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Self-Deception (Week 27 of Wisdom)

“A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love, and in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest form of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying — to others and to yourself.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The idea of deception is easy for most people to understand. It is not a puzzle that some people are able to deceive others. But why would anyone deceive themselves? Why would an intelligent being, engineered for survival, purposefully play a malicious trick on itself?

In Self-Deception, Herbert Fingarette insists that it is no paradox at all. He makes his argument by analyzing a few everyday experiences that anyone can relate to.

One such experience is writing in a crowded coffee shop. The sound of chatter and clattering should distract you, but if you are focused on writing, your mind ignores all extraneous noise.

This is made possible by your ability to ignore sounds that do not contribute to your mission. And then, imagine that a friend walks by while talking on the phone. You do not hesitate to turn around, because the voice you have heard is too familiar.

Because your mind can choose what to ignore, you can deceive yourself.

If you can selectively ignore input with ease, then you can ignore most of reality with ease. You can choose to believe the narratives and the facts that are most self-serving and ignore the information that do not fit your story.

The ability to ignore what is not relevant, to engage in confirmation bias, is a symptom of the human capacity for self-deception. And the polarization that exists in politics, academia, sports, and religion across the world is proof of the ubiquity of this capacity in people.

The psychological literature teaches us that we repress ideas and memories, and that we do so as a defense mechanism. Self-deception can sometimes be harmful but is necessary for a healthy psyche. If you repress shame after making a mistake, you would feel flustered if you were confronted about it, that is because you have not taken the time to think about your behavior, and to process it well.

You were taken off guard because you chose to ignore a part of reality, to be dishonest with yourself. Since a habit of dishonesty will carry with it negative future consequences, many years later, you will feel less integrated and confident – it is hard to trust yourself when you have proven yourself capable of slick self-sabotage. But self-sabotage in the long run, such as the repression of shame, was traded for less depression and stress in the short run.

Herbert’s conclusion is that self-deception is not a paradox, but a staple in human behavior, that it is necessary for psychological health and socialization. Yet, Dostoevsky warned us of taking self-deception to an extreme, to living too much in a comfortable lie, and the repercussions, particularly in the long term, that will result from it.

A trade-off between short-term psychic health, and long-term life quality, is a standard one, that each person makes with each decision they make.

Nietzsche alluded to this when he said that “The strength of a person’s spirit would then be measured by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.”

Why is the truth difficult to “handle”? Why is it a “bitter pill to swallow”? Why is it “inconvenient”? Because, the truth cuts through the tricks that your mind plays in the name of sound mental health. A lie is never inconvenient, it is instrumental. But the truth is an obstacle to your goals, it breaks down your defense mechanisms and collapses your sense of certainty. By pursuing it, you engage in a courageous battle with no certain outcomes, but this does not make the pursuit of truth a fruitless adventure, only an uncomfortable one, and sometimes, an impractical one.

Measured from a longer-term perspective, the cumulation of bad habits, destructive relationships, and irrational beliefs from a tendency to run away from the truth, is less likely to put you in a situation that is either comfortable or practical. But the preoccupation with having a strong spirit may be an unsustainable solution, when taken to an extreme, so the most reasonable conclusion would be to ‘pursue as much truth as you can bear, but no more.’

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

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