self deceptionJoseph T Hallinan’s new book Kidding Ourselves says that not only is self deception more common and more powerful than we suppose, it’s actually helpful: deluded egoists beat realists every time.

Philosophically, of course, self-deception is impossible. To deceive yourself you have to induce in yourself a belief in a proposition you know to be false. In other words you have to believe and disbelieve the same thing, which is contradictory. In practice self-deception of a looser kind is possible if there is some kind of separation between the deceiving and deceived self. So for example there might be separation over time: we set up a belief for ourselves which is based on certain conditions; later on we retain the belief but have forgotten the conditions that applied. Or the separation might be between conscious and unconscious, with our unrecognised biases and preferences causing us to believe things which we could not accept if we were to subject them to a full and rational examination. As another example, we might well call it self deception if we choose to behave as if we believed something which in fact we don’t believe.

Hallinan’s examples are a bit of a mixed bag, and many of them seem to be simple delusions rather than self-delusions. He recounts, for example the strange incident in 1944 when many of the citizens of a small town in Illinois began to believe they were being attacked by a man using gas – one that most probably never existed at all. It’s a peculiar case that certainly tells us something about human suggestibility, but apparently nothing about self-deception; there’s no reason to think these people knew all along that the gas man was a figment of their imaginations.

More trickily, he also tells a strange story about Stephen Jay Gould.  A nineteenth century researcher called Morton claimed he had found differences in cranial capacity between ethnic groups.  Gould looked again at the data and concluded that the results had been fudged: but he felt it was clear they had not been deliberately fudged. Morton had allowed his own prejudices to influence his interpretation of the data. So far so good; the strange sequel is that after Gould’s death a more searching examination which re-examined the original skulls measured by Morton found that there was nothing much wrong with his data. If anything, they concluded, it was Gould who had allowed prior expectations to colour his interpretation. A strange episode but at the end of the day it’s not completely clear to me that anyone deceived themselves. Gould, or so it seems, got it wrong, but was it really because of his prejudices or was that just a little twist the new researchers couldn’t resist throwing in?

Hallinan examines the well-established phenomenon of the placebo, a medicine which has no direct clinical effect but makes people better by the power of suggestion. He traces it back to Mesmer and beyond. Now of course people taking pink medicine don’t usually deceive themselves – they normally believe it is real medicine – otherwise it wouldn’t work? The really curious thing is that even in trials where patients were told they were getting a placebo, it still had a significant beneficial effect! What was the state of mind of these people? They did not believe it was real medicine, so they should not have believed it worked. But they knew that placebos worked, so they believed that if they believed in it it would have an effect; and somehow they performed the mental gymnastics needed to achieve some state of belief..?

Hallinan’s main point, though is the claim that unjustified optimism actually leads to better health and greater success; in sports, in business, wherever. In particular, people who blame themselves for failure do less well than those who blame factors outside their control. He quotes many studies, but there are in my view some issues about untangling the causality. It seems possible that in a lot of cases there were underlying causal factors which explain the correlation of doubt and failure.

Take insurance salesmen: apparently those who were most optimistic and self-exculpatory in their reasoning not only sold more, they were less likely to give up. But let’s consider two imaginary salesmen. One looks and sounds like George Clooney. He goes down a storm on the doorstep and even when he doesn’t make a sale he gets friendly, encouraging reactions. Of course he’s optimistic, and of course he’s successful, but his optimism and his success are caused by his charm, they do not cause each other. His colleague Scarface has a problem on one cheek that drags his eye down and mouth up, giving him an odd expression and slightly distorting his speech. On the doorstep people just don’t react so well; unfairly they feel uneasy with him and want to curtail the conversation. Scarface is pessimistic and does badly, but it’s not his pessimism that is the underlying problem.

Hallinan includes sensible disclaimers about his conclusions – he’s not proposing we all start trying to delude ourselves – but I fear his thesis might play into a widespread tendency to believe that failure and ill-health are the result of a lack of determination and hence in some sense the sufferer’s own fault: it would in my view be a shame to reinforce that bias.

There are of course deeper issues here; some would argue that our misreading of ourselves goes far beyond over-rating our sales skills: that systematic misreading of limited data is what causes us to think we have a conscious self in the first place…


  1. 1. Philosopher Eric says:

    How do you do it Peter? Just 5 hours before I submit comment #15 to your last discussion, which should have been one of the grandest examples of self deception that you’re likely to ever witness, and now with this article you effectively said to me “Go ahead and do it Eric — unwarranted confidence will only increase your chances for success.” You can no longer be considered innocence of what I am to become.

  2. 2. Vicente says:

    Tough one!

    It is important to decoupled issues, or the analysis will become impossible.

    To see: self-egoistic-deception, placebo (or nocebo), positive attitudes and self-indulgence and sport psichology all messed up in the same pot, is guarantee for an undigestible dish.

    Stop believing. Construct a behaviour based on evidence and impartiality. But Mr. Spock is so boring.

    Regarding the last sentence… we go to square one, who is the misreader?

  3. 3. Vicente says:

    Hallinan examines the well-established phenomenon of the placebo, a medicine which has no direct clinical effect but makes people better by the power of suggestion

    I suppose he means chemical effect, because the clinical effect is clear.

    Since the ancient times there is an expression amongst physicians which is “to heal by the word”, (sometimes used with religious connotations). How true. This is one of the disasters of current medical and public health systems. Huge pharmaceutical corporations making fortunes on people health, when maybe just to have a decent physician to sit and listen for a few minutes, would be much more effective.

    This reality can be treated scientifically, the different biochemical paths through which long term stress hormones, like for example cortisol, blow your health off, are well identified and described, and how the power of mind can have a beneficial effect the body as well. Well, the latter not so well understood.

    It is urgent to investigate how different brain states induce the production of healing molecules (or the opposite) and other physiological effects, with a huge impact on your welfare.

    Governments spend billions subsidising drugs of uncertain efficacy, that could be avoided by just reducing the average stress levels a little.

    This concept of “suggestion” presented as an illusory mechanism is very negative. The real approach is to understand the mind body connection, and how many diseases can be cured by it.

    I think the Mind Life Institute is doing a great job towards this goal.

    So the point is to stop thinking in terms of suggestion, delusion, etc and to understand how the brain works and controls the body physiology. Of course, the next step is to control the brain so it does what we want it to do.

  4. 4. Philosopher Eric says:

    Vicente I certainly agree that Peter has given us a complex topic to consider here, though hopefully a rewarding one as well. I will now present a description of self-deception from my own model, and we’ll see if you and others find it valid.

    For me “self” has a punishment/reward nature defined by sensations like fun, jealousy, itchiness, love, and so on. The greater the sensations which are experienced, the greater the self which exists, whether positive or negative. Furthermore this may be considered instantaneous in the sense that we only experience current sensations at a given moment. Nevertheless we do seem to function as continuous entities over time in a reasonably effective manner, since memory of the past brings us current sensations associated with the past, and anticipation of the future does so regarding the future through our “hope” and “worry.” (This was a very fast description however, so if there are any questions, please let me know.)

    How then might “self-deception” be considered from this model? When I say that I am deceiving myself, this is not about me somehow changing my current pain into pleasure, for one literal example given my “self” definition. Instead it’s just the “I” that may be deceived, or the “potential self medium.” The future is obviously not perfectly understood to us, so there is certainly room for us to have extra optimism or pessimism where the “I” may thus be deceived. Notice that if I am hopeful about my future then I am so rewarded with these positive current sensations, while if I am instead worried, this will be punishing. So positive self-deception will provide “extra hope,” and negative self-deception will provide “extra worry.”

    This model may also be considered practically from my own situation. Self-deception must have been one prominent factor that helped lead me to spend over half my years working on my theory. If happiness is indeed all that matters to me, however, then why did I pursue such an impossible task (given that thousands have failed in this respect for thousands of years) when goals that are somewhat less ambitious should obviously be more fruitful? Apparently my hope helped me overcome the frustrations and worry associated with this project, regardless of the role of self-deception.

    Am I still deceiving myself? I’m not so sure. Observe the change in discussion which has occurred here since I came along in January. Perhaps this is a microcosm for what’s to come. Would any of the big name philosophers be able to effectively ridicule my own ideas, as I’m now able to do for their’s? Yes my theory does bring me confidence, but who will demonstrate that this is merely a product of my self-deception?

  5. 5. Vicente says:

    Eric, the problem of self-deception is central to understand human nature. It has to do with understanding our desires and motivations. The problem is that much of our mind work operates at a subconscious level, which provides inputs to the conscious level. And here comes the funny point, we will invent (“self-deceive”) anything in order to justify and digest these inputs minimizing suffering. This suffering results from, 1. Our ignorance of the subconscious processes, 2. Our own “culture” and bounday conditions, that are usually too stringent and ilogic to allow an efficient subconscious management, generated by eons of evolutionary programming.

    Then, try to honestly and sincerely understand the ulterior motives behind your thoughts and acts, and then analyse the logical frame you are using. It is a difficult task, because you will be jeopardizing the part of yourself that you naturally cling on to, and it will try to resist real hard.

    And this is all about self-deception. Clean your subconscious, set up the filters, and dont’t confuse pleasures and happiness.

    Do you want to solve the problem of consciousness because you are really curious about it, or for the glory and admiration (envy?) of society, and the fun to ridicule previous theories. Start there.

    But, what I wanted to say is that we should distinguisg between self-deception or suggestion and the power of mind (through a fully conscious and control exercise) to act on the body.

  6. 6. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Hi all (breaking my lurk mode ’cause self-deception and biases are one of my hot topics…)

    The following links will not directly inform the question on how you can correctly define self-deception, but are very relevant for the discussion.

    1) McKay and Dennett had a paper (with open peer comments) on their exploration on whether and when evolution may favour the emergence of misbeliefs, it’s very interesting and does cover “optimistic delusions” and pacebos. I’ve written a guest post on it but it’s not out (and I can’t be sure it will please the host), I may link it here if it goes out.

    The original paper is called The evolution of misbelief
    Behavioural and Brain SciencesBEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2009), 32, 493–561 doi:10.1017/S0140525X09990975
    (link sends you to the FT, including comments).

    2) I had long discussions on similar explorations (the evolution of misbelief) with Artem Kaznatcheev, who developed, with colleagues, an evolutionary simulation to explore the topic (using the paradigmatic game theory case of the prisoner dilemma).
    His paper is finally out (preprint):
    Kaznatcheev, A., Montrey, M., & Shultz, T. R. (2014). Evolving useful delusions: Subjectively rational selfishness leads to objectively irrational cooperation. arXiv preprint arXiv:1405.0041.

    And a series of posts:

    The end result is: it seems very likely that “optimistic delusions” can be favoured by natural selection, and is presumably done via implicit/unconscious (whatever that means) biases. Does that count as “Self Deception”? I don’t know, but it’s fun to ponder.
    Also, by extension, one could make an argument saying that since some delusions can be beneficial for our genes, then a cognitive system that allows us to ignore the evidence that disproves a belief, in case we nevertheless consider the belief useful, may be selectively advantageous. This is intriguing because it’s the kind of self-delusion that we normally encounter, I guess. And it’s a plausible hypothesis because it is quite clear that evolution does not track truth, it track fitness alone, so mismatches are possible.

    (oh, and the examples that Peter gives pretty much follow my second ever blog post: < quite remarkable…>)

  7. 7. Peter says:

    Hi, Sergio! (Thanks for the mention on Reddit, by the way.)

  8. 8. Philosopher Eric says:

    Thanks Vicente for the great observation. Fortunately I was able to leave the standard “subconscious” idea relatively unaltered in my own work, so it does conform with what you’ve said (and I do also presume that you did not get the wisdom above from my consciousness chapter).

    As you’ve mentioned, there certainly must me many things which drive me that I’m not aware of. But one thing that seems a bit different from me than most people, is that I am indeed “a shameless hedonist.” In order for us to get what we want in society, the economics are generally such that we must “behave as if we are selfless servants of the greater good” in order to gain the support of others and thus receive their help. I do suspect that many of us are also able to convince ourselves of this selflessness, and even though (from my theory) personal happiness is all that actually matters to them. So if you turn on your local news program, I do suspect that one prominent theme will be something about “the good citizens selflessly helping the unfortunate.” And while this may reflect self-deception, I also suspect that the deception is often complete enough to be “honest.”

    But now consider “the shameless hedonist” that I happen to be. I long ago recognized that if introspection was going to give me an accurate picture of human dynamics, then brutal honesty about myself was going to be my only hope. Is fame, fortune, security, and so on what motivate me? Certainly. I also think that curiosity has been a prime factor. But my greatest motivation of all, I think, has been my need for personal respect. Even if I had great fame and fortune, but was laughed at or derided as an idiot, or perhaps hated as an evil despot (as generally dominate our most unfortunate countries) I doubt I’d be able to feel all that good. But then consider if I had a very meager life, with the love of my family and the general admiration of others, this might indeed be very satisfying. So the thing which drives me most, I think, is my hope to promote such “theory of mind sensations.”

    I know that you have been sceptical of introspection, and I cannot blame you give the amazing challenges associated with what I mean to do, and certainly given your discussion above. But perhaps there is simply no other way to get where we need to be.

  9. 9. Vicente says:

    Eric, the dynamic blogroll came so handy:

    This is what needs to be understood, and then controlled.

  10. 10. Philosopher Eric says:

    Thank you Vicente for alerting me to this discovery, which I’ll now interpret on the basis of my own project.

    Apparently these researchers have found that people with a somewhat larger insular cortex, also seem to be happier. They’ve also acknowledged that their work is not sufficient to establish which feature causes the other however, or something which should be crucial for practical applications (though I’d certainly have them keep working on it). Furthermore they’ve also presented some reasonably standard discussion regarding the virtues of happiness. While I do think this is “good stuff,” I’ll now present an analogy suggesting that what we really need is a far more basic type of understanding than “physiology.”

    Imagine not knowing much of anything about cars (beyond perhaps seeing them drive by) and then buying one for personal use. Here the question of how to fix it (psychiatry?), or certainly how to build another such car (the hard problem?), should not be the main concern. Instead you should wonder most about how to actually use this car, and therefore an effective “user’s manual” should be quite important to you.

    Now let’s swap this car scenario for the human machine itself. Where might a good “human user’s manual” be obtained? Parents? Religions? Governments? Cultures? Maybe some quality self-help books? While we do have many such resources to choose from that have many such themes, one need only look to the failure of philosophy to see that definitive answers do not yet exist for us. Therefore we should indeed expect that we would have tremendous problems leading our lives and structuring our societies today.

    So Vicente, do you agree with me that philosophical answers, if achieved, should then found newly effective fields of Psychology, Psychiatry, Sociology, and so on? Regardless of my own such theory, I ask you if you think that “a human user’s manual” would therefore be quite useful for science to finally develop?

  11. 11. Vicente says:

    Eric: yes. Wether such manual can be elaborated for a general case, or not, is uncertain.

    Can you write a user’s manual for a word processor, with thatsame word processor? only if you are the developer of the software… 😉

  12. 12. Philosopher Eric says:

    Vicente it seems you agree that what I call “mental/behavioral” sciences must be quite primitive today, given that an effective “human user’s manual” would require philosophical answers that have not yet been achieved. This is great! Ah but there is still a catch (and your analogy may have actually trumped my “car” analogy). Yes I am essentially trying to use a word processor to write a user’s manual for it, and do so even though I was not the one to actually develop this tool. But must we depend upon our own creator to provide us with an effective human user’s manual? Many do indeed believe this, and generally that their own churches also provide us with the answers. Personally however, I will never give up my “cause/effect logic” for their “faith.” Surely those of us that require non-magic explanations, must nevertheless try to understand what we are, and even if we did not actually build ourselves. This must be why you, like me, try to figure such things out rather than just accept the presumed “word of god.”

    If you see the horrible problems now faced by science/humanity given that we do not yet have accepted philosophical answers, perhaps I can interest you in the “human user’s manual” which I have developed, and done quite apart from academia (whose ailments would, I think, naturally corrupt it).

  13. 13. Vicente says:

    Not really Eric, the point is that in order to develop a full fledged end-to-end model of consciousness, in the frame of the current scientific method paradigm, 100% materialist approach: totally reductionist, emergentist or naturalist (it makes no difference), seems not possible for the moment. Consciousness theories, at the peak of the Universe expression, have to build on all other fields: from physics to evolution, but in order to do that the basic constituents of consciousness have to be included as part of the elements used to construct the models and theories of these fields. Well, this is not the case. This situation leads to nonsense like the one presented in the previous post “structural qualia”.

    In summary, it is not behavioural sciences, it is the whole system.

  14. 14. Philosopher Eric says:

    Well Vicente that’s an extremely pessimistic view. Here I must warn you that too much pessimism can be just as problematic as too much optimism. More importantly however, do not imagine that the point which I thought I had your agreement upon, was larger than it really was. I was merely observing that we humans do seem to have developed some very useful understandings regarding Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Medicine, Astronomy, and so on, but given the failure of philosophy, fields like Psychology, Psychiatry, Sociology, Cognition, and so on can only be “primitive.” Yes I do indeed believe that we can to better, though we’ll undoubtedly visit that question in the future. So I’ll ask once again, do you agree with me that philosophy holds the key to effective study in what I call “mental/behavioral” sciences?

    (One general problem that we have, I think, is that people teaching and practicing these fields seem to commonly deny how primitive their understandings still are. One of the particularly detrimental methods employed in such efforts is to use highly obscure terminology, and then combine this with similarly obscure syntax. The subconscious theme here seems to be, “We must not let the masses comprehend how little we actually understand!” The net effect, however, seems to be that these people commonly aren’t able to develop effective ideas, let alone understand each other. Philosophers have of course been no less guilty in this regard. One of my own little pleasures is to make such a wordsmith choke on their words just a bit. If this kind of idiocy is not indeed punished, it can only thrive given the horrible position that the failure of philosophy put us in today.)

  15. 15. Philosopher Eric says:

    Hello Sergio,

    It’s always great to have more participants here, since I do (accidentally) seem to offend some that presumably never return. At some point Peter may need to ask me to kindly just go away, or alternatively, his site may indeed provide me with a significant group of willing students. Either way this process may take some time, though greater participation is certainly appreciated.

    As for the present however, it does occur to me that the Dennett/McKay paper which you’ve provided above should work just fine to demonstrate my earlier point with Vicente — namely that basic philosophical answers will be required in order for true progress to be made in associated fields. Because they don’t have such a foundation from which to build their ideas, Dennett/McKay are forced to deceive others (and yes themselves) by using the complexity of their discussion to suggest that their answers must actually be quite good.

    They begin by stating: “From an evolutionary standpoint, a default presumption is that true beliefs are adaptive and misbeliefs maladaptive,” and so they ask why our own beliefs are apparently not always perfectly accurate given our magnificent evolution. To “solve” this question they take us through an involved discussion whose central purpose is to, I think, demonstrate how cleverly they can describe various normal circumstances. Their conclusion is essentially the following: We do not happen to be designed perfectly such that truth is always understood by us, and sometimes it’s actually “adaptive” for us to be deceived about the truth. Great job guys!

    The reason that they are not able to give us anything more substantial than this, I think, is because they do not yet have a general model of human dynamics from which to interpret their question. Because they don’t have a Newtonian “Force = Mass x Acceleration” kind of model, their only hope is to build an involved and clever discussion to fool themselves and others about the value of their findings. But because I do indeed have such a model from which to interpret “self-deception,” I will now describe this, and somewhat differentlay from my approach in comment #4.

    From this model “sensations” are what drive the conscious mind, so it is this impetus which motivates us to figure things out. (Compare this premise with the original Dennett/McKay position, or that evolution should have constructed us to be “all knowing,” or an idea which is clearly preposterous.) So in order to figure things out under my model we use “thought,” and this comes in two varieties. It is both “the interpretaction of inputs,” like those sensations which drive us, as well as “the construction of scenarios.” These evolving “scenarios” of reality are what we use to develop our beliefs, and we do so in the attempt to promote our happiness. In this process we don’t really “know” anything, but instead we just try to figure things out given our incentive to do so. So how then might self-deception fit in?

    Let’s consider the case of Dennett/McKay. They are presumably deceiving themselves (and others) that they understand a great deal about human dynamics, and doing so in order to maintain their respected positions. Therefore this deception is very much in their interests. Then conversely from their positions, it’s instead me that is deceiving myself regarding my own mastery of human dynamics. Regardless of who is “right” here, I do believe that it’s not in their interests for me to use Peter’s site to gain supporters, and so potentially cause this revolution which I do believe is quite inevitable given the progression of science.

  16. 16. Vicente says:

    Eric, take any definition of philosophy, for example:

    You will find that philosophy has everything and nothing to say about anything, just depending on your expectations about answers.

    Regarding the user’s manual, several attempts have been done along history, I personally like stoicism. But, stoicism is made of a very high level set of rules and advice, it doesn’t care whether humans have brains or porridge inside their skulls. So, I completely agree and disagree with your idea about philosophy holding the key to truth, or as a very wise man said: these are my principles but if you don’t like I have others.

  17. 17. Philosopher Eric says:

    Well done Vicente — effectively using my point that philosophy still resides in failure, to evade my larger position, or that philosophical answers will be required in the realm of science in order for associated sciences to become “non-primitive.” Right now I do find it good enough that you and I are able to have discussions without you becoming angry with me, as some do. Perhaps in the end you will find reason enough to become a student of my teachings, though for now this is nothing to worry about. I must say, however, that I’m a bit disappointed that you did not mention my above interpretation of that Dennett/McKay paper. The extent to which I was able to poke fun at these highly respected academics, was a surprise to even me! Who indeed will now put themselves in harms way in defense of their honor?

  18. 18. Callan S. says:

    deluded egoists beat realists every time.

    What was the evidence it provided towards that claim?

  19. 19. Peter says:

    He cites various studies, notably by this bloke, including the one about salesmen I alluded to. The optimists didn’t do as well as they expected, but they did significantly better than the realists. Of course, they tried harder and for longer, so not that startling…

  20. 20. Callan S. says:

    Thanks for that, Peter!

    I guess I’d have to buy the book, but it reminds me of the old ‘sink overflowing and someone is sent in with a mop’ test for madness (as clumsy as it is as a test). Moreover, what if the evaluator simply started treating someone who keeps on mopping and never gives up as ‘really productive’? You can see a version of that in the criticism in the link you gave.

    The sink test is supposed to show madness if the person just keeps mopping and doesn’t turn off the tap. But what if the evaluator does not think of turning off the tap and considers people who stop mopping ‘unproductive’ (even if they are looking for a way to turn it off) and people who cheerfully mop as ‘productive’? In other words, madness looks productive when the evaluator himself is mad (caveat: Mad by a certain set of definitions only).

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