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Self-Deception: Why do we do it?
Intentionalist Approaches and Personal Experience
Here is a list of things I've lied to my Self about (not an exhaustive list since covering a lifetime would be bad for my self-esteem, but let's go through the highlight reel of my 20s–in no particular order):
My childhood war experiences weren't traumatic (They were traumatic)
I wasn't working out too much (I was, and it wasn't for a healthy reason)
I wanted to stay in my relationships (I was too scared to leave)
I wasn't attracted to someone who wasn't my partner (I was)
I was happy (I wasn’t)
I wasn't insecure (I was)
I had to take on all the projects available (I was using work as escapism)
I was an innocent victim in my argument (I was the cause of the argument)
I did my best (I half-assed it)
I knew who I was (I was lost)
I was just a "normal" degree of sad (I wanted to die)
I could “handle” it (I couldn't handle it)
We lie to ourselves all the time.
We lie that our relationship will work out when we have proof to the contrary. We lie that it wasn't our fault when we know it was. We lie by telling ourselves that we must live the way we are living and rush to surrender all the responsibility and freedom we have. We lie to ourselves by believing that we are never part of the problem (or the problem itself).
Self-deception is a fascinating human ability that we utilize far too frequently. Why are we so hell-bent on lying? What truth are we trying to hide from, and why?
Even now, I’ve had week stretches when I lied to myself that I didn’t want to start each day with a primal scream (ha!). Even worse, I lied that I couldn’t change the situation that caused my desire to scream in the first place. Most of the time we can change things, but we would rather feel any sort of way than risk losing whatever we are trying to keep or protect (as a psychologist, I am encroaching too far into the psychological and we are here for the philosophical!).
So, how does self-deception actually work? Philosophers have debated this topic for a long time, and while there is no consensus ( surprise, surprise), here is what I've gathered…
Self-deception is a paradox, a difficult concept to wrap our mind about, and that's because arguably our mind is not actually capable of it . . . or is it? To self-deceive–and here I will talk in the first person to avoid it sounding blame-y—I am the person who knows the truth and is choosing to lie, and I am the person who believes the lie (aka is being lied to).
In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote how we must know the truth intimately enough to develop a sufficiently convincing and comprehensive lie. More specifically he said:
I must know the truth very exactly in order to conceal it more carefully—and this not at two different moments, which at a pinch would allow us to reestablish a semblance of duality—but in the unitary structure of a single project (p. 72)
Is it only through the full awareness of the truth that we can successfully deceive ourselves? This tracks with my personal experiences. I knew the truth, and on some level, I knew that I knew the truth (following?), but I pretended to believe the lie. It wasn't so much that I was a skillful deceiver but a willing victim.
The philosophers are stuck on the question: "Is it possible to fully believe something is true and not true at the same time?"
As well as: "Is it possible to know that we are trying to deceive ourselves and be ignorant of the same fact?"
There are many understandings of self-deception, but today I will tackle the intentionalist approaches.
The intentionalists agree that self-deception is, well, intentional or at very least holds some sort of purpose. But they argue over whether or not the person has to hold two contradictory beliefs and what the specific "intention" is. They also understand that it's hard (and paradoxical) to flat-out lie to ourselves, so they have proposed a framework that separates the deceivers from their own schemes by dividing the mind into two parts.
Simply (ha! That's a joke. Nothing is simple), although we may have set out to deceive ourselves initially, along the way we forget our intention or believe that this intention brought us towards a genuine belief that we would have arrived at anyway. For example, you applied for a job you're not qualified for. Several years ago–the last time you updated your CV–you embellished the truth, and now, as you're applying, you are taking your CV at face value because you have forgotten which parts (if any) you have lied about. As you go to your interview, you disregard the creative writing you have practiced on your LinkedIn page three months ago and believe you're truly qualified for the job (otherwise you wouldn’t have landed this interview, right?!)
In this example, the self-deceiver doesn't have to hold contradictory beliefs that create the paradox, even though they fully recognized the truth (that they are not qualified for the job) at the outset of the process, the lie (that they are qualified) became their truth at the end.
Although temporal partitioning seems like a pleasant way to sidestep the paradox, philosophers argue that most self-deceptions are not of this type. More frequently, self-deception appears simultaneously (like reading a text from someone saying they are not interested while still entirely choosing to believe that they want to date you because of their use of exclamation marks or emojis). Or, crying yourself to sleep every night and still choosing to believe that you have the life you want.
Have you ever experienced something like this?
Another way the intentionalists make sense of the paradox is by dividing the Self into psychological parts that play the role of the deceiver and the deceived. Where the aspect of the "deceiver" has autonomy (kinda?) capable of belief, desire, and intention.
This way of viewing self-deception is prompted by the acceptance that we can and do hold two beliefs. For example, one can believe that they are secretly having an affair and that cheating is immoral without believing that having sex with someone other than their partner is immoral.
So Chad's–yes, let's call this person Chad–recognition that his actions (involvement in the affair) implicate him in something immoral motivates him to self-deceive and believe that he wasn’t that involved. Cheating is wrong but what he is doing is not really wrong because he didn’t initiate, his gf hasn’t wanted to have sex, etc… The 'cheater' can't admit that their lack of involvement is a false belief (that they, in fact, have a lot of agency and involvement in their affair) because they would have to admit they were immoral. They don’t want to make the connection between their action and immorality despite being able to acknowledge both realities. This is the work of some robust unconscious gymnastics.
The psychological partitioning framework doesn't ask to minimize the self-deceiver's active, calculated, and deliberate role. It doesn't phrase the lie or behavior as an accident or mistake. It just separates the mind into parts so that we can still, quite frankly, stomach liking ourselves.
As I am writing this, I can’t help but try to identify where my self-deception stems from. Next time you think to yourself: “How could I have possibly believed that!?” Or “Why is this person refusing to see the truth, HOW do they not see it!?” remember this newsletter.
Are we interested in learning about the Revisionist Approaches to self-deception? Or is this too much truth for one week?!