The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

The Misconception:  You celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view.

The Truth: You are driven to create and form groups and then believe others are wrong just because they are others.

Source: “Lord of the Flies,” 1963, Two Arts Ltd.

In 1954, in eastern Oklahoma, two tribes of children nearly killed each other.

The neighboring tribes were unaware of each other’s existence. Separately, they lived among nature, played games, constructed shelters, prepared food – they knew peace. Each culture developed its own norms and rules of conduct. Each culture arrived at novel solutions to survival-critical problems. Each culture named the creeks and rocks and dangerous places, and those names were known to all. They helped each other and watched out for the well-being of the tribal members.

Scientists stood by, watchful, scribbling notes and whispering. Much nodding and squinting took place as the tribes granted to anthropology and psychology a wealth of data about how people build and maintain groups, how hierarchies are established and preserved. They wondered, the scientists, what would happen if these two groups were to meet.

These two tribes consisted of 22 boys, ages 11 and 12, whom psychologist Muzafer Sherif brought together at Oklahoma’s Robber’s Cave State Park. He and his team placed the two groups on separate buses and drove them to a Boy Scout Camp inside the park – the sort with cabins and caves and thick wilderness. At the park, the scientists put the boys into separate sides of the camp about a half-mile apart and kept secret the existence and location of the other group. The boys didn’t know each other beforehand, and Sherif believed putting them into a new environment away from their familiar cultures would encourage them to create a new culture from scratch.

He was right, but as those cultures formed and met something sinister presented itself. One of the behaviors which pushed and shoved its way to the top of the boys’ minds is also something you are fending off at this very moment, something which is making your life harder than it ought to be. We’ll get to all that it in a minute. First, let’s get back to one of the most telling and frightening experiments in the history of psychology.

Sherif and his colleagues pretended to be staff members at the camp so they could record, without interfering, the natural human drive to form tribes. Right away, social hierarchies began to emerge in which the boys established leaders and followers and special roles for everyone in between. Norms spontaneously generated. For instance, when one boy hurt his foot but didn’t tell anyone until bedtime, it became expected among the group that Rattlers didn’t complain. From then on members waited until the day’s work was finished to reveal injuries. When a boy cried, the others ignored him until he got over it. Regulations and rituals sprouted just as quickly. For instance, the high-status members, the natural leaders, in both groups came up with guidelines for saying grace during meals and correct rotations for the ritual. Within a few days their initially arbitrary suggestions became the way things were done, and no one had to be prompted or reprimanded. They made up games and settled on rules of play. They embarked on projects to clean up certain areas and established chains of command. Slackers were punished. Over achievers were praised. Flags were created. Signs erected.

Soon, the two groups began to suspect they weren’t alone. They would find evidence of others. They found cups and other signs of civilization in places they didn’t remember visiting. This strengthened their resolve and encouraged the two groups to hold tighter to their new norms, values, rituals and all the other elements of the shared culture. At the end of the first week, the Rattlers discovered the others on the camp’s baseball diamond. From this point forward both groups spent most of their time thinking about how to deal with their new-found adversaries. The group with no name asked about the outsiders. When told the other group called themselves the Rattlers, they elected a baseball captain and asked the camp staff if they could face off in a game with the enemy. They named their baseball team the Eagles after an animal they thought ate snakes.

From the study, the boys face each other for the first time

Sherif and his colleagues had already planned on pitting the groups against each other in competitive sports. They weren’t just researching how groups formed but also how they acted when in competition for resources. The fact the boys were already becoming incensed over the baseball field seemed to fall right in line with their research. So, the scientists proceeded with stage two. The two tribes were overjoyed to learn they would not only play baseball, but compete in tug-of-war, touch football, treasure hunts and other summer-camp-themed rivalry. The scientists revealed a finite number of prizes. Winners would receive one of a handful of medals or knives. When the boys won the knives, some would kiss them before rushing to hide the weapons from the other group.

Sherif noted the two groups spent a lot of time talking about how dumb and uncouth the other side was. They called them names, lots of names, and they seemed to be preoccupied every night with defining the essence of their enemies. Sherif was fascinated by this display. The two groups needed the other side to be inferior once the competition for limited resources became a factor, so they began defining them as such. It strengthened their identity to assume the identity of the enemy was a far cry from their own. Everything they learned about the other side became an example of how not to be, and if they did happen to see similarities they tended to be ignored.

The researchers collected data and discussed findings while planning the next series of activities, but the boys made other plans. The experiment was about to spiral out of control, and it started with the Eagles.

Some of the Eagles boys discovered the Rattlers’ flag standing unguarded on the baseball field. They discussed what to do and decided it should be ripped from the ground. Once they had it, a possession of the enemy, a symbol of their tribe, they decided to burn it. They then put its scorched remains back in place and sang Taps. Later, the Rattlers saw the atrocity and organized a raid in which they stole the Eagles’ flag and burned it as payback. When the Eagles discovered the revenge burning, the leader issued a challenge – a face off. The two leaders then met with their followers watching and prepared to fight, but the scientists intervened. That night, the Rattlers dressed in war paint and raided the Eagles’ cabins, turning over beds and tearing apart mosquito netting. The staff again intervened when the two groups started circling and gathering rocks. The next day, the Rattlers painted one of the Eagle boy’s stolen blue jeans with insults and paraded it in front of the enemy’s camp like a flag. The Eagles waited until the Rattlers were eating and conducted a retaliatory raid and then ran back to their cabin to set up defenses. They filled socks with rocks and waited. The camp staff, once again, intervened and convinced the Rattlers not to counterattack. The raids continued, and the interventions too, and eventually the Rattlers stole the Eagles knives and medals. The Eagles, determined to retrieve them, formed an organized war party with assigned roles and planned tactical maneuvers. The two groups finally fought in open combat. The scientists broke up the fights. Fearing the two tribes might murder someone, they moved the groups’ camps away from each other.

You probably suspected this was where the story was headed. You know it is possible in the right conditions that people, even children, might revert to savages. You know about the instant-coffee-version of cultures too. You remember high school. You’ve worked in a cubicle farm. You’ve watched Stephen King movies. People in new situations instinctively form groups. Those groups develop their own language quirks, in-jokes, norms, values and so on. You’ve probably suspected zombies, or bombs, or economic collapse would lead to a battle over who runs Bartertown. In this study, all they had to do was introduce competition for resources and summer camp became Lord of the Flies.

What you may not have noticed though is how much of this behavior is gurgling right below the surface of your consciousness day-to-day. You aren’t sharpening spears, but at some level you are contemplating your place in society, contemplating your allegiances and your opponents. You see yourself as part of some groups and not others, and like those boys you spend a lot of time defining outsiders. The way you see others is deeply affected by something psychologists call the illusion of asymmetric insight, but to understand it let’s first consider how groups, like people, have identities – and like people, those identities aren’t exactly real.

Source: “The Breakfast Club,” 1985, Universal

Hopefully by now you’ve had one of those late-night conversations fueled by exhaustion, elation, fear or drugs in which you and your friends finally admit you are all bullshitting each other. If you haven’t, go watch The Breakfast Club and come back. The idea is this: You put on a mask and uniform before leaving for work. You put on another set for school. You have costume for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. You quick-change like Superman in a phone booth when you bump into old friends from high school at the grocery store, or the ex in line for the movie. When you part, you quick-change back and tell the person you are with why you appeared so strange for a moment. They understand, after all, they are also in disguise. It’s not a new or novel concept, the idea of multiple identities for multiple occasions, but it’s also not something you talk about often. The idea is old enough that the word person derives from persona – a Latin word for the masks Greek actors sometimes wore so people in the back rows of a performance could see who was on stage. This concept – actors and performance, persona and masks – has been intertwined and adopted throughout history. Shakespeare said, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William James said a person “has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.” Carl Jung was particularly fond of the concept of the persona saying it was “that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.” It’s an old idea, but you and everyone else seems to stumble onto it anew in adolescence, forget about it for a while, and suddenly remember again from time to time when you feel like an impostor or a fraud. It’s ok, that’s a natural feeling, and if you don’t step back occasionally and feel funky about how you are wearing a socially constructed mask and uniform you are probably a psychopath.

Social media confounds the issue. You are a public relations masterpiece. Not only are you free to create alternate selves for forums, websites and digital watering holes, but from one social media service to the next you control the output of your persona. The clever tweets, the photos of your delectable triumphs with the oven and mixing bowl, the funny meme you send out into the firmament that you check back on for comments, the new thing you own, the new place you visited – they tell a story of who you want to be, who you ought to be. They satisfy something. Is anyone clicking on all these links? Is anyone smirking at this video? Are my responses being scoured for grammatical infractions? You ask these questions and others, even if they don’t rise to the surface.

The recent fuss over the over-sharing, over the loss of privacy is just noisy ignorance. You know, as a citizen of the Internet, you obfuscate the truth of your character. You hide your fears and transgressions and vulnerable yearnings for meaning, for purpose, for connection. In a world where you can control everything presented to an audience both domestic or imaginary, what is laid bare depends on who you believe is on the other side of the screen. You fret over your father or your aunt asking to be your Facebook friend. What will they think of that version of you? In flesh or photons, it seems built-in, this desire to conceal some aspects of yourself in one group while exposing them in others. You can be vulnerable in many different ways but not all at once it seems.

So, you don social masks just like every human going back to the first campfires. You seem rather confident in them, in their ability to communicate and conceal that which you want on display and that which you wish was not. Groups too don these masks. Political parties establish platforms, companies give employees handbooks, countries write out constitutions, tree houses post club rules. Every human gathering and institution from the Gay Pride Parade to the KKK works to remain connected by developing a set a norms and values which signals to members when they are dealing with members of the in-group and help identify others as part of the out-group. The peculiar thing though is that once you feel this, once you feel included in a human institution or ideology, you can’t help but see outsiders through a warped lens called the illusion of asymmetric insight.

How well do you know your friends? Pick one out of the bunch, someone you interact with often. Do you see the little ways she lies to herself and others? Do you secretly know what is holding him back, but also recognize the beautiful talents he doesn’t appreciate? Do you know what she wants, what she is likely to do in most situations, what she will argue about and what she will let slide? Do you notice when he is posturing and when he is vulnerable? Do you know the perfect gift? Do you wish she had never went out with so-and-so? Do you sometimes say with confidence, “You should have been there. You would have loved it,” about things you enjoyed for them, by proxy? Research shows you probably feel all these things and more. You see your friends, your family, your coworkers and peers as semipermeable beings. You label them with ease. You see them as the artist, the grouch, the slacker and the overachiever. “He did what? Oh, that’s no surprise.” You know who will watch the meteor shower with you and who will pass. You know who to ask about spark plugs and who to ask about planting a vegetable garden. You can, you believe, put yourself in his or her shoes and predict his or her behavior in just about any situation. You believe every person not you is an open book. Of course, the research shows they believe the same thing about you.

In 2001, Emily Pronin and Lee Ross at Stanford along with Justin Kruger at the University of Illinois and Kenneth Savitsky at Williams College conducted a series of experiments exploring why you see people this way.

In the first experiment they had people fill out a questionnaire asking them to think of a best friend and rate how well they believed they knew him or her. They showed the subjects a series of photos showing an iceberg submerged in varying levels of water and asked them to circle the one which corresponded to how much of the “essential nature” they felt they could see of their friends. How much, they asked, of your friend’s true self is visible and much is hidden below the surface? They then had the subjects take a second questionnaire which turned the questions around asking them to put themselves in the minds of their friends. How much of their own iceberg did they think their friends could see? Most people rated their insight into their best friend as keen. They saw more of the iceberg floating above the water line. In the other direction they felt the insight their friend’s possessed of them was lacking, most of their own self was submerged.

This and many other studies show you believe you see more of other people’s icebergs than they see of yours; meanwhile, they think the same thing about you.

The same researchers asked people to describe a time when they feel most like themselves. Most subjects, 78 percent, described something internal and unobservable like the feeling of seeing their child excel or the rush of applause after playing for an audience. When asked to describe when they believed friends or relatives were most illustrative of their personalities, they described internal feelings only 28 percent of the time. Instead, they tended to describe actions. Tom is most like Tom when he is telling a dirty joke. Jill is most like Jill when she is rock climbing. You can’t see internal states of others, so you generally don’t use those states to describe their personalities.

When they had subjects complete words with some letters missing (like g–l which could be goal, girl, gall, gill, etc.) and then ask how much the subjects believed those word completion tasks revealed about their true selves, most people said they revealed nothing at all. When the same people looked at other people’s word completions they said things like, “I get the feeling that whoever did this is pretty vain, but basically a nice guy.” They looked at the words and said the people who filled them in were nature lovers, or on their periods, or were positive thinkers or needed more sleep. When the words were their own, they meant nothing. When they were others’, they pulled back a curtain.

When Pronin, Ross, Kruger and Savitsky moved from individuals to groups, they found an even more troubling version of the illusion of asymmetric insight. They had subjects identify themselves as either liberals or conservatives and in a separate run of the experiment as either pro-abortion and anti-abortion. The groups filled out questionnaires about their own beliefs and how they interpreted the beliefs of their opposition. They then rated how much insight their opponents possessed. The results showed liberals believed they knew more about conservatives than conservatives knew about liberals. The conservatives believed they knew more about liberals than liberals knew about conservatives. Both groups thought they knew more about their opponents than their opponents knew about themselves. The same was true of the pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion groups.

The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves. You believe the same thing about groups of which you are a member. As a whole, your group understands outsiders better than outsiders understand your group, and you understand the group better than its members know the group to which they belong.

The researchers explained this is how one eventually arrives at the illusion of naive realism, or believing your thoughts and perceptions are true, accurate and correct, therefore if someone sees things differently than you or disagrees with you in some way it is the result of a bias or an influence or a shortcoming. You feel like the other person must have been tainted in some way, otherwise they would see the world the way you do – the right way. The illusion of asymmetrical insight clouds your ability to see the people you disagree with as nuanced and complex. You tend to see your self and the groups you belong to in shades of gray, but others and their groups as solid and defined primary colors lacking nuance or complexity.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
-Walt Whitman from Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass

The two tribes of children in Oklahoma formed because groups are how human beings escaped the Serengeti and built pyramids and invented Laffy Taffy. All primates depend on groups to survive and thrive, and human groups thrive most of all. It is in your nature to form them. Sherif’s experiment with the boys at Robber’s Cave showed how quickly and easily you do so, how your innate drive to develop and observe norms and rituals will express itself even in a cultural vacuum, but there is a dark side to this behavior. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, our minds “unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth.” It’s that last part that keeps getting you into trouble. Just as you don a self, a persona, and believe it to be thicker and harder to see through than those of your friends, family and peers, you too believe the groups to which you belong are more complex, more diverse and granular than are groups of which you could never imagine yourself a member. When you feel the warm comfort of belonging to a team, a tribe, a group – to a party, an ideology, a religion or a nation – you instinctively turn others into members of outgroups, into outsiders. Just as soldiers come up with derogatory names for enemies, every culture and sub-culture has a collection of terms for outsiders so as to better see them as a single-minded collective. You are prone to forming and joining groups and then believing your groups are more diverse than outside groups.

In a political debate you feel like the other side just doesn’t get your point of view, and if they could only see things with your clarity, they would understand and fall naturally in line with what you believe. They must not understand, because if they did they wouldn’t think the things they think. By contrast, you believe you totally get their point of view and you reject it. You see it in all its detail and understand it for what it is – stupid. You don’t need to hear them elaborate. So, each side believes they understand the other side better than the other side understands both their opponents and themselves.

The research suggests you and rest of humanity will continue to churn into groups, banding and disbanding, and the beautiful collective species-wide macromonoculture imagined by the most Utopian of dreams might just be impossible unless alien warships lay siege to our cities. In Sherif’s study, he was able to somewhat reintegrate the boys of the Robber’s Cave experiment by telling them the water supply had been sabotaged by vandals. The two groups were able to come together and repair it as one. Later he staged a problem with one of the camp trucks and was able to get the boys to work together to pull it with a rope until it started. They never fully joined into one group, but the hostilities eased enough for both groups to ride the same bus together back home. It seems peace is possible when we face shared problems, but for now we need to be in our tribes. It just feels right.

So, you pick a team, and like the boys at Robber’s Cave, you spend a lot of time a lot of time talking about how dumb and uncouth the other side is. You too can become preoccupied with defining the essence of your enemies. You too need the other side to be inferior, so you define them as such. You start to believe your persona is actually your identity, and the identity of your enemy is actually their persona. You see yourself in a game of self-deluded poker and assume you are impossible to read while everyone else has obvious tells.

The truth is, you are succumbing to the illusion of asymmetric insight, and as part of a flatter, more-connected, always-on world, you will be tasked with seeing through this illusion more and more often as you are presented with more opportunities than ever to confront and define those who you feel are not in your tribe. Your ancestors rarely made any contact with people of opposing views with anything other than the end of a weapon, so your natural instinct is to assume anyone not in your group is wrong just because they are not in your group. Remember, you are not so smart, and what seems like an insight is often an illusion.


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Sources:

  •  Haidt, Jonathan. “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.” TED Talks. Filmed March 2008. Posted September 2008. (link)
  • Johnston, Dan, Ph.D. “Persona— The Mask We Wear.” Awakenings: Lessons for Living. Web: Aug. 2011 (link)
  • Pronin, E., D. Y. Lin, and L. Ross. “The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28, no. 3 (2002): 369– 81.
  • Pronin, Emily, Justin Kruger, Kenneth Savtisky, and Lee Ross. “You Don’t Know Me, but I Know.”
  • You: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 4 (2001): 639– 56. Pronin, Emily, Thomas Gilovich, and Lee Ross.
  • “Objectivity in the Eye of the Beholder: Divergent Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others.” Psychological Review 111, no. 3 (2004): 781– 99. 
  • Sherif, Muzafer, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, and Carolyn W. Sherif. Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment. Norman, OK: University Book Exchange, 1961.
  • Classics in the History of Psychology. York University, Toronto. (link)
  • Sloman, Steven, and Philip M. Fernbach. “I’m Right! (For Some Reason).” The New York Times. October 19, 2012. (link)
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