How Do We Know Ourselves? If You Said One Thing and Heard Yourself Saying Another, What Would You Think You Said?

How do we know ourselves?  It’s partly by observing our own actions, proposed Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory.  Hearing ourselves talk can give us clues to our own attitudes.  Witnessing our actions gives us insight into the strength of our convictions (much as we observe others’ behavior and make inferences). Our behavior is often self-revealing.

The limits of such self-revelation have recently been explored by one of psychology’s most creative research teams at Sweden’s Lund University. The researchers, including Andreas Lind, were curious: “What would it be like if we said one thing and heard ourselves saying something else?” Would we experience an alien voice?  An hallucination? Would we believe our ears? 

Through a noise-cancelling headset, the participants heard themselves name various font colors, such as the word green presented in a gray font color. But sometimes, the wily researchers substituted a participant’s own voice saying a previously recorded word, such as “green” instead of the correctly spoken “gray.” Surprisingly, two-thirds of these word switches went undetected, with people typically experiencing the inserted word as self-produced! (For more from the creative Lund University "choice blindness" research group, see here.)

A second new demonstration of the self-revealing power of our own behavior comes from research on the effects of feedback from our face and body muscles. As we have known for some time, subtly inducing people to make smiling rather than frowning expressions—or to stand, sit, or walk in an expansive rather than contracted posture—affects people’s self-perceptions.  Motions affect emotions.

At the University of Cologne, Sascha Topolinski and his colleagues report that even subtle word articulation movements come tinged with emotion.  In nine experiments they observed that both German- and English-speaking people preferred nonsense words and names spoken with inward (swallowing-like) mouth movements—for example, “BENOKA”—rather than outward (spitting-like) motions, such as KENOBA.  Ostensible chat partners given names (e.g., Manero) that activated ingestion muscles were preferred over chat partners whose names activated muscles associated with expectoration (e.g., Gasepa). 

Self-perception theory lives on.  Sometimes we observe ourselves and infer our thoughts and feelings.