Self-Deception: Why We Fool Ourselves

Self-deception takes place when we know that a certain thing is the case but we convince ourselves that something else is true. We know that we’ve deceived ourselves this way when, for example, a romantic relationship goes sour and we realize that we “knew all along there was an issue but I didn’t pay attention.” Or when we may believe in a religion or a political party or a profession for years only to find at some point that we have “finally come to our senses.” Sweepingly, too,we deceive ourselves about our superiority; most people, studies show, believe that their qualities and abilities are above average.

(huffingtonpost.com)

(huffingtonpost.com)

Evolutionary psychologists look at such self-deception and ask, how did we get this way? What benefit did early humans derive from deceiving ourselves over the tens of thousands of years? The benefits must have been significant because the costs are obvious: trekking the savannah with a spear, feeling like you’re the strongest creature out there, won’t save you from a hungry lion.

The payoff seems to be found in our relationships with other people. We are and always have been obsessed with reading each other: who to trust, who to help, who to mate with, who is lying, what a person’s motives are, who is in cahoots with whom, who is faking an emotion, and what others are thinking about us. Underlying most of these calculations run the twin skills of deceiving others and knowing when others are trying to deceive us (as in “John may look relaxed but I get the sense that he’s about to ask me to do him a big favor.”) Consider how much of our social conversation revolves around such detection and deception.

Psychologist Robert Trivers’ argues that the reason we deceive ourselves is that doing so makes us better at deceiving others. “Self deception evolves in the service of deception—the better to fool others.”* If you have convinced yourself that your child is extraordinary at the piano or that your fiancée is perfect, you will be able to talk on those subjects without stumbling over your words, looking flushed, or showing other signs of lying. And self-deception has an added advantage: it makes our dishonesty not only more convincing to others but also less stressful for us, since in fact, to us, it doesn’t feel like deception at all.

Trivers discusses organized religion as an example of large-scale self-deception. Here again there are benefits and costs. Among the benefits, members of a religious group cooperate with each other to a high degree. Their cooperation provides important survival benefits such as better health, mutual support, and social order. The benefits outweigh the costs of the believers’ self-deception, such as an inflated opinion of themselves, of their religion, and of the power of faith.

This evolutionary approach to understanding our psyches is not always pleasant. It’s discouraging to discover that we may be hard-wired to deceive ourselves. How are we trust our conclusions about ourselves and people in general? But the organ that we are using to find such truths was built for the very practical task of survival, and deception and self-deception are two of its tools. We can’t easily avoid them.

* The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, 2011, p. 4.

3 thoughts on “Self-Deception: Why We Fool Ourselves

  1. I’m sorry to say this, but I think this is an absolutely dreadful thing to say – I hope it isn’t because you had a bad day! But anyway, we convince ourselves that those close to us love us, or that our children have an inner goodness, or that the painting we’re about to start might be great because seeing these things can help bring them to the surface. It’s an aspect of love. With these tools we face discouraging circumstances and keep going. It’s an aspect of mind as well – focusing on any goal, and believing it, helps makes it so.

    I once travelled with a girl in Toronto, years ago, who was obsessed with people smoking where they shouldn’t. It was an obsession with her. I was on the underground there every day for years and never saw such a thing, though I was alert for it, as I hated smoke too. Until I travelled with her. We went on four trips – and on every one, there was a smoker puffing away illegally! I couldn’t believe it!

    I remember a conversation in the back of the car between my 6 year old son and 4 year old daughter. One by one she announced her ambitions and he proceeded to shoot each one down:

    “When I’m older I want to buy a motorcycle.”
    “How do you know you won’t fall off?”
    “Well, perhaps I will but I’ll practice and get better. And I want to sell my paintings.”
    “You won’t sell any.”
    “Well, I won’t sell all of them, but I’m sure I can sell some of them!”

    In an atmosphere of acceptance her older brother, in time, ceased to feel threatened by her ambition, and realised they could work together. She learned to swim way before he did, and so would pull him around the pool on a rubber ring. She was first to get her driver’s licence, and two weeks later was racing an F3000 car around Thurleigh circuit! She ferries him about even now. Inspired, he realised he could do it too, and set about taking lessons. His criticising was born of a fear of being overtaken by someone younger.

    A mother doesn’t look at her newborn baby and think “what an ugly, crumpled thing” – and then pretend to love it so she can fool others better later! This is a really monstrous idea and isn’t reflected throughout the natural world at all.

    If you are close to someone you start to see their good traits, and build a tolerance for their faults. It’s how love manifests itself, as tolerance and forgiveness. We can help build those traits by consciously fostering forgiveness and tolerance, even in people we don’t really like. The effort is a mental gym, and has an effect on our own nervous system – vagal tone, emotional resilience and so on – as lab studies (see NewScientist) have shown.

    Darwinism maintains it’s the strongest, fittest, most lugubrious or deceptive or violent that survive, but this isn’t so – it’s an idea dictators often trot out to justify their wars. As all our experience shows, it’s the survival of the most loved which takes place. Without paternal love we are nowhere, and liable to calamity early on. Love is built into life – there are countless examples of life forms, right down to the plants and ants, which sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others. It’s not about selfishness – it’s about love!

    This is what I see in the natural world, and not deception and sly trickery. And strangely the more you look for goodness, the more you find it. We’ve all had the experience of being interviewed by someone who dislikes us – and in that environment, because of the electric nature of human fields interacting, it becomes almost impossible NOT to say the wrong thing, and get more and more tied up wihout cause! And then cringe about it forever more.. and yet, being with someone who loves us, all our words find a soft landing, and even stupid things we say seem to turn out right. In many ways we really do create the world around us.

    Anyway, merely a random musing on a friday night.. stay well!

    • Self-deception may have started as a confidence booster but its payoff for improved health and success—in religion, business, art– today is very real. But I think Trivers and others like Pinker don’t think that in the early days of our brain, such benefits outweighed the costs of unrealistic thinking at a time when infant mortality was higher, survival was dubious, and social life was nastier. It does make sense to me that self-deception may have gotten its early boost from adding conviction to Paleolithic arguments and then gone on to contribute to our joy, imagination, and determination that you beautifully describe. The difficulty in grasping Darwinism is not that he portrays brutality as the only road to survival—he doesn’t. The hard thing to accept is that the early evolution of the human good stuff, like love and beauty, looks so crude to us.

  2. Surprisingly, people have had subtlety and compassion for a very long time. The idea of the persistence of the spirit dates back as far as we have the remains of people – even Watson says that there is no other interpretation possible of burial rites – and there was recently a find of a severely disabled individual, buried as normal, dating back some hundreds of thousands of years. The thing is, this disabled individual was in their 30’s, meaning they had been loved and cared for as a valued member of society for all that time, even though they could not hunt or gather with the others.

    Painted pottery, along with the tools to grind the pigments, date back 400,000 years from Zambia! With higher forms of intelligence there arises, simultaneously, a grasp of beauty and an urge to create it, to express it. I think the universe seems beautiful and harmonious (and if it were not harmonious, there would be no point to the sciences which seek unifying equations and theories – there would be no point at all in science if the universe was random!) because whatever source it emerged from must also have these qualities in abundance.

    All our searches for knowledge or for creativity, can only take place in our consciousness: this is the only coal face from which we extract all these things… we know that individuals without compassion, who exist only to use others, have a flaw – the Fred Wests of this world. The irresistable conclusion is that consciousness itself is comprised, at some level, of elements of beauty and truth and understanding, and it is the magnification of these qualities which is the story of our history. We reject liars and the deceivers, on every level.

    Our early life may have been simpler, but as soon as you class a being as “human” – whether 4m years ago or born yesterday – the normal consciousness they were imbued with had these qualities in a more pronounced form. Deception and falsehood is universally loathed as much as disease and death. Love really is the core of our being as humans… so it seems to me!

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