Self-deception sounds like a contradiction: intentionally convincing yourself of something you know to be untrue.
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.