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Know thyself? Don't be so sure
Visiting professor speaks on the science of personality
Simine Vazire is a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis

THE ANCIENT Greek maxim “Know thyself” is often the motivating force that drives people into therapy. Or, say, into the desert with a bagful of peyote buttons.

However we choose to mine our minds and souls, the quest to find one’s most authentic self is usually subjective and certainly personal. Who could possibly know us better than we know ourselves?

Yet we all know someone with a seriously deluded self–perception (Michael Scott of The Office is an excellent cultural example; Mohamar Quaddafi also comes to mind.) So how do we know who we think we are is actually true?

To Dr. Simine Vazire, it comes down to plain science.

“Researchers have thought for the last 50 years that what a person says about his or her own personality is the closest you’re going to get,” explained Dr. Vazire, psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “With new technology we have, we can see there’s even more information out there and measure how accurate people’s self–views are.”

Dr. Vazire will present the first of SCAD’s “Art of the Mind” lecture series Thursday, Oct. 6.

While collecting empirical data about the human personality isn’t as straightforward as something like testing the effects of excessive peyote use, Dr. Vizire and her colleagues have been able to glean insight into the way subjects perceive themselves using sophisticated recording systems and extensive interviews. Much of the research from WU’s Personality and Self–Knowledge Lab involves comparing what people think about themselves with how they’re seen by others, and how much they’re aware of what Dr. Vazire calls the “blind spots” in themselves and their loved ones.

One recent project had people rate their significant others, which turned out to be overwhelmingly–and not surprisingly–positive. But when asked how others would rate their beaus, the researchers received less adoring–and more objective–answers, mining previously hidden knowledge.

“It was interesting to find that people are aware that their perceptions are idiosyncratic, that not everyone really thinks their boyfriend or girlfriend is the hottest person on earth,” laughed Dr. Vazire in a phone interview last week. “Yes, people are blinded by their own affection, but they’re aware of that, too. We’ve also found that people are liked better by their friends the more self–aware they are.”

Describing herself as a wallflower–type, Vazire admits she’s always had a fascination with the way people interact. “I do a lot of watching and observing and trying to detect trends in people’s behavior. It’s probably my favorite thing to do and I’ve managed to make a career of it.”

The Oct. 6 program, “Self–Awareness and Self–Deception: Are You Delusional, Optimistic or Both?,” is intended to resonate with arty types looking to dig deeper into themselves and  create more masterful work. Though they might not help form a completely accurate picture of the self, a bit of delusion and optimism can go a long way, according to Dr. Vazire.

“I think it might be good to have a slightly idealistic view of your potential and abilities so you push yourself to develop them and reach for things outside of your comfort zone,” she mused. “That especially applies to fields like art and design where there’s not that much external feedback or any standards about who’s good and who’s not. You really have to believe in yourself to succeed.”

She also spoke about the importance of art in society in general and the role it plays in our own self–knowledge. “We need films and art and design to reflect back to ourselves what we’re like. Art brings out society’s blind spots.”

Vazire hopes the application of her work will help people gain not only more accurate views of themselves, but more useful ones. And she doesn’t necessarily believe all the answers are within when it comes to learning who we really are.

“It turns out self–knowledge is much more social than we thought,” she said. “It’s not about sitting by yourself alone. It’s about talking to your friends, learning how other people see you, paying attention to how other react to you. The more time you spend around other people, the more self–knowledge you gain.”

Before you go clogging your Facebook status with those crazy polls, Vazire’s findings don’t necessarily apply to social media. While there is evidence that elements of the personality come through online and that it’s possible to have a lot of information about a person without actually meeting him or her, Vazire has doubts whether all that constant digital feedback adds to a complete picture of self.

“I’m not sure that’s how it works, it’d be interesting to study that.”

Simine Vazire

When: At 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6

Where: SCAD’s Arnold Hall, 1810 Bull St.

Cost: Free and open to the public.