine are very finely tuned to perceive reality accurately, why are they failing us?

Tim Wilson: Well, there's lots of debate over this, with effective forecasting. There are some who argue that it can actually be functional to overestimate the impact of future events, because it gets us out of bed in the morning and makes us work hard towards achieving the good things in life and avoiding the bad things. I think that may be part of it, but we have found the same kind of overestimation of impact, even for events we can't control, like sporting events. Not everything's functional, I think our unconscious ... It's our unconscious that's doing the work to reduce the impact of events. And by definition, we can't anticipate that in the future, we don't know what our unconscious is going to do. So it seems like I'll be thinking about that Phillies victory for weeks, not realizing that well, my mind will get back to normal much more quickly than I think.

Shankar Vedantam: So you haven't just studied how introspection isn't all that it's cracked up to be, and the problems we have in self knowledge, you've also studied what we can do about the problem. Now I want to start with a story. When you and your wife go out to a restaurant, she'll look at the menu and then the two of you have what is by now a familiar conversation, paint a picture of a time this recently happened to you and describe that conversation for me, Tim.

Tim Wilson: Well, I have to chuckle because I think each in our own way knows the other's preferences better than we do. So in my wife's case, she'll often look at the menu and she'll say something like, oh, here's a dish that looks interesting, it has arugula in it. Maybe I'll order that. And I say, honey, you've never likes arugula. I don't recall any time you've ever enjoyed a dish with arugula in it. Why don't you order the steak? Which I know she'll enjoy more, and she, I think in the end would admit. But in fairness, I think the same is true of when we order a beer, which we like to do, she knows exactly what kind of beer she likes. A hazy IPA. Whereas I sometimes think, well, I got hazy IPAs, but maybe I'll try a Pilsner tonight. She says, no, you're going to enjoy the hazy IPA more, and she's right.

Shankar Vedantam: So I want to drill down on this just a minute because yes, at one level it seems intuitively obvious that people who are close to us would know us very well, but there actually are some really interesting psychological dimensions to it. How is it that you know what she wants better than she does Tim?

Tim Wilson: The people who know us well are good observers of our behavior, and they can deduce from our actions what we like and what we don't. And sometimes we have theories ourselves that just go awry and don't match those preferences. So it's the people who are good observers of us who often can deduce our feelings better than we can.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course over the course of many meals, you've observed her facial expressions and nonverbal behaviors, when she's ordered the arugula salad versus the steak. And she has observed your reactions when you order different kinds of beer?

Tim Wilson: Yes. And notices that the glass is still half full by the end of the night.

Shankar Vedantam: So in some ways, when we think about people's opinions, we sort of imagine asking them their opinions for them to tell us. But what you are pointing out is that there is what researchers might call nonverbal leakage here, where separate from whatever you're saying, you have other facial features, expressions, body language to communicate how you're feeling. And in some ways that might be at odds with what you are reporting verbally.

Tim Wilson: Yes. Now, again, I don't want to exaggerate this. I don't mean to say we're clueless about how we feel, but I do think there are times when we get it wrong. And in those cases, looking at how someone reacts on their face can be quite telling.

Shankar Vedantam: We've seen how our friends can sometimes see us more clearly than we can see ourselves. They notice things about us. They can see things we might wish to ignore. But the most remarkable piece of evidence that others can know us more deeply than we can know ourselves, comes from a study that asks people to assess their own personalities and the personalities of their friends. The study then linked this data to when the volunteers died.

Tim Wilson: Well, this is a remarkable study. It looks at some data from the 1930s, in which they had a sample of people and they had both the participants' ratings of their own personality, but they also had five friends rate that person's personality, on the typical personality dimensions of how conscientious they were, how extroverted, how open to experience and so on. And because the study was done in the 1930s, they were curious as to, well, what predicted best how long the participants lived, their own ratings of their personality or their friends' rating of their personality?

Shankar Vedantam: Now we've known for a while that some personality traits are linked with how long people live. People high in conscientiousness, for example, tend to have longer lives. The researchers looked at whether people describe themselves as conscientious and whether their friends did so.

Tim Wilson: And the friends out predicted the participants themselves. Their ratings, particularly of their friends' conscientiousness, were a better predictor of how long people live than people's own ratings.

Shankar Vedantam: So in other words, personality ratings made by one's friends early in one's life, accurately predicted 75 years in advance, how long people would live.

Tim Wilson: Yes. I mean, I think it's telling that conscientiousness is one of the best predictors, because perhaps people who are less careful, less attentive to their own health, more risk taking are the ones who aren't going to live as long.

Shankar Vedantam: To be clear, there are domains where we know more about ourselves than people who are close to us. Tim's point is not that our friends always know us better than we do. He's merely questioning the deeply held belief most of us have, that we know ourselves better than anyone else can know us.

Tim Wilson: I mean, we have so much unique information about ourselves. I mean, someone who didn't know I was a baseball fan would not be able to predict that on that fateful night in 1980, I would be euphoric over the Phillies winning the World Series. But I think what we overestimate is how much our own knowledge can sometimes mislead us. That we're convinced we're in a good mood because of X, Y, or Z. When in fact, that's not the case.

Shankar Vedantam: We've seen how other people who are close friends and family can know things about us that we might not know about ourselves, but surely that wouldn't be the case if those other people were strangers, right?

You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

This is Hidden Brain I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Tim Wilson is the author of the book, Strangers to Ourselves. His research finds we're not very good at engaging in effective forecasting, that is predicting how we will feel and what we will want in the future. Instead, we often project how we are feeling now into the future. If we're unhappy now, we imagine we will stay unhappy. If we are deliriously happy, we think the feeling will last forever.

Tim, researchers have found a way for people to get a much better sense of how they'll feel in the future using a technique called surrogation. What is surrogation?

Tim Wilson: Well, it's basically trusting how other people have reacted. So, if I want to try to guess how I'll feel, if some event occurs, people who have experienced that event are probably a pretty good source of information to at least act as a guide as to how I will feel.

Shankar Vedantam: And in some ways, this gets around the problem of imagination that we talked about earlier, which is that if we are not very good at imagining how we are going to feel in the future, in some ways, this removes the element of imagination from judging how we might end up feeling.

Tim Wilson: Yes, it basically hands over the problem to someone else who's already experienced and say, well they liked it. I guess maybe I would too.

Shankar Vedantam: So Tim, you've investigated the effect of segregation in a study with your colleague, Dan Gilbert using speed daters. Can you tell me about that study please?

Tim Wilson: Yeah. The basic question was, who could predict best how much they would like a man in a speed date? Those who were given a personal profile of the man, including his picture, or another group that was given no information about the guy, except they found out how one other woman had liked him after she had a speed date with him. That was the surrogation condition. I don't know anything about this guy except how one other person felt, and that I have to predict how I would feel. And it turns out that group did a better job of knowing how they'd feel, of predicting how they'd feel, knowing how one other woman felt, did a better job of predicting how they'd feel. The ones that got his profile actually were somewhat surprised that sometimes they didn't like him as much as they thought they would, or maybe they liked him a little more than they thought they would. But the best guide was knowing how one other woman had felt about him.

Shankar Vedantam: Now that's kind of remarkable that a stranger who knows nothing about me is better able to predict how I will enjoy a situation than I can myself.

Tim Wilson: We maybe underestimate how much, sometimes we're all alike in our preferences. We tend to like the same kind of movies, and for college women, we have similar impressions of another college man. And in those situations where there's not much variance in opinion, it can be quite useful to know how somebody else felt.

Shankar Vedantam: So I want to dive a little deeper into one of the ideas you just mentioned just now, Tim, which is that one reason we might not wish to engage in surrogation, is, I might tell myself, look, it's true that other women may have impressions about this guy that are positive or negative, but ultimately it's my impressions of him that really will determine whether I like him or not. Because of course those other women are not like me, I'm different from them. Can you talk about this idea that it's the feeling of uniqueness, perhaps the illusion of uniqueness that in some ways is behind part of our reticence to engage in surrogation?

Tim Wilson: Yes. I mean, I do think we like to believe that we have a unique reaction to the world, and we're not just like sheep reacting the same way. In another study, we actually gave people both kinds of information. We gave them surrogation information, how one other person felt, or a description of this food item. And people went with the description and ignored how much someone else had felt. Because as you said, I think they said, why is that relevant to me? I don't care what another person felt? This food sounds particularly delicious or not. But again, I think we underestimate how a lot of times there isn't as much variance in opinion of the world, as we think there is.

Shankar Vedantam: Researchers once set up an experiment with groups of customers at a microbrewery, were offered different samples of beer. And it's an interesting study about the nature of surrogation Tim, can you tell me what they found?

Tim Wilson: They were looking at the phenomenon that when a group of people are at a restaurant, there's pressure to be unique, and not order what someone else had ordered. It somehow just seems like we're not expressing our individuality, if you just ordered the Arugula salad, and I really wanted that, but I don't want to look like I'm just copying you. So the researchers did a very clever study with beers actually, where they presented people with beers in groups, the groups of customers, and in one condition, they simulated the normal situation where each person took turns, ordering which beer they wanted, but in another condition, they had people just check off on a piece of paper, which one they wanted without knowing with the other set checked. And in that condition, there was more overlap as to what people ordered, and people enjoyed the beer they got more. They were less likely to regret what they ordered. They got what they wanted more when they didn't have to worry about what other people had done.

Shankar Vedantam: I remember speaking some time ago with Dan Gilbert, who's at Harvard. And at that university, they have this system where students can essentially check out different professors in shopping week, as it's called, I think in the early part of the semester. And Dan, after doing some of these studies would always bemoan the fact that students would say, the only way for me to tell if I like this class, as if I actually sit in the class for an hour and listen to the professor, versus simply seeing what students who had previously attended the entire semester with the professor thought about him or her. But no matter how much data you present to people, people prefer to actually sit in the class and "make up their own minds," rather than rely on the information of surrogates.

Tim Wilson: That's a great example. I mean, what we see through our own senses seems so much more compelling than hearing how one other person felt, even though it's not always true.

Shankar Vedantam: These studies remind me of a story, and I'm not sure if the story is apocryphal, but in the early days of Netflix, when the streaming service was trying to determine what people would want to watch, Netflix would ask people, what kind of movie do you want to watch? And people would say, I want to watch the French documentary about the political causes that led to World war II. But when the weekend rolled around, people would watch the same old romantic comedies, and the latest version of the Fast and Furious, or the latest Jason Bourne movie, or just whatever was the easiest to consume. And after some time, I think Netflix basically just stopped asking people, what do you want to watch? And built an algorithm that just paid attention to what people did, what movies they actually watched and what movies everybody else was watching. And I believe the algorithm right now is not really tuned at all to what we say our preferences are, and is tuned almost entirely to the idea of surrogation. And I think perhaps this is surrogation on a much larger scale on the scale of thousands or millions of people. But I think it's fundamentally the same idea, which is that aggregating the information of large numbers of people around us might be better predictors to what we ourselves would like to watch on the weekend than simply asking us the question.

Tim Wilson: Yeah. That's a great example. And I've always been curious as to how much in that algorithm does weigh other people's opinion, but I suspect you're right, that they weighed a lot.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. Do you have the experience of basically Netflix putting things before you that you didn't think that you'd like, and then you watch it and then you realize, oh yeah, I kind of like that movie too?

Tim Wilson: Yeah. I think I have to say, like our own participants, I probably distrust the surrogation information more than I should there, I think, "What do they know?"

Shankar Vedantam: So your research has identified a number of ways that we can use surrogation effectively in our lives. And to begin with one of the insights is that it might be useful to find not one, but several surrogates to consult. Why might this be the case, Tim?

Tim Wilson: I think that tells us how much variance there is in the opinion, if three or four people all felt the same way about something, that is a pretty strong guide that we're going to feel the same way. But if they're all over the map, that's a better indication that maybe I should trust my own opinions here.

Shankar Vedantam: We talked earlier about the errors in our affective forecasting system. And you told me about some of the losses you've experienced. Recently, a graduate student of yours came to you in some distress. What did he tell you, Tim?

Tim Wilson: Quite sadly, this graduate student's brother had also taken his life. And I felt I was in the position to offer obviously my condolences, but also maybe it would help to tell them about my own experiences. That as tragic as this is, and as much as I still do think about it, the pain will recede. And maybe quicker than you think. To be honest, I'm not sure that kind of advice registers, particularly when people are in the throes of grief. I'm not sure it helps to say, you'll get over it, but I hope it was of some solace.

Shankar Vedantam: It is interesting, of course, the point that you're just making, which is that in a moment of great emotion, some of us might actually resent hearing from people who've been through that experience before, and have come through it on the other side. Because in some ways, especially if they no longer feel the same emotion with the same intensity, it somehow might feel like what they experienced is not as bad as what you are experiencing. And so they shouldn't be telling you how you're going to feel in the future. And it's another reason I think we might hesitate to both reach out to others, to get their opinions on what we are going through, as well as volunteer our own experiences to others because of this gap.

Tim Wilson: I think that's definitely true that it somehow seems to trivialize our own feelings, to have someone say, you're going to get over it. And so one should be careful with such advice, I think.

Shankar Vedantam: Something along the same lines happened with Tim and his friend, Susan. He thought she was not in the right relationship. Others who knew Susan also felt like she was with the wrong guy. But most friends in these situations, at least in polite society, keep their opinions to themselves.

Tim Wilson: And we probably know that it wouldn't land terribly well with the person. I'm an avid reader of advice columns, and a common theme in them is someone who says, I know my friend is with the wrong person. Should I tell them? My son or my daughter, I can't stand their partner. A, they wouldn't listen if you did tell them, and B it would ruin your relationship if you did. So people I think often are reluctant.

Shankar Vedantam: So you've sometimes suggested that there should be a new Hallmark holiday that could encourage surrogation. Tell me about this idea Tim.

Tim Wilson: Well, when I teach my seminars on this topic, I often propose to the students, why wouldn't we want to get this information in a helpful way? So what if there were a new Hallmark holiday called "Social Feedback" holiday, where you get cards from your friends with useful feedback. Now there have to be some ground rules. Your friends would have to be kind, and maybe give you advice about something that's controllable, so that you can change. So telling you, lately you've been interrupting people in conversations too much, or we noticed that you don't seem happy in this relationship. And these ... When the mail arrived and we got a bunch of cards, it wouldn't be easy to read them, but if there was unanimity, all our friends were looking at the same thing and saying, dump that partner. That's something we maybe should take seriously.

Shankar Vedantam: I have to ask you, have your students embraced that? Do your students send each other Hallmark cards with social feedback? I can just imagine all kinds of ways that could go wrong, to be honest.

Tim Wilson: I think in all the years I've proposed that in my classes, not one person has said, I think it's a good idea. They look at me in horror, as if you mean we're actually supposed to receive this anonymous feedback about all our flaws? That would be terrible. And I think, well, but if there are things you can correct easily, wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone's flaws were corrected through my Hallmark day? Well, I have failed to convince people.

Shankar Vedantam: The interesting thing here, Tim is, it's not just that people are sometimes reluctant to share negative feedback with us. They might also be reluctant to share positive feedback to us, just because they believe that there are certain bounds of propriety that should be respected, certain boundaries that should be respected. And you yourself had an experience of this, of someone who was close to you, being reluctant to share feedback with you. This was many years ago. Could you tell us about the time in your early twenties when you introduced your parents to a girl whom you were dating? Paint a picture for me of the moment, if you would.

Tim Wilson: Now, I had been seeing this particular person for probably about a year, and it was during the summer when I took her with me on a vacation with my parents, and we spent a few days with them. And I found out later that my father, after this visit, had written a letter to a very good friend of his updating him on what was going on. And he said, in this letter, he said, "Oh, by the way, Tim brought a new girlfriend, and she just seems to me to be the ideal partner for him."

Shankar Vedantam: This is your father telling his friend.

Tim Wilson: Yes. And he mentioned to my mother that he had said this, and my mother said, "Well, why are you telling your friend and not Tim? Wouldn't this be something that Tim should hear?" And so my father called me up a week or two later and he was kind of embarrassed. And he said, "Well, we don't usually talk about these things that much, but your mother thinks I should tell you that I really liked your girlfriend, and I thought she would be the ideal partner." And maybe because we didn't talk about these things that much, it had a real impact on me. Now I should say that it's not like I had huge doubts about this relationship because in fact, the woman I was seeing ended up being my wife. And we've been together for over 40 years. So my father was right.

Shankar Vedantam: Tim Wilson is a social psychologist at the University of Virginia. He's the author of the book, Strangers to Ourselves, Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Tim, thank you for talking to me today on Hidden Brain.

Tim Wilson: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our Executive Producer. I'm Hidden Brain's Executive Editor. Our unsung hero this week is Ayo Oti. Ayo is a Social Impact Editor at Spotify. Ayo recently helped us to create a playlist with some of our favorite episodes from Hidden Brain and other shows, looking at how we can build better relationships. You can find that playlist in Spotify's Play Your Part category. Thanks so much Ayo. Next week in our You 2.0 series, how we can use the brain's visual system to boost our motivation, achieve goals and gain perspective.

Emily Balcetis: So there's great power in what it is that we see, which is why a piece of advice that I offer is to schedule into our calendar those things that we might not think warrant scheduling.

Shankar Vedantam: If you are a supporter of our work, thank you. It really does mean the world to us. If you are not supporting us as yet, but like our work and find it useful, please help us to produce more shows like this. Go to Again, support the show you love by going to I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.


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