Do you know yourself? Probably not as good as you think

Swedish psychologist Petter Johansson’s research casts doubt on aspects that we think are unquestionable

When you choose between two things, you probably think you know very well why you preferred A over B. But is it true?

Imagine that they show you two images of two people and ask you to say which one seems more attractive to you. So far, easy.

But then they ask you to explain why.

That is more difficult.

What do you like about him or her? Is there something attractive in his eyes, perhaps? Or your hair? Maybe you like his strong jaw line or his perfect teeth.

But are these really the reasons why you find one person more attractive than the other?

Once you read about the work of Professor Petter Johansson, you may have questions.

Swedish experimental psychologist Petter Johansson loves magic. He is not formally trained, but has learned only some basic sleight of hand techniques.

Magicians have long understood the phenomenon of “change blindness . ” By distracting you, a magician can trade a card, say the King of Clubs for the King of Spades, and you probably won’t notice.

Johansson’s rudimentary magical abilities are useful for his experiments, as, a few years ago, he and his colleagues decided to test not change blindness but “choice blindness . 

Let me explain...

In his first experiment, Johansson showed participants pairs of images of faces. The subjects had a simple task: choose the one that was most attractive to them.

They were then given the image and asked to justify their selection. But, unbeknownst to them, Johansson had used his magic to make a change; he actually handed them the photo of the person they hadn’t chosen.

Petter Johansson showing a participant two photographs of men in his experiment.
Petter Johansson showing a participant two photographs of men in his experiment.

Do you suppose everyone noticed? If so, you are wrong.

75% do not notice

Surprisingly, only a quarter of the people detect or change , even though the faces were different people and had easily identifiable differences between them. One could have brown hair and earrings; the other blonde and without earrings.

After the change, the subjects explained why they had chosen the person they had not actually chosen.

“When I asked them, why did you choose this face?” says Petter Johansson, “they began to explain why this was the preferred face, even if, just seconds before, they had chosen the other one.”

When he explained what he had done, he was usually surprised and often incredulous.

The most intriguing cases were those in which people justified the rigged choice by highlighting something missing from their original choice.

Finger pointing to a face between several photographs
You choose one and then they give you the other … would you notice?

“For example, if they say, ‘Oh I prefer this face because I really like earrings’ and the one they originally preferred didn’t have any earrings, then we can be sure that whatever made them make this decision, they can’t have been the pending ”.

What can we conclude?

Well, it turns out that we don’t have a clear understanding of why we choose what we choose. We often have to find out for ourselves, just as we have to find out the motives and reasons of others.

The window through which we try to see our own soul is dark and cloudy .

Political appeal

The question “Why do you think one face is more attractive than another” is not trivial. Sex appeal matters: the survival of the human species depends on it.

But Petter Johansson has also used his tricks to analyze our choices in another important domain: politics.

In one study, he asked a group of Swedes a dozen questions about their position on political issues, such as whether there should be an increase in the oil tax or whether health care benefits should be cut.

Those issues tend to divide the Swedish left and right .

Left and right signals
Do you tend to be on the right or on the left? Are you sure?

The written survey responses were then given to them, except, as you may have guessed, they weren’t the real ones. People on the left were shown responses that were more on the right; people on the right, those who were more on the left And then they were asked to justify their selections.

Again, most people could not detect the change.

A subject who a minute earlier had checked a box that supported an increase in the gasoline tax now proceeded to explain why he believed there should be no such increase .

And the explanations they gave made sense . “They said things like: ‘Well, it’s unfair to the population that lives outside the big cities because they have to drive a lot more.’

There was nothing strange about their reasoning, except that a few minutes ago they would not have justified that.

It is evident that we lack self-knowledge about our motives and choices. And that? What are the implications of this research?


Well, maybe a general point is that we should learn to be more tolerant of people who change their minds.

We tend to have very sensitive antennas for inconsistency, whether it’s when our partner changes their mind about whether they fancy an Italian or Indian meal, or a politician who has supported a policy in the past and now supports an opposite position.

If we often do not have a clear idea of ​​why we choose what we choose, surely we should have some freedom to change our choices.

There may also be more specific implications for how we move in our era, a period in which there is increasing cultural and political polarization.

Etiquette or ideals?

It would be natural to believe that those who support a party of the left or right do so because they are committed to the ideology of that party: they believe in the free market or, on the contrary, in a more important role for the state.

Voters in red and blue boxes
Many people vote for their party, not for proposals to improve the current situation.

But Petter Johansson’s work shows that our deepest commitment is not to particular policies, since, using his technique of change, we can be persuaded to endorse all kinds of policies. Rather, ” we support a label or a team .”

In other words, we are likely to overestimate the extent to which a Trump supporter, or a Biden supporter, supports their candidate because of the policies they promote. Rather, they are likely from “Team Trump” or “Team Biden.”

A striking example of that emerged in the last American election. Republicans have traditionally been in favor of free trade, but when Trump began advocating protectionist policies, most Republicans continued to support him, seemingly without even noticing the change .

Before the last American election, the disputed 2016 race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Professor Johansson did another experiment.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton taking part in a presidential debate in 2016

He asked voters to rate their preferred candidate on character, experience, etc., and then changed his answers, improving the ratings of the candidate they did not like.

It worked .

People offered reasons why they actually had a fairly open mind between the two of them.

Surprisingly, such sleight of hand turns out to have a lasting impact.

Fooling a person into thinking someone with blonde hair is more attractive than one with brown hair, and they are likely to confirm that preference when both faces are shown to them at a later date.

The same goes for political opinions. After influencing the political preferences of his subjects, Petter Johansson put his views to the test the following week.

Having justified their “new” preferences a few days before, it seemed that they had “heard their own arguments” and were still thinking the same.

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