Self Deception
Thursday, August 26, 2010 -- 5:00 PM
Ken Taylor

Our topic this week is self-deception. Self-deception is rampant in human affairs.  And although too much self-deception is probably a bad thing, a little self-deception may be just what a person needs to get through the day.   One should never underestimate the power of positive illusions.  For example, psychological studies show that people who are overly optimistic about their own abilities often have enhanced motivation, which enables them to do better in the face of challenges than people with more realistic assessments of their own talents.

Of course, it may be that for every one person who benefits from self-deception, there are scads who are burned by it.  Think of the pathological gambler who goes bankrupt betting on a “sure thing” or a battered wife who keeps returning to her abuser, confident that he won’t do again. Or think of the mass self-deception that causes the American electorate to believe we can have lower taxes, more government services, and a balanced budget all at the same time.   Clearly,  people subject to this sort of self-deception run a real risk of ruin.

Still,  I’m prepared to say that self-deception always leads to ruin.   I suspect that self-deception, like many facets of human life, has both a dark side and a light side.  Perhaps key to happiness is to staying on light side and avoid the dark side.  But doing that would be no easy task.   I doubt that there could be a formula or even a set of rough principles that told you when it would be happiness making to deceive oneself and when one needed to be relentlessly honest with oneself.

Moreover, when you stop and think about it, self-deception borders on the paradoxical.   It’s easy to see how you can deceive somebody else.  Maybe you hide or distort some evidence or maybe you straight-out lie to them and, like a fool, they believe you.  There may be something morally wrong with deceiving others, but there’s nothing incoherent about it.  It can certainly be highly advantageous for me to get you to believe what I know to be false.    But in the case of self-deception the deceiving party and the deceived party are one and the same.  That’s what makes it so puzzling.

At first blush, it looks as though in order to be self-deceived you have to believe things that you know to be false.   But if you know something to be false, how can you believe it?  You can’t just self-consciously will yourself to believe things you already know to be false.  You can certainly pretend to believe things that you know to be false.  But self-deception doesn’t seem like a form of pretense, not exactly anyway.   Though some have denied it, self-deception seems to involve straight-out believing and believing something that, at some level,  you know to be false.

That suggests that when you are self-deceived you simultaneously believe and disbelieve the same thing.  At some level that gambler mentioned earlier knows he’s betting on a losing proposition.  But at another level he really believes he has chance of winning.   That sounds pretty darned irrational.   It’s not immediately obvious how such irrationality is even psychologically possible. 

That’s  one question that a good theory of self-deception needs to answer. Self-deception is pretty obviously possible,  but explaining just how it’s possible is not a simple matter.

A good theory of self-deception had also better explain how self-deception manages to be so pervasive.  Self-deception is not a rare and exceptional thing for us humans.     We humans pride ourselves on being paragons of rationality.  And there is more than a little justification for that pride.  After all, our brains have created science, art, mathematics politics and philosophy.  But the problem is that right along side all these amazing capacities sits a capacity for rampant self-deception.   Why do we have such a capacity in the first place?   Did natural selection specifically design our brains for self-deception?

And then there’s the original question that I started out with.  Can self-deception sometimes be the key to human happiness or will self-deception always lead you to misery and ruin, at least in the long run? Those are just some of the questions we’ll put to this week’s guest --   Neil van Leeuwen.  Besides being one of the world’s up and coming authorities on self-deception,  Neil has deep connections to Philosophy Talk.   When he was a graduate student at Stanford,  working on his very fine dissertation on self deception – he served as Philosophy Talk’s  Director of Research.  He’s now gone on to bigger and better things, obviously.  But we’re really pleased to welcome him home. 

Comments (28)


Guest

Thursday, August 26, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Important topic. We humans are obsessed with our

Important topic.
We humans are obsessed with our emotions and self deception is a powerful tool for managing cognitive dissonance. It also helps us hide from ourselves the risks and consequences of excessive hedonism, thus reducing our inhibitions against self-inflicted harm.
In general I tend to think there are healthier alternatives for managing and tolerating higher levels of cognitive dissonance, such as mindfullness and non-attachment.
Self deception is potentially rational when it enhances our ability to deceive others (e.g. method acting), but it comes at a high risk of damage from collateral irrationality. Again, there are probably less risky ways to lie convincingly than by drinking from the poisoned cup.
Poor Richard
Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

Guest

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

We probably all know of the science fiction storie

We probably all know of the science fiction stories about the 'computer' that self-destructs when it is forced to contradict itself.
Assuming some manner of "mechanized" functioning to human thought and emotion, the above problem can be avoided by simply splitting the 'computing' process into two or as many independent divisions in the mind-machine' as necessary. One of the most fascinating examples of this appears to be the "divided brain" experiments and demonstrations where left-right sensory perceptions can be made to routinely contradict each other.
The intriguing literature by neurological experts such as Sacks and Ramachandran describe all manner of what could be taken as massive self-deception.
One of the very big questions seems to me is what ultimate(?), philosophical(?), meaning(?) is to be attached to all that.

Guest

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Jack, The "divided brain" effects may be the most

Jack,
The "divided brain" effects may be the most gross, macro examples of what I would call cognitive compartmentalization--which I think can occur at many levels.
I suspect the brain uses a version of "object oriented programming" in which at least some cognitive processes/programs/data can be instantiated over and over with variation. In effect, we can have many identities, many personalities, many brains in one; in combinations or configurations that can be both concurrent and sequential; and between which contradictions often seem to be pretty highly tolerated.
In other words, I suspect we all have sub-clinical cases of dissociative identity ("multiple personality") disorder!
Poor Richard
Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

Guest

Saturday, September 4, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Self-concealment seems to be the case, rather them

Self-concealment seems to be the case, rather them self-deception, since it's the metaphorical self that has supposedly acted to deceive and therefor knows it's done so. But our executive "self" has evidently learned to conceal one element of its functional system from another, if such independence from mutual experience is deemed effective.

Guest

Saturday, September 4, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

The question then is why one function can compete

The question then is why one function can compete more successfully for attention than the other, when the executive functions should have learned that strategy simply wasn't working? One answer would be this often happens when the emotional brain sees short term strategies as reasonable where the long term abstractive rational brain would not. And by the process of evolution, our emotional deliberations have been partitioned off, and thus concealed from our more perceptive apparatus.
And the why remains.

Guest

Saturday, September 4, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Baron, That is an interesting distinction betwee

Baron,
That is an interesting distinction between deception and concealment. It opened a can of worms in my mind.
Presumably, self-deception requires some concealment of contrary data from self, but self-concealment alone sounds more ethically neutral. Is it?
Is there motive or intent in self-deception or concealment-from-self?
Is there such a thing as unconscious motive or intent?
Much of our cognitive function is concealed from our conscious awareness, whether by accident or by design. Many brain areas are "black boxes" that send some output to our awareness but don't "show their work". Presumably there is no intent to deceive in that kind of concelament. It seems obvious that our higher cognitive functions are better off without unnecessary information overload.
But is there such a thing as elective or intentional self-concealment? Its a common belief that one can drive some thought or feeling from the mind if one tries hard enough. I don't know of any research on that, though.
I understand your use of "executive self", but what do you mean by "metaphorical self"?
Poor Richard
Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

Guest

Saturday, September 4, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Poor Richard, The term "self" traditionally refer

Poor Richard,
The term "self" traditionally refers to our supposedly complete and singular identity, at least as we seem or want to appear to others. But internally we have many aspects of that identity that we don't present to others, and some of those not to each other.
Is self concealment ethically neutral? Most probably not. Would we rather conceal our suspicions of the prospects of long term consequence for short term profit when engaging in a risky operation? Sure. We've clearly found ways to transfer those considerations to our "subconscious." But we aren't usually allowed to forget that they are there.
And of course concealment is one form of deception, but not of the self that arranges for it. The term reflects the view of that concealment by an outside observer who assumes one hand can't know what the other hand is up to or it wouldn't let it happen.

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Binocular vision is intriguing. When looking at a

Binocular vision is intriguing. When looking at a scene with distant and close objects, each eye usually sees different images that can be significantly unalike. Yet with both eyes the awareness is never of a dichotomy or confutation of the images but rather as if the conflicting information doesn't exist, together with the bonus of depth.

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I think much of what we would call the executive s

I think much of what we would call the executive self is unconscious. I can't recall the source off hand, but fMRI research has shown that a choice or decision can be detected as much as 5-10 seconds before it becomes conscious to the subject.
The line between conscious and unconscious seems vague and somewhat variable or fluid, especially in terms of attention. The boundary beyond which concentrated attention cannot penetrate seems to change under different conditions and mental states such as distraction, fatigue, or meditation.
Self-concealment (concealing something from one's own awareness) can be ethically neutral as in the case of tuning out background noise, but selective inattention can loose its ethical neutrality at some point, as in the case of confirmation bias or blindness to "inconvenient truths".
If the executive command is to ignore background noise, presumably there is still an open "interrupt" channel listening for some extraordinary noise that might yank the attention back to broad-spectrum alertness.
But in the case of intentionally burying some ethically or rationally inconvenient fact or memory, the conceal command may be given without any parameter to recall the concealed material under specified future conditions.
It may be that unless we explicitly tag perceptions to be remembered, they won't be. Like first hearing somebody's name--it often seems to be forgotten by default. So perhaps all we have to do when we encounter a possibly valid but inconvenient fact is fail to tag it for retention.
Poor Richard
Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Poor Richard I don't think we can fail to tag anyt

Poor Richard
I don't think we can fail to tag anything that we felt was of significant importance to require its concealment. What we apparently can do is decide when or when not to recall it. But circumstances will remind us of the tag from time to time, as it represents experience that we may have further need to learn from.
And yes, there is no fine or fixed line between our consciously monitored thought processes and the more unconscious. There are shifting or shiftable degrees of awareness that we seem to have some control over. We need to concentrate on the experiences that fit the circumstances, present experience assessed by our evaluations of the past. We may not be able to effectively forget on purpose but we can remember on purpose.

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Baron wrote: "I don't think we can fail to tag

Baron wrote: "I don't think we can fail to tag anything that we felt was of significant importance to require its concealment. What we apparently can do is decide when or when not to recall it. But circumstances will remind us of the tag from time to time, as it represents experience that we may have further need to learn from.
Your view is persuasive. Do you know of any research on this particular topic available on-line (free)?
Poor Richard
Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Poor Richard, Most of what I understand to be the

Poor Richard,
Most of what I understand to be the case comes from my own exploration into the subject of life's strategic operations, and the varieties of experiences that led to their evolution. And no, I'm not an evo psych devotee.
There's a massive amount of reference material on self-deception, none containing (in may view) any more insight into the subject than was expressed initially on this blog, including the commentary by Van Leeuwen. However, now that I thought I'd coined the term of self-concealment, I find when googling the phrase that I was wrong. So maybe some of that stuff (which I've yet to read) will turn out to be useful.

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

But then again, a glance at some of that material

But then again, a glance at some of that material shows that the term is used to designate the keeping of secrets from others such as your shrink, yet not from yourself.
Even so, it seems I'll have to come up with another label.

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Jack wrote: "...with both eyes the awareness i

Jack wrote: "...with both eyes the awareness is never of a dichotomy or confutation of the images but rather as if the conflicting information doesn't exist, together with the bonus of depth."
Interesting point--that bilateral contradictions are represented to the mind's single "eye" not as errors but as another dimension. The same applies to all the senses, so this is a pretty standard way for the brain to deal with contradiction.
Maybe science deniers and pathological liars have a bunch of contradiction data curled up in a tiny, virtual dimension of the mind.
Poor Richard
Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Baron wrote: "There's a massive amount of refe

Baron wrote: "There's a massive amount of reference material on self-deception, none containing (in may view) any more insight into the subject than was expressed initially on this blog."
I'm mainly interested in stuff with an experimental psychology or cognitive neuroscience emphasis, if you know of any good recent stuff.
Poor Richard
Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Poor Richard, Experimental psychologists that stud

Poor Richard,
Experimental psychologists that study rationalization as a defense mechanism may be your best bet for new insights in this area. Although I think the mechanism is there as much for offense as for defense.
Note that on the companion site it was stated that "self-deception is not an adaptation evolved by natural selection to serve some function. Rather, I have said self-deception is a spandrel, which means it?s a structural byproduct of other features of the human organism."
But my take is that this form of compartmentalization is not unique to humans - just unique with respect to our more abstract awareness of its use. Hence some observe it to be a spandrel when its long time service as a biological strategy belies that presumption.

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Baron, I'm willing to buy the idea that there are

Baron,
I'm willing to buy the idea that there are multiple mechanisms of self-deception--some that may have been actively selected and some that may be incidental byproducts of other selected traits. I don't focus on evo-psy much so its not a burning question. I'm mildly interested in where cognitive functions come from but more in how they work.
I'll look for some studies on rationalization. It also occurs to me that the literature on hypnosis and suggestibility might provide some clues about types and mechanisms of self-deception. I don't know the field--its just a guess.
Poor Richard
Poor Richard's Almanack 2010

Guest

Sunday, September 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Fair enough, but to know where a function comes fr

Fair enough, but to know where a function comes from is half the battle in discovering how it works, because it can tell you why it was developed as well.

Guest

Wednesday, September 8, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

visiting your post and I do think you are really b

visiting your post and I do think you are really born to be a fashion blogger
3 visiting your post and I'm afraid I'll

Guest

Sunday, September 19, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

A positive attitude toward life than negative

A positive attitude toward life than negative

Guest

Thursday, October 14, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I am unfamiliar with terms such as executive self,

I am unfamiliar with terms such as executive self, but would tend to support the notion that deception and concealment are mutually inclusive. I believe that 1)We are taught to lie, trained to do so, at an early age. This training is not training in the usual sense: our parents, peers and associates do not go out of their way to teach us how and when to lie---we are conditioned to do so by life circumstances and 2)we lie as a matter of convenience and to obtain advantage where there was none previously, and/or to put ourselves in the most favorable light. Vanity is not the greatest of our weaknesses, only one of the more obvious ones.
Deception at large is merely an extension of our ability to deceive ourselves. After all (we tell ourselves), everyone is doing it. We are only exercising an available prerogative.

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, October 14, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

As a friend once said: sometimes, you'll have that

As a friend once said: sometimes, you'll have that.

Guest

Friday, October 15, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Deceit, of one form or another, has been a human f

Deceit, of one form or another, has been a human failing or coping mechanism from the time we learned what it meant to deceive one another. Probably a very long time ago. Your posting and the ensuing comments have been informative, entertaining and speculative. I tend to agree with Heisenberg's Eyes concerning the attainment of advantage and the notion that deceipt is often perpetrated for the sake of convenience.
But there are numerous rationales for the telling of lies and most of us know most of them. Many of us are also quick to deceive without first considering the consequences of discovery. Some lie without a second thought, and we have labelled that pathological. The parameters are at best surprising when we know both intuitively and experientially how devastating deception can be. We just can't seem to help ourselves.
And that is the point. Forgive me, then, if I am skeptical when I hear of experts. In any field or in any branching thereof. I hope Mr. van Leeuwen is as good as you think he is.

Guest

Friday, October 15, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

self by it's very nature is protective and all asp

self by it's very nature is protective and all aspects of self are, in my opinion, chosen. The paradox lies in a love relationship where you must choose to give your self away to the object of your affection, and if what you have done is not reciprocated, in other words, he is decieving you then he will become, over time, twice as self centered as his original state, with an accompanying downward spiral in his life. It was said, I can't recall by whom, that the self absorbed soul is the epitome of evil.

Guest

Friday, October 22, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Self-deception: An ugly mixture of distorted reali

Self-deception: An ugly mixture of distorted reality and willed ignorance. It is "...a shadowy phenomenon by which we pull the wool over some part of our own psyche. We put a move on ourselves. We deny, suppress, or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn, and elevate what we know to be false. We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified versions. We become our own dupes, playing the role of both perpetrator and victim. We know the truth, and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite" (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It's Supposed to Be).

Guest

Tuesday, November 2, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I am a little more tolerant of self-deception. I f

I am a little more tolerant of self-deception. I feel that the self itself is a deception, just as all our other deceptions. I believe this deception begins in the newer areas of the modern human brain that develop abstract representations of our reality, allowing us to function better in the given circumstances. When the circumstances change, we ought to modify our abstractions but as poet Rilke puts it, they become habits. They become comfortable with and refuse to leave. this is the root problem.

Guest

Wednesday, November 3, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I like and agree, in principle, with what Larry ha

I like and agree, in principle, with what Larry has said. However, my belief distills this thought into what has been characterized as SITUATIONAL ETHICS. The idea is not especially new, but the identification of it is. I have my own thoughts about what is going on. They are out there, and will, I hope, come to some fruition. Happy to see another mind in the mill.

Guest

Sunday, January 16, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

In case of affirmations, first they are received

In case of affirmations, first they are received and accepted by conscious mind, and gradually become part of subconscious mind. We can not affirm something whose content does not resonate with us. In the similar lines, a message which is not inline with our belief system and which comes discretely can not have any influence on us.

 
 

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