Sunday, August 29, 2010

What is it

Self-deception sounds like a contradiction: intentionally convincing yourself of something you know to be untrue.  But it is a pervasive aspect of human nature.  What is the nature of self-deception, and what are its main patterns?  Does it serve any purpose?  Ken and John confront the truths of self-deception with Neil Van Leeuwen from the University of Johannesburg.

Listening Notes

John opens the program saying that while too much self-deception can be harmful, a bit of it can actually be beneficial. Studies, he says, have shown that people who are optimistic about their own abilities often have enhanced motivation, enabling these individuals to perform better when faced with particular challenges. Ken is doubtful, adding that while one individual may benefit from self-deception, many others will be harmed by it. Self-deception, he claims, leads to ruin.

But what exactly is self-deception? John explains that while deceiving others seems logically coherent and can even be advantageous, self-deception –believing something that you know, at some level, to be false- is puzzling in that the deceiving and deceived parties are one and the same. How is self-deception possible?

John and Ken welcome Neil Van Leeuwen, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, and author of “Self-Deception Won’t Make You Happy” as the program’s guest. John first asks Neil why, given that the notion of self-deception has gotten relatively little philosophical attention, we should care about the topic. People are immersed in self-deception, Neil explains, and the topic is at the borderline between philosophy and psychology. Because we are still trying to figure out the paradox of self-deception – just how one can be the deceiver and the deceivee at the same time – the topic has not garnered as much interest as it potentially can. John follows up, asking exactly how self-deception is possible given the above definition, to which Neil replies that the person being deceived by another does not actually know that what he is choosing to believe is false. But the person who is self-deceived has all the evidence a rational person would need in hand pointing them towards knowing that what they believe is false, yet they shy away from this evidence for various motivations.

Ken then asks Neil why self-deception is so prevalent in our society to the point where some people, such as Dan Ariely, interviewed in the Roving Philosophical Report, seem to think that our brains actually evolved to accommodate for self-deception. Neil says that he is not convinced by such theories. If we are experiencing pain, why would self-deception be the factor that evolves instead of a mechanism that actually reduces the pain? Once the evolutionary theory of self-deception is questioned, puzzling dilemmas emerge, Neil says. Ken then suggests a scenario of a person who knows he is going to cheat somebody else. If the person is aware that he is going to cheat, he may give out nonverbal signs of said cheating. But if this person convinces himself that what he is doing is not cheating, he will not show any signs of cheating and so in the end self-deception is beneficial for him. Neil, however, is not convinced – as he says, the word self-deception can refer to many things. One definition of self-deception, for example, can refer to the “self-inflation bias,” where a person thinks he is better at a particular something. But common, classic self-deception, Neil explains, has a reaction formation, where the person deceiving and being deceived becomes tense and edgy when in denial about something. Classic self-deception, Neil says, is not beneficial for any party. A person cannot blissfully self-deceive, as there is an ever-present uneasiness in the person from the tension and contradiction in his own mind.

Ken and John welcome audience participation and discuss the case of “twisted self-deception,” arguably the least understood form of self deception, where a person convinces themselves of what they want not to be the case, and the example of Othello is discussed. The idea of self deception as a coping mechanism in a world that demands conformity is also debated.


·         Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 4:22): Philosophy Talk's Reporter Jill Replogle examines the positive and negative aspects of self-deception, including how self-deception allows us to not acknowledge all the misery in our world and yet can be culprit for our remaining in unhealthy situations. Jill speaks to Dan Ariely, a Behavioral Economist who studies irrationality, and to an individual who was trapped in an abusive relationship.

  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:25): Ian Shoales speaks of the relationship between self-delusion and the physical and virtual stalking of celebrities, television reporters, and other pop culture representatives as the idea of desiring something from a complete stranger and going to great lengths to fulfill such a wish. 

Neil Van Leeuwen, Guest Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Johannesburg.


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