Know thyself: How mindfulness can improve self-knowledge

Mindfulness — paying attention to one’s current experience in a nonjudgmental way — might help us to learn more about our own personalities, new research from Washington University in St. Louis suggests.


The motivation to see ourselves in a desirable way is one of the main obstacles to self-knowledge, suggests study author Erika Carlson, an Arts & Sciences doctoral student in psychology.
Titled “Overcoming the barriers to self-knowledge: Mindfulness as a path to seeing yourself as you really are,” Carlson’s study is published in the March 2013 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Mindfulness, Carlson explains, is a technique often recognized for its positive effects on mental health. It involves paying attention to your current experience (e.g., thoughts, feelings) and observing it in a nonjudgmental manner.

Recent research has highlighted the fact that we
have many blind spots when it comes to understanding our patterns of
thinking, feeling, and behaving.

Despite our intuition that we know
ourselves the best, other people have a more accurate view of some
traits (e.g., intellect) than we do. In some cases, blind spots in
self-knowledge can have negative consequences, such as poor
decision-making, poor academic achievement, emotional and interpersonal
problems and lower life satisfaction.

According to Carlson, these two components of mindfulness, attention and nonjudgmental observation, can overcome the major barriers to knowing ourselves.

For instance, people may overestimate their virtuous
qualities to ward off negative feelings or boost self-esteem. However,
nonjudgmental observation of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior
might reduce emotional reactivity — such as feelings of inadequacy or
low self-esteem — that typically interferes with people seeing the truth about themselves.

Lack of information is another barrier to self-knowledge — in some situations, people might not have the information they need to accurately assess themselves.

For instance, we have a hard time observing much of our nonverbal behavior, so we may not know that we’re grimacing or fidgeting during a serious conversation. Mindfulness also could help in this domain, as research has shown that mindfulness training is associated with greater bodily awareness.

This research was supported by National Science Foundation Grant BCS-1025330 awarded to Simine Vazire, PhD, the Saul and Louise Rosenzweig Associate Professor in Personality Science in Psychology.