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MIT blogger Rona W. '21

why do you do what you do by Rona W. '23

do androids dream of electric self-awareness

Recently, my friend rejected several people who were interested in him. This friend is single and would like to have a girlfriend, and these women had no obvious dealbreakers that I knew of, so I asked him why he’d rejected all of them.

“I really can’t say,” was his reply. “It’s like, they were inputted into the neural network of my brain and the response was No.”

Obviously, I don’t know for sure if this is the true answer. It’s possible there was some more specific reason that he didn’t want to admit. After all, these decisions can be very personal, and the real answer could have been unflattering or cruel to those women. But I’ve also known this friend to be pretty honest with me, and in the past, he has given me detailed answers on why he dumped previous girlfriends.

When he told me he didn’t know why he’d rejected these women, I was surprised, simply because it’s not how I operate. I’ll confess that I spend a lot of time inside my own head: I always want to know why I’m choosing to do something. This doesn’t mean that the reason is always meaningful. For example, I would probably reject anyone who asked me out if they shared a name with my brother (this scenario hasn’t happened yet; like me, my brother has an uncommon name), and that’s not exactly a deep or fair reason for rejecting someone. But it would just be way too awkward to date someone who was also named Kyler.

This also doesn’t mean that the reason needs to be disclosed to the other party. I’ve rejected plenty of people for reasons that might be hurtful to them; there was someone who spent our entire first (and only) date talking about himself, but it would’ve been rude for me to inform him that’s why I didn’t want to see him again, especially since he didn’t ask for that feedback.

Of course, my desire for self-knowledge extends to domains besides romance. In fact, it permeates most everything I do.

Taking an example from when I was younger, in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris terror attacks, Facebook introduced a profile filter of the French national flag. Users could apply it to their profile photo to show solidarity with those affected. Soon, my entire feed was awash with stripes of blue, white, and red. I considered using it too, but I couldn’t justify the reasoning to myself. What difference would it make to the civilians of Paris if a high school student from Portland changed her profile photo on social media? Was there any real purpose to doing this besides signaling to my peers that I cared, too? (And that’s not even to say that signaling is inherently wrong. In this situation, signaling seems mostly harmless; at most, it might distract from more meaningful actions towards making change, but I don’t know if there is much else I could’ve contributed anyway.) If I did apply this filter, would I be doing so to attain social approval, while telling myself that this was a magnanimous act?

Intuitively, I find self-deception appalling. To delude myself about why I do something feels like sleepwalking through life.

It’s pretty unfortunate that shame and self-castigation prevent self-awareness. Returning to the aforementioned Facebook profile filter, I don’t believe that applying the filter just to socially signal is wrong. We signal all the time! When I affix a pink, purple, and blue sticker to my laptop, I am signaling that I am bisexual. When I state that I am a computer science and mathematics double-major on my resumé, I am signaling that I am skilled and technically competent. But those signals are widely accepted. Signaling moral virtue, however, is a contradiction: you’re selfishly claiming to be selfless. This contradiction is met with derision (“virtue-signaling” is a common insult applied to those posting about social justice issues), which has never encouraged anyone to become more genuine in their intentions but instead prevents people from being honest with themselves about their motivations.

Truthfully, I am a jumble of contradictions. Like, back in high school, I believed that the college admissions rat race was elitist and shallow, but also I grinded for top grades and a high SAT score and impressive extracurriculars. Sure, I enjoyed the process of attaining those achievements, but I doubt I would’ve invested all that effort and time if I hadn’t wanted to attend a great university.

For example, I took an extra biology class marked as “IB”, meaning it was advanced and could boost my GPA, instead of enrolling in a fine arts or culinary course I would’ve preferred had I been optimizing simply for personal passions. I don’t feel the need to lie to myself by claiming this was out of genuine interest in the subject matter; I still don’t enjoy biology that much. Nor do I want to pretend that this motive was somehow charitable, that by attending a more prestigious school I might be able to help more people in the world or something. When I was sixteen years old, while some part of me did care about making a difference and uplifting others, a large part of me also wanted the approval of my peers and parents by getting into a school like MIT. So even though I intellectually understood that the game I was playing was bullshit, I still wanted to win the game.

(Another argument: despite the game itself being bullshit, the rewards of the game are not bullshit, especially if you otherwise lack the resources to forge a strong professional network or find great early-career opportunities.)

To be honest towards myself, I have to admit this misalignment between my choices and my professed values. To be able to admit the misalignment, I have to greet myself with kindness, to create a safe environment at least within myself so I don’t need to hide.

In Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, there is a moment where the narrator, Katniss, says: “It takes a long time before I get to the bottom of why I’m so upset. When I do, it’s almost too mortifying to admit. All those months of taking it for granted that Peeta thought I was wonderful are over. Finally, he can see me for who I really am. Violent. Distrustful. Manipulative. Deadly. And I hate him for it.”

It’s been years since I’ve read the Hunger Games trilogy, yet that passage has never left me. Why is it so difficult for us to see ourselves as we are? How can we know our true selves when we have created a facade to protect ourselves?

Online articles on self-love have told me to accept the acne scars on my forehead, the low quiz score on my physics exam, the waddle in my gait. All of that is easy to love. It’s everything else that is hard.

In this blog post, I haven’t made much of a case for why self-knowledge is important, and I’m not sure I believe that everybody should analyze themselves to hell and back about why they do everything they do. My friend rejected that woman and he doesn’t know why; sure, maybe if he introspected some more, he would learn something new about himself, or be able to achieve some new echelon of romantic success, but I don’t have any evidence that the result would be net positive, that this effort would be worth it. 

All I can say is that I’ve always been searching for myself, and I find it unbearable when I can’t articulate my own inner cause and effect. If I’m not aware of the forces driving me, what agency do I truly hold?

That isn’t to say there are no downsides to this philosophy. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I spend a lot of time in my own head, but life is meant to be experienced, not only scrutinized from a distance.

For example, last fall, I was struggling to complete an assignment in a timely manner. “I should reflect on why I feel this urge to procrastinate,” I told my then-boyfriend.

“No, you should just ignore that and do the work,” he said. And he was correct. When a house is on a fire, it is more important to douse the flames than to investigate their cause.

Still, I cannot resist the fundamental questions: why am I doing this? Why do I feel this way? Why am I the way I am? I suspect I’ll spend the rest of my life looking for the answers.