Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 34;   August 26, 2009: I've Got Your Number, Pal

I've Got Your Number, Pal

by

Recent research has uncovered a human tendency — possibly universal — to believe that we know others better than others know them, and that we know ourselves better than others know themselves. These beliefs, rarely acknowledged and often wrong, are at the root of many a toxic conflict of long standing.

In tense exchanges between rivals, anger sometimes comes from the belief that the other is lying. Accusations of lying then further inflame the exchange, and we're off to the races. This is a fascinating starting point for such flaming, because lying is an especially difficult behavior to detect. Proof of lying requires evidence about the state of knowledge and intentions of the supposed liar, which can be difficult to obtain.

President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin

President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin at the Prague Summit in 2002. In 2001, after the two Presidents met for a summit, President Bush said, "I looked the man in the eye. …I was able to get a sense of his soul." Perhaps he was, but over the years, the course of their relationship has suggested the workings of the asymmetric insight illusion. Photo by Paul Morse courtesy U.S. Department of State.

Although some experts claim to be able to detect lies by observing involuntary expressions and gestures, most of those making everyday accusations of lying have no such expertise. Usually, they do have faith in their level of insight into the mind of the supposed liar, but faith is not evidence.

The pattern of questionable assessments like these is so widespread that researchers have given it a name: the asymmetric insight illusion. This illusion has two fundamental elements:

  • We think we know others better than others know them
  • We think we know ourselves better than others know themselves

Following from these two fundamental beliefs are two more:

  • We think we know others better than others know us
  • We think we know ourselves better than others know us

Since this set of beliefs is usually an illusion, we're usually unaware that we have insufficient data to justify them.

Based on this illusion, we sometimes believe that someone is lying even when we can't possibly know that for certain. Here are three other ways to get into trouble:

Inflicting feedback
Sometimes we experience urges to give unsolicited advice or feedback. We might even neglect to ask for permission to provide it. See "Feedback Fumbles," Point Lookout for April 2, 2003, for more.
These urges can come, in part, from the illusion that we understand the other's experience, perceptions, and defects. Use the urge as a reminder to check for the illusion.
Resisting feedback
When people giveWe sometimes believe that
someone is lying even when
we can't possibly know
that for certain
feedback or advice, requested or not, the asymmetric insight illusion can convince us that the givers can't possibly know what they're talking about.
Unfortunately for recipients, sometimes the givers do know what they're talking about. The urge to dismiss feedback might rest on the illusion that you know yourself better than anyone else possibly could.
Intergroup antagonism
Intergroup antagonism can prevent members of the respective groups from working together. They can all believe that the other group's members are mean-spirited, malicious, or worse.
In large groups, when most members don't know each other well, they can nevertheless be certain about the other group's shortcomings. Such stereotypes suggest the workings of the asymmetric insight illusion.

There's a trap here awaiting all of us. The very strong sense that someone is doing or saying something that's consistent with being misled by the asymmetric insight illusion, could itself be the result of the asymmetric insight illusion. Go to top Top  Next issue: Blind Agendas  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

For more about the asymmetric insight illusion, see: Emily Pronin, Justin Kruger, Kenneth Savitsky and Lee Ross: "You Don't Know Me, But I Know You: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2001, Vol. 81, No. 4, 639-656.

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Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.

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