‘How Do We Know Ourselves?’ Review: A Humbling Look Inside

The title of “How Do We Know Ourselves? Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind” suggests that Hope College psychologist David Myers will, in this brief book, focus primarily on the process of self-discovery. But a better title might have been “How Well Do We Know Ourselves?” The answer that emerges, over 40 charming and clear-eyed chapters that cover disparate areas of psychology including memory, relationships and personality, is: not very.

Consider a study on dissent. A huge majority of the participants—95%—predicted that they would immediately protest sexist comments in a hypothetical group scenario. In a second phase of the experiment, only 45% of the participants actually spoke up when they encountered the comments. In another study, participants were told to write blog posts as if they had a few months to live. The posts were significantly more negative than those of actual terminal patients. And those with the least self-knowledge are also the most sure of themselves. Lower scores on tests of humor, logic and grammar have been associated with greater overconfidence in those domains; in what’s now called the Dunning-Kruger effect (after its discoverers), Mr. Myers writes, “incompetence doesn’t recognize itself.”

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