The Bystander Effect and Self-Deception

Having clarified the private philosophical stake one might have in the matter of our unconscious and self-deceptive natures, let’s consider a simple act of self-deception, described in David Livingstone Smith’s book, Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind.  Two social psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley,

engineered situations in which subjects on their own were faced with someone having a (simulated) epileptic seizure, while in other cases this happened in the presence of bystanders. As it turned out, subjects were less and less likely to come to the person’s assistance as the number of bystanders increased, an effect attributed to the “diffusion of responsibility,” the assumption that someone else will help.

Recently I experienced the “diffusion of responsibility” associated with the bystander effect firsthand, standing around with 20 or so others doing nothing after an elderly woman fainted and fell to the floor from her chair. (Fortunately, a nurse in the group quickly took charge and berated the men for standing around doing nothing!) But here’s the relevant and surprising part of the study.

Latané and Darley assumed that the decision not to help when there are others around is a perfectly conscious one, and were astonished to discover that their subjects were completely unaware of the impact of the presence of other people on their behavior….”Subjects persistently claimed that the other people present did not influence their behavior.” The decision to refrain from helping was based on unconscious rather than conscious considerations. Although they believed that their beahvior had nothing to do with the presence of others around them, they were clearly self-deceived.

Notice that the self-deception here concerns a significant matter: people’s motives for acting (or failing to act) in a certain way.  Many other studies have reached similar conclusions: people often don’t really know why they’re motivated to behave as they do. Sure, we’re all ready with our reasons, yet often these aren’t the real reasons. But if we don’t know the real reasons why we’re doing the things we do, how can we say that we freely chose our action?

Thus self-deception and unconsciously motivated behavior in general reveal us as slaves of our drives, instincts, conditioning and habits. As we’ve seen, the philosophical path requires shaking off these chains and becoming our own masters. To this end, Socrates famously asked questions that led his interlocutors to examine their beliefs, opinions, and practices. As the bystander effect did, so too these conversation often revealed that, although they thought they knew, in fact Socrates interlocutors rarely knew what they were talking about. They’d been living unconsciously, in ignorance and delusion: they’d been asleep. (Socrates as gadfly bites others in order to wake them up.)

Is waking up from deception as natural for us as deception itself? Smith devotes an entire chapter to showing how widespread the strategy of deception is among plants and animals. The portia spider, for example, lives by an elaborate ruse that fools other spiders into believing he is prey when in fact he’s the predator. (It doesn’t hurt that the spider itself looks like a piece of detritus.) But the spider isn’t self-aware. He just is what he is, and does what he does. From the rest of nature we learn that our capacity for deception isn’t unique, anymore than skin or hair is. On the contrary, it’s the capacity for shedding our ignorance and undeceiving ourselves that distinguishes us, as our species name suggests: Homo sapiens.  The irony, of course, is that while philosophy and science reveal the senses in which we’re “natural-born liars”, the very act of doing so proves that we are also, and pre-eminently, natural-born truth-tellers.

So truth and lies, conscious and unconscious, are natural for us. We do indeed live within a strange architecture: a bifurcated mind composed of unconscious and conscious parts, and a bifurcated desire as well—our animal nature seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, while our spiritual nature seeks wisdom and shuns ignorance and self-deception. With such a design, it’s no wonder that the nature and meaning of happiness is a hard question for us. For each side seems to define happiness differently. We’re not fully human or happy if we live as satisfied pigs, but we’re also not fully human or happy if we deny our animal natures. To take one side or the other divides us against ourselves and threatens to tear us apart.

Are we thus fated—being neither gods nor beasts exactly—to live a divided life with no unified happpiness possible? Or can we find a way around this impasse?

This entry was posted in Books, Mind, Nature, Philosophy, Plato and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Bystander Effect and Self-Deception

  1. jurgen says:

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