Natural Hazard

It wouldn't be the road to hell if it wasn't paved in good intentions

The Ecological Niche(s) of self-deception

We're gonna look at several different stories about the "role" of self-deception in human affairs. The "why" of it, it some sense1. We'll start with the ones I think are the most lack-luster and build up to the ones that occupy most of my thought these days.

#1: Depressive Realism (you can't handle the truth)

The classic "self-defense mechanism" angle. You can't "bear to admit it" to yourself. This angle is outlined well in one of those smug pop-psychology books I ate up as a kid but now have major beef with, "Your Are Now Less Dumb":

SACKEIM: [Depressed people] see all the pain in the world, how horrible people are with each other, and they tell you everything about themselves: what their weaknesses are, what terrible things they’ve done to other people. And the problem is they’re right. And so maybe the way we help people is to help them be wrong.
ROBERT KRULWICH: It might just be that hiding ideas that we know to be true, hiding those ideas from ourselves, is what we need to get by.
SACKEIM: We’re so vulnerable to being hurt that we’re given the capacity to distort as a gift.

They go on:

This mass of delusions was a useful evolutionary trick for your people. It is difficult to be a person hurtling through space on a hostile rock with only a handful of friends.

I'm most annoyed at this frame because it treats self-deception as a pretty rad thing, man. There is something to the self-defense mech story. I hope to in later posts explain how aversion is a key piece of the mechanics of how self-deception is accomplished. My distaste more stems from that fact that when I encounter this frame in the wild it's generally accompanied by an attitude of "rejoice in ignorance uncritically! thinking is a bummer! im not actually in close contact with any reality where it's indeed really fucking critical to the well-being of me and those I love that I get things right!"

Beyond that annoyance, the depressive realism view betrays a suicidal lack of curiosity about the nature of one's own suffering. "Oh yeah, of course XYZ is damaging to the self-esteem." The self-esteem? Or your self-esteem? Or the self-esteems of the people in your particular filter bubble. Understanding in detail why you personally would feel bad if something were true is a gigantic step in robbing said truth of it's power over you.

More importantly theory wise, the "depressive realism" frame does a poor job of bounding what things we should and shouldn't expect people to be able to deceive themselves about. If we're all so delusional, why isn't everyone happy?

#2: Fool Yourself To Fool Others

Our minds are partially transparent to each other, and sustained deceptions is tiring and draining. This angle, pioneered by Robert Trivers and best articulated by Hanson and Simler, claims that self-deception is a capacity that evolved in order to let people deceive others by first deceiving themselves. This is an upgrade because it helps scope in on what sorts of things people can and will deceiver themselves about, and in what settings. Other people are the standard for how convincing your lies have to be.

If you find yourself alone on a mountain just trying to get back down alive, you're going to suddenly find that your previous "social self-enhancement bias" drops away. Depressive realism doesn't account for this.

This is also in accord with how most times when I talk to friends about times they noticed they were "hiding something from themselves", they came at the end of a break-up. If the "illusion" is for other people, then it's liable to collapse when they aren't taking your shit anymore.

Given this angle, the next obvious question to ask is "who are you trying to deceive and why?"

Hanson and Simler's story is one of deceiving others in order to gain a competitive edge via skirting pro-social norms. You get all the benefits of good PR and all the advantages of playing dirty.

If you blend "fooling yourself to fool others" and "depressive realism" you get "narcissistic self-deception" (ala TLP, not the DSM) as exhibited by the main character in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's "I have friends, I totally have friends" song. It's self-deception, in the service of deceiving others, to avoid what would be a painful reality. It's not that she fears the "harsh truth" of not having friends. She fears the judgments she would be compelled to apply to herself if she was inter-subjectively recognized as "not having friends". Other people need to be fooled, or if not fooled, she needs to put on enough of a show for them to be willing to play along with "being fooled".

"Fooling yourself to fool others" is an important upgrade to depressive realism, but it's still an incomplete picture. This angle is totally incurious about power-dynamics, and this shines through in how it sticks to the line of deception being "strictly for the benefit of the self-deceiver". It's true that any self-deception must have the deception serving some function that is in some local and narrowly scoped sense "adaptive", but that's not even remotely the same thing as "there's not a vastly better way you could be addressing your situation, nope nope nope, just keep doing what you're doing bud you're killing it! *finger guns*".

#3: Fooling yourself to comply with the delusion of another (double-bind)

Here we have what I call the "inductive" case of self-deception. Suppose there's already a lie, and not a particularly convincing one. This is how it can spread, not via convincing others of it in any earnest sense, but via some mix of overt and covert threats, rewards and punishments, etc, if the originator of the lie has the social/material power to pull it off.

Bateson outlines an example of a schizophrenic patient who's mother wants to maintain a narrative that she is close and affectionate with her son, when in fact she is often very uncomfortable with real closeness. A relevant excerpt:

For example, if mother begins to feel hostile (or affectionate) toward her child and also feels compelled to withdraw from him, she might say, “Go to bed, you’re very tired and I want you to get your sleep.” This overtly loving statement is intended to deny a feeling which could be verbalized as “Get out of my sight because I’m sick of you.” If the child correctly discriminates her meta-communicative signals, he would have to face the fact that she both doesn’t want him and is deceiving him by her loving behavior. He would be “punished” for learning to discriminate orders of messages accurately. He therefore would tend to accept the idea that he is tired rather than recognize his mother’s deception. This means that he must deceive himself about his own internal state in order to support mother in her deception. To survive with her he must falsely discriminate his own internal messages as well as falsely discriminate the messages of others.

A slightly less self-deceiver-sympathetic example would be things that fall under "it's difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it".

Play around with different combinations of these angles and I bet you'll be able to find most "ecological niches" that self-deception occupies.

  1. As opposed to the "how" of what actually goes on inside the mind when one is "deceiving themselves". This is something I plan to write a lot more about because I've never seen an explanation that stood up to a modicum of scrutiny.