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Are You Decieving Yourself?

On Self Deception

Des Pensable (copyright) 2011.

On Self Deception - an essay by Des

When I was a child my mother used to set the kitchen clock ahead by 10 minutes. Her reason was that she had a problem with being punctual so by changing the time she had gained 10 minutes and this allowed her to tell us to hurry up as we would be late for wherever we would be going.

While it might have worked when we were very young and couldn’t read the time, it caused problems when we got older. We used to look at the kitchen clock and think we that didn’t need to hurry as we still had 10 minutes to spare.

The problem was worse with every other wall clock in the world. Unless we were very careful we assumed that they were all 10 minutes ahead and we ended up 10 minutes late for whatever we had to do. Hence my mother’s effort to be punctual caused real problems. We were continually checking wall clocks against our watches for years.

This is an illustration of an interesting problem in philosophy, that of self-deception and its close relative wishful thinking. Self-deception involves and overlaps several areas, such as epistemology, psychology and philosophy of mind, social contexts, and morality. It calls into question the nature of the individual, specifically in a psychological context, the nature of "self".

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines self-deception as the acquisition and maintenance of a belief (or, at least, the avowal of that belief) in the face of strong evidence to the contrary motivated by desires or emotions favoring the acquisition and retention of that belief. In short, it is a way we justify false beliefs to ourselves.

.Wishful thinking according to Wikipedia, is the formation of beliefs and making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality or reality.

So would my mother’s attempt at making her children or perhaps herself punctual be considered self-deception, wishful thinking or both? Was it moral to deceive her children and possibly herself, as there can always be a doubt whether she did or didn’t believe what the real time was?

This is a good example of the famous quote attributed to Sir Walter Scott. ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.’

The Christian faith considers self-deception both immoral and harmful to its followers. They readily point to various parts of the Bible that are interpreted to mean that Jesus (or they) don’t think it’s a good practice. Take this example.

‘But what is self-deception? On one level, it is 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).

An often-quoted example of religious self-deception doctrine is found in references to the Pharisees. Jesus obviously wasn’t happy with them, exposing their self-deception.  He confronted them saying, “…on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Bible, Matthew 23:28).

The ninth commandment of the Bible states ‘Thou shall not give false witness about thy neighbor.’  The Christian churches have considered this in its widest form as to not lie even to yourself. Hence self-deception is considered lying to yourself and is consequently a grave sin.

If I believed in this rhetoric my mother did something pretty bad when she put the clock forward. Of course I don’t believe she did anything other than any other mother might do when raising children when trying to get them somewhere on time. In fact, everyone seems to be guilty of both self-deception and wishful thinking all the time.

Classic self-deception is said to be paradoxical. The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy describes it this way.

‘Self believers intentionally get themselves to believe p whilst all the time knowing or believing not p.’

‘The requirement that the self-deceiver holds contradictory beliefs raises the ‘static’ paradox, since it seems to pose an impossible state of mind, namely, consciously believing p and not p at the same time.’

‘The requirement that the self-deceiver intentionally gets herself to hold a belief she knows to be false raises the ‘dynamic’ or ‘strategic’ paradox, since it seems to involve the self-deceiver in an impossible project, namely, both deploying and being duped by some deceitful strategy.’

The philosophical approaches fall into two camps: those that believe that the main cases of self-deception are intentional, and those that believe they are unintentional.

Intentionalists believe that self deception is a complex procedure extended over time and as such ‘a self-deceiver can consciously set out to deceive herself into believing p, knowing or believing  not p, and along the way lose her belief that not p, either forgetting her original deceptive intention entirely.’ (Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy).
Alternatively the intentionalists consider that the brain has many processes both conscious and subconscious. One of the processes can act as the deceiver and another as the deceived. The processes don’t necessarily communicate with each other and one is believed and remembered while the other is simply not remembered.

The Intentionalist would distinguish self-deception from wishful thinking in that the former is not intentional while latter is.

Non-intentionalists suggest the intentional model is incorrect and favor one that takes ‘being deceived’ to be nothing more than to believe falsely or be mistaken in believing (Johnston 1988). In this case both wishful thinking and self-deception are unintentional and hence more difficult to tell apart.

Lets look at some examples of self-deception. There are several types of self-deception each having different grades of severity from pathological to simple innocuous so the question naturally arises can we really consider that all types of self-deception are the same.

Van Leeuwen (2010) suggested that there are at least four different types of self-deception. He designates these as classic self-deception, self-inflation bias, semi pretence and false emotion.
Classic self-deception: this is the paradoxical situation where a person can both believe and not believe some fact simultaneously. Good examples of this would include the addicts and pathological types.
The drug addict believes that he or she can break the habit any time he or she wishes; the cigarette addict believes that cigarettes are not dangerous to his or her health; the gambling addict  believes that a monumental win is just around the corner; the pedophile doesn’t believe his actions will harm the child.

All of these cases could be considered to be exemplars of self-delusion where the person both knows that his or her actions will lead to some unwanted consequences but chooses to ignore that knowledge. In these cases it would appear that the addiction overcomes or negates the truth but instead substitutes its own rules where the gratification received from the addiction leads to irrational action.

Addictions are usually accompanied by changes in the chemistry of the brain. The neuroreceptor populations are abnormal. Consequently, it could be argued then that the addict is not self-deceived but simply unable to make rational decisions owing to a brain malfunction even though it might have been self induced.

The pathological self-deceiver is fortunately reasonably rare. These people believe that they are someone else. In Cotard’s syndrome a person believes at the same time that dead people are motionless and speechless, that he can move and talk, and that he is dead. (Wikipedia).
Erotomania is a type of delusion in which the affected person believes that another person, usually a stranger or famous person, is in love with him or her. This action might involve stalking and cause much fear and distress to the person being stalked. (Wikipedia).

Self-Inflation Bias: This is the general tendency for people to believe that they are better than others at some profession or skill when an empirical analysis would suggest that they are not.
Here are some examples of self inflation bias  taken from the Sceptic’s Dictionary.

‘Ninety-four percent of university professors think they are better at their jobs than their colleagues.’

‘Twenty-five percent of college students believe they are in the top 1% in terms of their ability to get along with others.’

‘Seventy percent of college students think they are above average in leadership ability. Only two percent think they are below average.’ --Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn't So

‘A 2001 study of medical residents found that 84 percent thought that their colleagues were influenced by gifts from pharmaceutical companies, but only 16 percent thought that they were similarly influenced.’ --Daniel Gilbert, "I'm OK; you're biased"
While the self confident person is likely to over exaggerate his or her expertise the opposite is also likely to be true. The under-confident person is likely to consider they are not as good as the others

Over confidence in a medical practitioner is considered a good thing in that the confidence displayed by the doctor is considered to reflect their competence. Here this overconfidence if not matched by performance could have negative consequences in a poor medical outcome for the patients.

Overconfidence is displayed by all of us who drive, as we all believe we are better drivers that those other fools on the road.  We can speed beyond the speed limit as we are experts at high speed and we can drive when we are drunk as our driving experience ensures us that we are still in control.

These examples are all considered to be self-deception in the literature as the empirical evidence is contrary to the general perception.

They could also be incorrectly classified examples of wishful thinking.

Semi pretence: This concept of a person adopting or assuming or defining him or herself by the perceived persona of a social class as his or her identity. Hence a waiter as in Satre’s waiter (wikipedia) assumes all the trappings of being a waiter adopting the movements, actions and persona of a waiter. It’s argued he is unwittingly self-deceiving himself in who and what he is. It’s not self deception in the way that a person may pathologically delude himself into believing that he is a famous person or dead as in Cotard’s syndrome.

False emotion: People may cry or laugh disproportionately to the occasion not because they feel a certain emotion but because they can use it as a way of manipulating another party’s will. The manipulative false emotion may not be conscious planned but the agent is convinced by his or her own false emotion.

This wide range of examples make a reasonable case for self-deception being a normal occurrence perhaps an aid to ego, self confidence and self identity that goes wrong when corrupted as in the case of physio-chemical abnormalities that exist in addicts and those with pathological syndromes.

Evolutionary theory is said to causally explain why humans tend to deceive themselves and others about the fact that they are deceiving. Robert Trivers (2002) has hypothesized that humans are susceptible to self-deception because most people have emotional attachments to their beliefs.

He has suggested that deception plays a significant part in both animal and human behavior.  Natural selection has been directed towards deception, and towards its detection by constant and unconscious suspicion of attempted deception.

A person deceives him or herself to trust something that is not true as to better convince others of that truth. When a person convinces him or herself of this untrue thing, he or she can better hide the signs of deception.

It is suggested that a person acting deceptively can give body language clues of the deception such as nostrils flaring, clammy skin, quality and tone of voice, eye movement, or excessive blinking that can reveal their ploy. Consequently, if self-deception enables someone to believe her or his own true beliefs, then he or she will not present the subtle signs of deception and will therefore appear to be telling the truth.

This concept arises from the basic concept of communication in nature between and within species. Both animals and humans use alarm calls and mimicry deceptively to improve their chances of survival. (hear talk by Trivers)

Evolution produced deceptive mechanisms frequently. Mitchell and Thompson (1986), in "Deception, perspectives on human and nonhuman deceit."

They list four levels of deception.

  • Level one – false markings on animals such as butterflies having markings that indicate their heads are at the back end of their bodies as an aid to escape, camouflage patterns on a wide variety of animals and false markings to make predators appear to be not predators and vice versa.
  • Level two- false behavior to deceive prey that they are not predators and vice versa.
  • Level three- feigned injury to get or divert attention. For example a parent bird feigning a broken wind to attract a predator away from its defenceless offspring.
  • Level four- verbal deception such as a chimp misleading other chimps to hide a food source or a human lying to deceive another.

Of course, evolution also favored the capacity to detect deception, because someone who is not easily deceived has a greater fitness. (Hogan, K. "Deception:Who, what,when where why".

Every group is organized in terms of status hierarchy. This suggests that the two most important problems in life concern attaining status and popularity" (Hogan, 1982). Status provides "opportunity for preferential breeding and reproductive success"

How then might a person attain status and popularity within groups? The answer is to use social influence. Raven, B. H. (1992) describes the reasons people might seek to use social influence are a need for power and dominance, for status, role requirements, desire to adhere to social norms, concern for image, and desire for attaining extrinsic goals. (see French & Raven 5 forms of Power)

It’s not too difficult to imagine that a person with high self esteem exuding confidence can positively influence people and gain a higher status within a group as opposed to one with low self esteem. We saw earlier how high esteem can lead to people falsely believing that they are better than they are.

With the drive to attain status there will inevitably also come situations where lying and other forms of deception are a useful course of action or counter action and since it‘s not a good strategy to honestly admit that we are not truthful it is more useful that we deny our lies and deceive about the fact that we are deceiving.

It stands to reason that If we believe our own lies it is much more difficult to be caught, because we are not making conscious efforts to lie. So we can say that it is a reasonable argument that self-deception could well have evolved for selfish reasons such as the attainment of group social status.

Generally people consider it virtuous to attain social status through honest and fair methods. The question of the morality of using self-deception for personal attainment is therefore of great interest.

Self-deception is generally considered to be thoroughly bad. It is a threat to moral self-knowledge, a cover for immoral activity, a threat to authenticity and morally dangerous.

The obvious questions that arise are:
What is morally problematic about self-deception and if so what and when.

If there is something problematic then the next question follows.

Can any person be held morally responsible for their self-deception and if so under what circumstances.

It seems logical that if self-deceivers cannot be held responsible for self-deception, then their responsibility for whatever morally objectionable consequences it might have will be lessened if not eliminated.

Since there seems to be at least four different types of self-deception (Van Leeuwen, 2010 ), we should consider each separately.

In the case of the classic self-deception, where we consider addicts and pathological cases we would have to say they there are significant problems causes by this type of self-deception. The addicts harm themselves, their friends, workmates and relatives.  So it might be considered morally wrong owing to the harm it causes.

However, the question as to whether these people can be held responsible is open to debate. It can be argued that they suffer a physiochemical change in their brains predisposing them to their self-deception. If that is the case then they are not morally responsible once they are addicted. 

However, it could be also argued that they are morally responsible for getting themselves into the situation where they became addicted.  Few would consider the pathological cases be morally responsible.

In the case of the self inflation bias, where people with high personal esteem overrate their own abilities, it could be argued that this may be a naturally evolved mechanism to enhance one’s status within a group environment.

If this is the case it would seem to be difficult to argue that it is morally wrong as people with high self esteem are often high achievers and give others confidence in their abilities. They might well also act as role models. Certainly, it would be difficult to attribute harm to a person having the belief that he was better than others at a skill, although this might be considered to be pride and excessive pride is considered to be morally bad.

Considering that low self-esteem is generally considered bad then moderate self-esteem might be good and excessively high self esteem bad. It seems then  that self-inflation bias can be both morally good and bad depending upon the degree.

In the case of Semi pretence, where a person takes on the identity and persona of his job or group rather than being a free authentic person. This type of self-deception is a deception in itself. Sartre’s depiction of the waiter as a hopeless automaton not in control of his life is false.
The waiter is in fact an actor, paid to be a waiter. At the end of his shift he then takes on another role as pedestrian on the way home then the role as a husband and father and many other roles as the week progresses. There is no moral dilemma here as there is no self-deception.

In the case of False emotion. As this can cause harm to both the self -deceiver and the person deceived then it can be argued that it is morally wrong. Again the problem of whether the self-deceiver is morally responsible is an open question. If they are truly not aware of their false emotion then they have no intention of causing harm so they can hardly be morally responsible.

Finally was it morally wrong of my mother putting the clock forward by 10 minutes. Even though it caused her children a nuisance for some time it didn’t cause any real harm and her intentions were honest and good so I don’t believe what she did was morally wrong. She was just trying to be punctual which many would consider a virtue.


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