Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Calling All Human Robots: Don’t be Too Introspective at Work!

Psychologist Tasha Eurich is the leader of a “boutique executive development firm that helps companies—from start-ups to the Fortune 100—succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams.” This is according to the bio in an article at Harvard Business Review, in which she reports on studies she’s done on different kinds of self-awareness and argues that the philosophical kind of introspection is counterproductive.  

Counterproductive Introspection

She distinguishes between internal and external kinds of self-awareness. The former “represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others.” The latter kind “means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors.” The two kinds of self-awareness are independent, and she finds that “internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression,” while “people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives.” She also finds that experience and power hinder self-awareness, since they can make people over-confident, but effective leaders can compensate for that by increasing their external self-awareness, that is, by seeking reports on their character and behaviour from those who are liable to be honest, such as family members of long-time friends.

She also argues that introspection, or “examining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” doesn’t always improve our self-awareness, since most people think about themselves “incorrectly.” The incorrect or ineffective way, she says, is to ask why questions, as in, “Why do I like Employee A more than Employee B?” or “Why am I so against this deal?” The problem with this type of question—which happens to be quintessential to philosophy when asked about meta issues—is that we have little access to our unconscious thoughts and so instead of discovering the mental facts, we’re liable to invent answers to flatter ourselves or rationalize what we wish were the case. Our confidence in the answers we find to those why questions is due to our innate biases and our tendency to think fallaciously—especially when our inner worth is at stake. Another problem with introspective why questions, she says, is that they invite “unproductive negative thoughts.” She finds that “people who are very introspective are also more likely to get caught in ruminative patterns.”

The alternatives to why questions, she says, are what ones. So instead of asking, “Why do I feel so terrible?” we can ask, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” Instead of, “Why did you say this about me?” we can ask, “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?” Instead of “Why wasn’t I able to turn things around?” we can ask, “What do I need to do to move forward in a way that minimizes the impact to our customers and employees?” These what questions are more productive, she finds, because they have definite answers and foster open-mindedness. 

She points out that her findings are backed by another study by psychologists in which they
gave a group of undergraduates negative feedback on a test of their “sociability, likability and interest­ingness.” Some were given time to think about why they were the kind of person they were, while others were asked to think about what kind of person they were. When the researchers had them evaluate the accuracy of the feedback, the “why” students spent their energy rationalizing and denying what they’d learned, and the “what” students were more open to this new information and how they might learn from it.
Notice the apparent contradiction between her claims that high internal self-awareness is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression, and that a certain kind of introspection causes negative feedback loops, which should result in anxiety or depression. Thus for the sake of consistency, she must be assuming that those with high internal self-awareness are asking themselves mainly the more productive, what questions. Only the productive kind of internal self-awareness, when we ask ourselves what the facts are with respect to how well we’re doing in our environment, should be healthy because it provides us with the means to improve our situation.

In any case, Eurich concludes, “Leaders who focus on building both internal and external self-awareness, who seek honest feedback from loving critics, and who ask what instead of why can learn to see themselves more clearly—and reap the many rewards that increased self-knowledge delivers.”

The Corporate Psychologist’s Hidden Agenda

Eurich’s findings are intriguing since they entail that existential ruminations are counterproductive—which they must indeed be for business purposes. Nevertheless, the existential issues don’t disappear just because they’re useless or harmful in certain settings. What Eurich doesn’t consider are the presuppositions of the business world which her studies and indeed the current state of her entire discipline serve. For example, she frames the issue of self-awareness in terms of how clearly we see the “fitness” between ourselves and our environment, so the unstated goal is to improve that fitness. Thus, she says those with low internal and external self-awareness “don’t yet know who they are, what they stand for, or how their teams see them. As a result, they might feel frustrated with their performance and relationships.” These persons she calls “seekers.” In addition to the other two types, there are also the “pleasers,” those with high external but low internal self-awareness. “They can be so focused on appearing a certain way to others that they could be overlooking what matters to them. Over time, they tend to make choices that aren’t in service of their own success and fulfillment.”

So she assumes that success and fulfillment are the purposes of being self-aware. But what she overlooks is that when we’re at work, especially in an office setting, we’re not supposed to be ourselves in the first place. Our personal selves are irrelevant at work, because in a heartless capitalistic economy we’re only supposed to do our jobs. This is because most people on earth aren’t lucky enough to have their dream jobs in which they’re passionate about their work because they’ve managed to attain precisely the type of work they care about most. Whether we’re right or wrong in what we think or feel while at work doesn’t matter when we don’t care much about our job, because we’re doing it just for the paycheck. All that matters at work, then, is whether we’re effective in the roles we’re assigned, and acting as though we think or feel a certain way, like the workers whom Eurich calls “pleasers,” can be more effective than dealing with the typical lack of fitness between our inner selves and our work environment.

For that reason, those who tend to succeed the most in business are more extroverted than introverted, which means they don’t have much of an inner life to speak of. Their private self is minimal, because they prefer actions to thoughts. How does one come by an inner self in the first place? By practicing precisely what Eurich calls the “incorrect” form of self-awareness: by introspecting and ruminating. She’s right that we don’t have direct access to facts pertaining to our unconscious brain states, but she’s wrong in assuming that this matters; no one has such facts, not even those who busy themselves answering their what questions. The total cause of why we have certain thoughts and feelings would be far too complex for anyone to understand even if they were undergoing intensive therapy, because that cause amounts to the totality of our life’s experience. This experience isn’t even locked away in memory, ripe for analysis as in the study of our dreams or of our art which sublimates our unconscious drives, because every time we attempt to consciously access our deep thoughts, we alter them. Memory is creative in that respect, but that’s as it should be because the personal self is a fiction from top to bottom. This doesn’t make the self unreal, since fictions are obviously real; they’re just not supposed to be taken at face value.

Eurich would dismiss the introspective person’s creativity that’s displayed when this person wastes time pondering why questions, rationalizes her answers, and vehemently defends herself when her self-knowledge is challenged. This is because Eurich thinks this kind of introspection, which ends in anxiety, stress, and depression is inferior to the search for answers to more limited questions about what steps can be taken to improve our thoughts and desires. But there’s no real comparison there, because the one kind of introspection is meant to create a private self in the first place, while the other is meant to suppress any such self, since that personal self typically interferes with her ability to do her job, given that she likely doesn’t have her ideal job.

Indeed, Eurich’s distinction between why and what questions is a red herring, as can be discerned from Eurich’s examples. You can translate the one type of question into the other, but that would reflect only the flexibility of grammar. For example, instead of asking, “Why do I feel so terribly?” you could ask, “What are the causes of my unpleasant feelings?” but despite being superficially a what question, the latter question wouldn’t be productive, according to Eurich, because we don’t have conscious access to all the causes of our mental states, as she points out. That’s why her preferred what question presupposes the relevance of only some such causes, namely some in the outer world, and so she would ask, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” Presumably, this question is more useful because once those situations are identified, steps can be taken to avoid them. This emphasis on the need to take steps is clearer from her other two examples, since as shown above, their what questions are about the actions that can be taken to improve the situation. Thus, the real distinction in her discussion of internal self-awareness is between the philosophical search for ultimate answers and the search for efficient techniques to improve the fitness between self and environment. The former is counterproductive in business for various reasons besides the ones Eurich raises. For one thing, philosophy (specifically, ethics) sabotages your chance of succeeding in business, by calling into question any form of business that’s grossly dishonest. In a capitalist economy, that covers most businesses.

But the key point is that by dispensing with philosophical self-awareness, Eurich obviates the need for any internal self-awareness, because without that impractical introspection, there is no personal self to be aware of. This kind of self must be created by higher-order thoughts in the absence of knowledge of the relevant facts. We form ourselves by reinforcing our mental habits, rationalizing this or that desire by attributing it to some value we tell ourselves is meaningful. There are no deep facts of the matter when it comes to normative issues of what we should value or desire; we have to make them up. People are therefore fictions, and the best people are those with the self-understanding (which is different from self-awareness) to recognize that they ultimately mean so little. These highest, nobler selves are humble in understanding that they’ve invented themselves, and they’re honourable in taking responsibility for those acts of self-creation.

To be sure, even an extrovert who hasn’t spent any time introspecting and speculating on what she should believe or desire at the meta level has a brain, complete with thoughts and feelings. But animals have brains too and that doesn’t make them persons. Persons are self-conscious by way of complex, higher-order thoughts (not immaterial spirits) which are formulated by philosophical reflection of the kind that Eurich naturally despises. Both philosophy and personhood itself are antithetical to business practices in the warped American society in which Eurich operates. What fitting into that particular environment requires isn’t the development of a worthy interior life, but compliance or sociopathy, depending on your status in the power hierarchy. Notice that from a purely capitalistic perspective, both the ideal underling and boss are robotic, not personal. Moral autonomy, the ability to judge matters from your subjective standpoint and thus to step outside your corporate function would make for chaos in business, not to mention bankruptcy. The ideal worker is a robot, which is why businesses are literally replacing most of their workers with robots as fast as they can manage. The sociopathic bosses are parasitic robots, like viruses, and so they won’t replace themselves until they blindly destroy the societies that host them.

Eurich overstates our tendency to be irrational or ignorant, because she’s presupposed her psychologist’s scientism, to facilitate psychology’s takeover of some of philosophy’s intellectual territory. So while we may not have direct access to the unconscious or other ultimate causes of our behaviour, we can understand partial answers to why we are as we are, if we learn to reason philosophically. There may not be “correct” answers to such questions, because a self isn’t a math problem and so that kind of precision is irrelevant, but there are reasonable and unreasonable explanations that don’t require scientific knowledge of the actual causes. There are also aesthetic and ethical standards that apply to evaluating our choice of ultimate goals, and these needn’t be subordinated to the goals Eurich presupposes, which are to fit into the environment and to succeed in conventional terms. This is especially so if the social environment in question is despicable.

By thinking and feeling a lot at the meta-level, that is, by considering why we think and feel as we do, and by philosophically analyzing the answers that bubble up from the unconscious, we can understand some of what’s happening in which case we’re less likely to blindly rationalize our self-image when challenged. Nevertheless, even those undergraduates who seemed close-minded (according to the study Eurich summarizes) must have been defensive because they’d engaged in some deep thoughts about “why they were the kind of person they were.” This means they were engaged in fictionalizing their self into being. Their defensiveness can thus be compared to that of an artist whose work is critiqued. Creators become defensive for the reason supplied long ago by Plato: ideas are brainchildren. Parents don’t like having their biological offspring criticized, and neither do artists enjoy negative feedback on their work. Indeed, arts or hobbies contrast in this respect with business, because the former, personal endeavours channel our passions whereas our work seldom does (unless we have our dream job). We defend that which expresses our passion because that kind of personal as opposed to public labour is part of our extended self, and so we defend it as we would defend ourselves were we attacked.    

As for that public work which is aptly called “just business,” as in the famous phrase, “It wasn’t personal, it was just business,” if workers take Eurich’s advice and avoid inefficient introspection, what kind of internal self-awareness can they be expected to have since they therefore must not have created a self in the first place by meta reflection? Again, to be sure, they have relatively intelligent, human brains and therefore sophisticated thoughts, feelings, and instincts compared to, say, an insect’s, but they won’t have a higher self, an inner character that stands out in vulgar parts even of human societies. So is Eurich’s talk of their “internal self-awareness” empty? Not entirely, because another source of personal creativity fills the vacuum, namely social convention. If we surrender our ability to form our characteristic thoughts and desires, by neglecting to philosophize or to ask questions about ultimate causes even though there are no easy or objective answers in the offing, the environment comes to the fore and chooses our inner self for us. For example, the company ideology will dictate the character that forms in the company’s employees. With respect to the workers, the manager’s beliefs will rub off on them and so they’ll become the sort of people who please their boss, much as pets’ behaviour comes to please their master. By contrast, the executive’s attitudes will be shaped largely by his inclusion in the rarified circles of the wealthiest ten percent. At his fancy restaurants and cocktail parties, the male executive especially will imbibe the ethos of the rich, including the self-serving, social Darwinian myth that capitalism is meritocratic, and that will inform his monstrous self-image.

At any rate, to succeed in business, we need to create business-friendly selves and these are the products more of social conditioning than of philosophical meditation. This is where a psychologist such as Eurich swoops in to tell us what’s useful and what’s counterproductive. We don’t need higher selves, namely existentially-authentic ones generated by philosophical introspection, and indeed that kind of person would be impaired in a business environment, because her intellectual integrity would interfere with her ability to mislead as needed to succeed in capitalistic, materialistic terms. When those dehumanizing standards rule, as they do currently in the United States, authentic persons are marginalized and those who succeed have underdeveloped characters. Success in business requires only instrumental rationality, or the preoccupation with what Eurich calls the what questions. Again, the real preoccupation here is with the task of efficiently achieving goals set by the environment and not by you, because if you care mainly about such instrumental matters, you aren’t thinking at the meta level that builds up some internal opposition to the inflow of cultural delusions, some preserve of autonomous subjectivity called a personal mind or character.

Instead of pondering whether you feel so terrible at work because there’s a colossal mismatch between capitalism and conscience, which renders much of public life a horrific fraud and which therefore mandates anxiety or depression to demonstrate you’ve created an existentially-worthy self capable of philosophical understanding, you presuppose that your situation should be improved by fitting yourself successfully into your environment (even if the environment is unjust), and you ponder only how to improve your standing in that manner. The task, then, is to destroy your authentic self, to become the sort of robot that can serve the megamachine. So philosophy, that is, the asking of why ultimately you are or aren’t fitting into your environment, must be anathema. What’s ideal for business is hardly the prospect of sabotaging the entire enterprise, assuming the business wouldn’t withstand philosophical scrutiny. Instead, we’ll want to lay aside such concerns and think productively, which is to say robotically. When the actual robots arrive to replace us, we’ll be dispensed with as the waste we’ll have become by having shirked our philosophical responsibility to have formed a personal self worthy of some nobler fate. 


  1. Excellent article, I also see this in these positive attitude programs like Mindfulness that are the craze nowadays, they adopt these Eastern practices like meditation or yoga because of their "supposed" (i'm not saying this is not the case) positive effects, from what ive read companies adopt all of these exercises because of the research on them, and it's much cheaper to have a worker meditate, then to pay a therapist.
    But while they do this, they ignore the philosophical basis behind these Eastern praticises, because it's like you said, it's pratice over theory, these companies demand results, they want happy and healthy workers who love coming to their job, and not workers who think of life's biggest questions.
    But a philosophical movement where I see alot of ideas are borrowed from (without understanding the historical context it originated from) is Stoicism.

    1. That certainly is another example, although I suspect that's more of a demand than a supply issue. Big companies supply that phony spirituality to attract workers who have prior commitments to it. So maybe the workers should be blamed more than the companies on that one, just as movie goers are primarily to blame for the spate of dumb Hollywood movies, not the movie industry. The industry continues the cycle, but they're making money by fulfilling the broad demand which is necessarily the demand of dummies. To appeal to the broadest possible population, you have to dumb down your content.

      Did you listen to the Bloggingheads episode with Massimo Pigliucci on how philosophy is going corporate? He makes a similar point about Stoicism (starting especially at the one hour mark).

  2. There's a great article by Thomas Metzinger, called "Are we sleepwalking now?" which goes into cognitive scientific details on this question of developing the self through introspection.