An Introspector’s Hurdle

There is a tendency for an introspector to overestimate the power of consciousness, and its scope for self-knowledge and control of thought and behaviour.

This chapter addresses the state of the understanding of limits of conscious thought.

Some excerpts:

People are often unaware of the reasons and causes of their own behavior. In fact, recent experimental evidence points to a deep and fundamental dissociation between conscious awareness and the mental processes responsible for one’s behavior; many of the wellsprings of behavior appear to be opaque to conscious access.



Wegner and Wheatley (1999) reported studies in which participants used a computer mouse to move a cursor around a computer screen filled with pictures of objects. doing so along with another participant (actually a confederate of the experimenters) so that the two of them jointly determined the cursor’s location. While they were doing this. the names of the different objects were spoken to them one at a time over headphones. Unknown to the actual participant, the confederate was given instructions over his or her headphones from time to time to cause the screen cursor to point to a given object. By manipulating whether the name of the moved-to object had or had not been presented to the participant just (l.e., a second or two) before the cursor landed on it (as opposed to earlier, or after the cursor had landed on it), so that the “thought” about that object had been in the participant’s consciousness just prior to the cursor’s movement to it, the experimenters were able to manipulate the participant’s attributions of personal responsibility and control over the cursor’s movement. In these experiments, therefore, beliefs about personal agency could be induced by manipulations of the key factors presumed to underlie feelings of will, according to the authors’ attributional model-even though those factors had not, in fact, been causal in the cursor’s movement.

Such findings demonstrate that people do not and cannot have direct access to acts of causal intention and choice. Kenneth Bowers (1984) had anticipated this finding when he pointed out that it is “the purpose of psychological research to enhance our comprehension and understanding of causal influences operating on thought and action. Notice, however, that such research would be totally redundant if the causal connections linking thought and behavior to its determinants were directly and automatically self-evident to introspection”

  1. Nikhil Thatte said:

    I think a link to this on Mohit’s latest post would do well!

  2. Nikhil, This is supposed to be a response to Mohit’s stream of consciousness post, but I did not want it to be only about that.

  3. rendezvous said:

    Ah! Nice. Enjoyed the read!

  4. Anonymous said:

    Dear unawoken,
    Since I started reading your blogposts here are some of the things I’ve learnt.

    We are mostly governed by our genes and evolutionary biology. We are influenced to quite a large extent by memes and power of suggestion. What we think of as free will is mostly an illusion and so is what we think of as consciousness and self awareness. Objective observation and introspection are not quite what we think they are. What we think of as current experience is in reality happened in the past. We limit ourselves to a realm of ‘sanity’ and create a version of reality that fits this sanity. Phew!

    There are many more things to add but reading this particular post made me think of the above list. At first, I thought it’s all quite depressing but I’d rather be aware of the limitations of our mind and body than not. Thanks for your posts.

    • unawoken said:

      Anonymous, thanks for your comment. Good comment, although somewhat “glass half empty” summary of some of my positions.

      Quoting William Paley
      “In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there… ” and so on.

      Human beings are like a watch we have bumped into. We thought we knew what the watch is composed of, how it was created, and what it does, and what it can do. For some reason, we grew fond of early answers that we collectively came up with. Now there is an enormous amount of evidence that is nudging us off the early positions we had taken, and I think that we should revisit our answers to the above questions regarding this watch.

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