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Second-Order Observer

One concept which is just as important, as well as being frequently misunderstood, is the second-order observer. Often it is understood that a second observer observes, WHAT another (first) observer observes, “I see that you have chosen a cream cake from the baker’s!”. However, this is only a further first-order observation (= WHAT).

A second-order observation, though, observes the observation of the observer, not the object of his observation (in the example above, the choice of cake). It is only when one looks at the observer, that one can register not only the bare fact of the choice (WHAT = cake!). Instead, one reconstructs in a second-order observation: HOW did it come to this choice – which ‘part’ in the cake purchaser has made this decision (the indulgent or the weight conscious?), based on what motivation (anticipation or habit?), which alternatives were available (bread, chocolate, ice cream?) and which were not even considered (crisp bread or leaving the shop with nothing?).

Such a second order observation can, of course, also be the observer of the self in the cake purchaser. This self-reflection has the advantage that inner motives are partly and immediately accessible and has the disadvantage that maybe significant inner motives keep themselves hidden in the unconscious (= unobservable). An external observation of the cake purchaser has the advantage of being able to recognise excluded alternatives or unconscious motives, because, usually, one does not have the same blind spots. The disadvantage is that one does not have an immediate access to the inner life but remains dependent upon one’s own observations and communication.