Margaret Thatcher is not alone. All of us find it easy to deceive ourselves. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology the main reason is simple: It’s easier to deceive others when you believe your own lies; so natural selection fashioned our brains to make self-deception natural. We are, as David Livingstone Smith puts it in his interesting book Why We Lie, “natural-born liars.” Even though we often believe our lies, they are lies nonetheless because our self-interest is being served by misleading others as to what we truly have in mind.
Well, you may rightly ask, just where exactly is what we truly have in mind, if we’re not aware of it? In the unconscious, of course. According to Freud and, more recently, a growing number of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists, nearly all of our thinking is unconscious. (Just think of it!) In fact, the unconscious exists in large part to facilitate self-deception and its fruits. The conscious part is functionally separate from the unconscious thinking part of the mind. Cognitive filters or gatekeepers determine which bits and pieces of our thinking are allowed to pass into our conscious mind.
I plan to devote a few posts to exploring the unsettling—not to mention interesting and suggestive—ideas I’m raising here. But before traveling deeper into the territory, let’s see what more we can learn about the virtues of self-deception. I’ve already mentioned the main strategic advantage, well known to most of us from our own experience of lying and being lied to: lies work best when the liar also believes his or her lie. What I mean by lies here can include wishful thinking, such as when you ask a class of philosophy students reading Nietzsche to raise their hands if they are 1) free spirits, or 2) herd animals. Nearly all identified as free spirits, despite having read Nietzsche’s claim that such souls are surpassingly rare! So nearly all are self-deceived.
Among the prime virtues of self-deception is that people who are more self-deceived tend to be happier and have a more “normal” psychological profile than those who possess a more accurate grasp of themselves and reality. One study of non-depressed and depressed subjects found that non-depressed subjects consistently overestimated their contribution to success in a game, and underestimated their contribution to failure. (How happily convenient!) Depressed subjects, on the other hand, assessed both situations far more realistically. “The rather startling conclusion,” Smith says, “is that depressives may suffer from a deficit in self-deception.” Other studies reach similar conclusions, finding—to take another example—that as treatment diminished the symptoms of a depressed person, so also “their ability to make accurate interpersonal judgments degenerated.” Smith concludes that what we call a normal, well-adjusted psyche may rest on a foundation of self-deception.
What are the philosophers and truth-seekers among us to make of such findings and claims? For they seem to suggest that the desire to examine one’s life, to root out the lies in the soul and to live in the light of the truth, sets us on an unnatural path that leads to misery. To the extent this is true, it’s no wonder philosophy is called the melancholy science.