• Issue #23

The Introspection Trap

A small monkey holds up a mirror and gazes at itself with wonder. In the background is a blurred outdoor setting.

Higher Education and the Introspection Trap

Over 20 years ago, Grant, Franklin, and Langford (2002) released a fascinating paper updating what we know about self-knowledge and understanding. “The self-reflection and insight scale: A new measure of private self-consciousness” identified self-reflection and insight as two different constructs. It turns out that insight is positively correlated with all the good outcomes: higher rates of well-being and self-regulation, and lower rates of anxiety. But, self-reflection alone, as it turns out, just… isn’t.

Grant, Franklin, and Langford describe self-reflection as “the inspection and evaluation of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior,” whereas insight is “the clarity of understanding of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior.”

Put simply:

Self-reflection is the examination, and insight is the understanding.

Before this research, it was assumed that self-reflection led to insight which led to behavior change and better self-regulation. But the novelty of this scale is that it demonstrates that self-reflection and insight aren’t as closely related as we all thought. In fact, you can self-reflect all day and be none-the-wiser to your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

I don’t know about you, but this makes perfect sense to me. Side note: Good golly, humans are complicated beasts riddled with dark fantasies and ruminations. Go read some Brené Brown and feel better. Or, if you’re a fancy intellectual, hit up some David Hume.

Except… David Hume is going to confirm that we are all servants of our passions. And, we’ll just let confirmation-bias and recency-bias guide us to our own set of preconceived ideas of ourselves. As Carl Jung famously said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”

But, you came here for a higher ed hot take, right? So, let’s zoom out a bit. I want to use this model as a metaphor for an experience I have encountered a lot in higher education.

Imagine you’re in a planning meeting, and someone draws that quadrant on the board. You know what’s about to happen. Here comes the SWOT analysis. Load up the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Except, how do you know what your organizational strengths and weaknesses are, or better yet, your opportunities and threats? Where do you get the data to confirm your observations are correct?

Here are some of the strengths I’ve heard from fellow administrators:

  1. We’re an inclusive campus.
  2. We’re a close-knit community where students feel like they belong.
  3. We’re academically rigorous.
  4. We’re aware of the struggles our students face, and we’re ready to meet the needs of students today.
  5. We’re innovative.
  6. We’re caring, honest, and inspiring.
  7. Our research is influential and relevant.
  8. Our degree programs are applicable to the changing workforce and adaptable to student needs.

How do you know any of these things? Where’s your proof? This sounds like a list of things you want to be. And, maybe you’ve heard a good alumni quote or two. But, higher education is a giant purchasing decision. And, for the most part, our business model incentivizes students to stay the course at one institution rather than transferring around and sampling different campuses. So, even our feedback from our students isn’t usually comparative data.

The method for asserting these notions is to self-reflect organizationally. We look at the initiatives we’re prioritizing, our budgets, our values, and we assume that if we’re putting more resources and effort towards an initiative, it must mean it’s a strength.

This is not the clarity of insight. This is self-reflection.

Back to David Hume for a second. He had a best friend, Adam Smith. You may know the guy from Wealth of Nations. But, his other book - his better book, a book of careful observation about the human condition - is The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith tangos with Hume and in fact, comes out the wiser. Smith explains that our insight comes from our observation, interpretation, and even internalization of others’ feelings and behaviors. We know ourselves by knowing who we are with others.

Zoom back out again. This means that those SWOT analyses are just organizational ruminations and wishlists. Our institutions don’t know these things unless they intimately know their collaborators and competitors.

Don’t fall for the Introspection Trap. It’s a set of false insights.

Instead, Adam Smith your way into real insight by knowing your community and competitive landscape.

- Kristin Van Dorn