The best book on the psychology of self-deception that I’ve read is Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths. Understanding how we deceive ourselves can lead to greater freedom.
Napoleon Hill wrote in Think & Grow Rich: “Nature has endowed man with absolute control over but one thing, and that is thought.”
Even if we may have control over our own thoughts, we have to learn how to exercise that control.
There are fundamental problems with exercising that control. For example, many of our thoughts are false and yet they appear to be true. In fact, no single judgment is ever the whole truth. Furthermore, there’s a lot going on that we don’t think about simply because we are unaware of it.
Here are four sources of self-deception that we tend not to notice.
First, because perceiving is selecting, self-deception begins with perception. Although many philosophers and psychologists have warned us about thinking that our perceptions faithfully represent reality, it’s easier for most of us to ignore the warnings.
Modern psychologists have demonstrated experimentally that we delete much perceptual information because we are not paying attention to it. For the most part, this has survival value and it’s good that our brains work like this. The alternative would be to notice all perceptual information and this would result in our living in sensory chaos or overload.
Nevertheless, because what we notice about what we perceive has been filtered, our perceptions misrepresent reality because of this deletion. It’s an important source of self-deception.
At least when we are in low-risk environments, it would be better to be more open-minded than we usually are.
Second, another important source of self-deception occurs because the remaining perceptual information is distorted by our conceptual models.
In fact, in high-risk environments, those who are least reliant on conceptual models have an advantage because their perceptual information is less distorted. (For more about how the most open-minded are more successful in survival situations, I recommend Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival.)
A third important source of self-deception occurs because of the fallacy of hasty generalization. We have a powerful positive or negative reaction with a certain kind of experience and jump to the conclusion that all similar experiences will have that same positive or negative outcome.
A fourth major source of self-deception comes with “confabulation,” which, very simply, is our failure to distinguish between what happened and our story about what happened.
Story-telling is our default format for understanding. Without embedding perceptual information in some narrative context or other, we have no way to conceptualize (understand) it. If so, stories are not just useful for organizing information, they are required for it.
The problem comes when we forget that we have invented the stories and take them to be real.
Without deliberately countering it, this deception becomes habitual in the sense that we become very good at telling ourselves the same kinds of stories.
A favorite kind of story is one that exonerates us from responsibility. What happened wasn’t my fault! Somehow or other the world did this to me! I can’t be successful because, don’t you see, I have always suffered from an unfair disadvantage! So please don’t criticize me or think that I should feel shame or embarrassment about what I did or what I didn’t do!
In other words, the common victim mentality comes from repeated confabulations.
What’s the essence of the cure? It’s always the same: pay attention.
If you don’t notice the stories you tell yourself, how could you ever make them more useful stories?
Stories are just stories. They are fictional. Why not make them as congruent with your values and goals as possible?
An even more devious story that we are inclined not to notice occurs when we are disinclined to notice how we are receiving a secondary benefit that doesn’t initially make sense.
For example, I would like to give money to aid the poor or to prevent further environmental degradation but I cannot because I don’t have enough to spare. I can avoid deciding how to be an effective philanthropist simply by not doing anything to become wealthier even though it would seem to be in my self-interest to become wealthier. The secondary benefit of remaining poor is that I don’t have to think about how to spend my money to benefit the poor or help the environment.
For example, an obese child would like to have a normal percentage of body fat but he cannot ever seem to lose weight. Although it would seem to be in his interest both socially and physically to lose weight, if he did he would receive less attention from his concerned parents. The secondary benefit of his remaining too fat is the attention his parents lavish upon him because he is obese.
Similarly, an obese married woman cannot ever seem to lose weight. Although it would seem to be in her interest both physically and in terms of her marriage, if she did lose weight she would become more attractive to other men and she fears that she might reciprocate their advances and, so, threaten her marriage. The secondary benefit of her remaining too fat is that she is able to avoid such temptation.
What secondary benefits are keeping you from living well? Why not notice them and let them go?
A very common one is that, if you were to begin living better, you might receive less social support. Any improvements you make may threaten your friends and relatives. So? That may just be how it is. Accept it and move on.
Another common secondary benefit is that staying stuck reduces stress. Why? Exposing yourself to novelty is stressful. It produces cognitive static. So staying on automatic pilot minimizes anxiety.
Goleman: “Learning to do something new requires full attention. It takes continual monitoring to absorb the task’s requirements. The point of mastery comes when the task can be done without thinking about it, or with most of it on automatic.”
In other words, learning how to master life is stressful. So? That’s just how it is. Accept it and move one. The stress is temporary while mastery need not be temporary.
What can be done about self-deception? Quite a bit.
Let go of the idea that you perceive reality as it is. Embrace the idea that your perceptions are always theory-laden.
Develop the habit of practicing open-mindedness. Here, reading literature can be very helpful. How would someone else of a different sex interpret this? How would someone much different than I am in age interpret this? How would someone of a different culture interpret this?
Develop the habit of challenging your conceptual models. Be assured that, if you think you have all the answers, you don’t. Here, reading philosophy can be very helpful.
Develop the habit of telling yourself different stories. Think of yourself as a detective trying to figure out what actually happened when the available evidence is insufficient. The stories we tell ourselves are always under-determined by the evidence.
What kind of secondary benefits are you particularly attracted to? Keep your list of excuses ready-to-hand – and laugh at yourself when you find yourself resorting to one.
The most important practice for undermining self-deception is the meditative practice of letting go of thoughts completely. It’s very simple, but it’s also very difficult to master.
No matter that it’s difficult: despite any physical pain or emotional distress it may cause you, just keep practicing spiritually. If you don’t have a spiritual practice, the simplest is zazen meditation. If you already have one, just use that one.
Ultimately, as I have suggested in some posts in the spiritual well-being category, meditation works to explode the self concept, which is how it can be successful in minimizing self-deception.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended resources: Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths, Eben Pagan’s “Self-Made Wealth” course, and my 5 Ways to Diminish Failure Almost Instantly.