Introspection Illusion

The Misconception: You know why you like the things you like and feel the way you feel.

The Truth: The origin of certain emotional states is unavailable to you, and when pressed to explain them, you will just make something up.

Take a look at this piece of art:

It is one of the most popular pieces of art ever featured at

Now, imagine you have to write an essay on why it is popular. Go ahead, think of a reasonable explanation. No, don’t keep reading. Give it a shot. Explain why this is a great photo.

Ok, moving on.

Is there a certain song you love, or a work of art? Perhaps there is a movie you keep returning to over the years, or book. Go ahead and imagine one of those favorite things. Now, in one sentence, try to explain why you like it. Chances are, you will find it difficult to put into words, but if pressed you will probably be able to come up with something. The problem is, according to research, your explanation is probably going to be total bullshit.

Tim Wilson at UVA demonstrated this with The Poster Test. He brought a group of students into a room and showed them a series of posters. The students were told they could take any one they wanted as a gift and keep it. He then brought in another group, and told them the same thing, but this time they had to explain why they wanted the poster before they picked. He then waited six months and asked the two groups what they thought of their choices. The first group, the ones who just got to grab a poster and leave, they all loved their choice. The second group, the ones who had to write out why, hated theirs. The first group, the grab-and-go people, usually picked a nice, fancy painting. The second group, the ones who had to explain their choice, usually picked an inspirational poster with a cat clinging to a rope.

This brings up a lot of concerns. It calls into question the entire industry of critical analysis of art – video games, music, film, poetry, literature – all of it. It also makes things like focus groups and market analysis seem like farts in the wind.

When you ask people why they do or do not like things, they must then translate something from a deep, emotion, primal part of their psyche into the language of the higher, logical, rational world of words and sentences and paragraphs. Also, when you attempt to justify your decisions or emotional attachments, you start worrying about what your explanation says about you as a person.

In the above example, most people truly preferred the lady over the cat, but they couldn’t conjure up the rational explanation why, at least not in a way which would make logical sense on paper. On the other hand, you can write all sorts of bullshit about a motivational poster.

In a similar experiment by the same psychologist who conducted the Poster Test, people were shown two small photos of two different people and were asked which one was more attractive. They then were handed a larger photo. They were told it was the one they picked, but it was actually a completely different person. They were then asked why they chose it. Each time, people dutifully spun a yarn explaining their choice.

Believing you understand your motivations and desires, your likes and dislikes, is called the Introspection Illusion. You believe you know yourself, and why you are the way you are. You believe this knowledge tells you how you will act in all future situations. Research shows otherwise.

Time after time, experiments show introspection is not the act of tapping into your innermost mental constructs, but is instead a fabrication, a construction, a fiction. You look at what you did, or how you felt, and you make up some sort of explanation which you can reasonably believe. If you have to tell others, you make up an explanation they can believe too.

When it comes to explaining why you like the things you like, you are not so smart, and the very act of having to explain yourself can change your attitudes. In this new era of Twitter and Facebook and blogs, just about everyone is broadcasting their love or hate of art. Just look at all the vitriol and praise being lobbed back and forth over “Avatar” or “Lost.”

When “Titanic” earned its Oscars, some people were saying it might just be the greatest film ever made. Now, it’s considered good but schmaltzy, a fine film, but decidedly melodramatic. What will people think in 100 years?

It would be wise to remember many of the works we now consider classics were in their time critically panned.

For instance, this is how one reviewer described “Moby Dick” in 1851:

This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed…We have little more to say in reprobation or in recommendation of this absurd book…Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature — since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.

– Henry F. Chorley, in London Athenaeum

Now, this book is considered one of a handful of great American novels and is held up as an example of the best pieces of literature ever written.

Chances are though, no one can truly explain why.


  • Haigh, E. A. P., & Fresco, D. M. (n.d.). Relationship of depressive rumination and distraction to subsequent depressive symptoms following successful antidepressant medication therapy for depression. Retrieved December 2010 from
  • Wilson T. D., Dunn D. S., Kraft D., & Lisle D. J. (1989). Introspection, attitude change, and attitude-behavior consistency: The disruptive effects of explaining why we feel the way we do. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 287–343.
  • Wilson, T. D., & Schooler, J. W. (1991, February). Thinking too much: Introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60, 181–192.