Book Summaries Philosophy

Self-Deception Summary (7/10)

The idea of deception is easy for most people to understand. It is not a puzzle that some people are able to deceive others. It is not difficult to think of many reasons why they would do so. But why self-deception? It appears paradoxical, that a person would harm themselves. Why would you, an intelligent being, purposefully play a trick on yourself? In Self-Deception, Herbert Fingarette insists that it is no paradox at all. He makes his argument by analysing a few everyday experiences that anyone can relate to.

Consider first the act of writing. If you are in a crowded coffee shop and you need to finish an essay, there are many sounds that should distract you from your task. Around you are people engaged in loud conversations, drinking their lattes and occasionally moving their chairs to get up. Then there are the coffee machines with their distinct sounds and the baristas taking people’s orders.

But if you are focused on writing, somehow, you can ignore these noises. It is as if your mind hears them, but they do not become a part of your present awareness. And it is not only your ability to ignore these sounds, but your selective ability to welcome only what is relevant.

Imagine that while you are writing, your friend, Christina, coincidentally walks into the coffee shop and sits on a table across from yours. With your back turned to her, you do not notice. But then her phone rings. She picks up and answers in a voice that is too familiar to you. Suddenly, you are interrupted from the act of writing, and you have now turned around to see where she is.

In this instance, your mind is choosing what to ignore and what not to ignore because you know what should and should not be relevant. So, if you can do that, then potentially, you have the ability to deceive yourself. You possess the ability to ignore some stimuli and only welcome others, and in that sense, you are not exposing your mind to all the input, but only the input that you choose to welcome.

You speak to your friend, the two of you catch up and then decide to go and watch a movie afterwards. Christina is a big fan of romantic dramas, and that is the criteria by which you select your movie. As you are watching, you pay attention to the expressions on her face, and how she transitions from being shocked to happy to sad. She is completely immersed in the movie, but then you think about what she has to implicitly believe to be able to feel these emotions.

In the back of her mind, she must believe that the characters aren’t real, that these scenes aren’t unfolding in real time, that the dialogue was written by someone who was paid to do a job, that the movie was probably shot over the course of several months or years.

She must also believe that she is not a part of this movie, and that there is no way for anything that is happening in the movie to physically affect her. And yet, she must believe, on some level, that these characters felt betrayed, offended, and loved. In other words, she must be able to believe in a contradiction. She must ignore the fact that nothing she saw was real, and at the same time, suspend belief.

After the movie, the two of you walk on the street and talk about your careers. She tells you about the frustrations of being a teacher, but while she does, you notice a contradiction in what she is saying.

There are teacher evaluation cards that students mandatorily fill out, she informs you. But when she compares her cards with a co-worker’s who she dislikes, she mentions that hers compared very favorably, and that this is clear proof that she is superior to her in the eyes of her students. But then, after she recalls an episode of a particularly scathing review of her, she dismisses the entire concept of evaluation cards, insisting that they were a complete waste of time since anonymity gives anyone license to say whatever they want without consideration.

The examples above are proof that we not only can select what we want to be aware of, but that we do so all the time, and sometimes to protect our ego.

The psychological literature teaches us that we repress ideas and memories, and that we do so as defense mechanism. Sometimes, self-deception can be harmful, and at other times, it is necessary for functioning normally. If you repress certain feelings of shame, for example, because of something you may have done wrong, you will, when confronted about the behavior, seem flustered. This is because you have not allowed yourself the time to fully process your behavior, and to think about it slowly. It is a natural reaction that is all too human.

We react more strongly to short term disturbances than long term disturbances, we try more hard to suppress immediate pain than to strive to prevent ourselves from experiencing pain in the future.

The accumulation of these repressed feelings may later on in life make you weaker and less confident, but at the time, doing so helped you avoid feeling depressed.

The conclusion of the book is that, far from being a paradox or a puzzling feature of our behavior, self-deception is an inevitable aspect of being human.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.