Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Five Steps to Optimal Illusion

Self-deception: the sweetest and sourest taboo

Self-deception - the sweetest and sourest taboo: There's no more reliable way to stimulate a rich discussion than to get catty about other people's self-deceptions. And there's no better way to curdle a conversation than to accuse someone of self-deception to his or her face: Self-deception is the other guy's folly. We're above it. Or, at least, we think so for a while.

Here's a back-of-the-napkin sketch of how we come to terms with our own potential for self-deception:

Stage 1—naïve: We come into the world with no notion of deception, let alone self-deception. Gradually, however, it dawns on us that people lie, and sometimes even lie to themselves. This makes us wary. We learn to spot other people's self-deception.

Stage 2—Exempt by contempt: We get pretty good at spotting other people's self-deception. We assume that because we can spot their deceptions and they can't, we must be experts on spotting deceptions. As experts, when we inspect our own thoughts presumably with the same scrutiny we apply to others we don't notice any self-deception. So we must be exempt. The more contempt we feel for other people's self-deceptions, the more expert and exempt we feel.

Stage 3—I once was lost, but now I'm blind: Sooner or later. we catch a glimpse of our own potential for self-deception. Maybe we overhear someone at stage 2 giving us a taste of our own medicine. Maybe we catch ourselves. Now we have to come to terms with it - and come to terms we do. We surrender. We admit that we had a potential for self-deception. We give ourselves credit for seeing it. We're no longer exempt by contempt. But we were brave enough to face our self-deceptions, which gives us a different, more sophisticated exemption. OK, so we used to be lost. We didn't know ourselves. But we learned. Now we know ourselves. Pat. In this stage, we talk about other people's self-deceptions. But we tell self-effacing stories about our own past follies, too.

Stage 4—Eternally nonexempt: We discover that even with the exceptional self-knowledge we acquired in stage 3, we still lie to ourselves. It turns out that self-deception isn't a onetime thing: No matter how skeptical we get with ourselves, we just can't keep up. No matter how much we pursue the truth, it will never catch us. Now we're wary of ourselves. In stage 4, talking about self-deception is a bummer. It's a rare person who gets past stage 3, because stage 4 is so little fun.

Stage 5—Optimal illusion: If there's no escaping self-deception, then maybe it's not all bad. What is it, anyway? Is it self-deceptive to hope and pray and believe that of the many ways a situation could turn out, it will turn out well? Of course not. But if it turns out poorly, you'll wonder why you kidded yourself. And the folks stuck at stage 2 will snigger about you behind your back. But maybe they're wrong. Maybe the trick isn't eliminating self-deception, but learning how to use it well. Here, we embrace optimal illusion:

The trick isn't being an orthodox realist or an orthodox dreamer, but, rather, getting the right mix of the two, absorbing and ignoring reality checks in the right combination in order to keep ourselves motivated, focused, and flexible, our feet on the solid ground to keep from falling, our heads in the air to improve our chances of achieving lift-off. It's not an easy balance to achieve. In fact, it's unachievable - optimal illusion is a lifelong pursuit.

Not everybody gets to all five stages. And we don't graduate from one to the next; rather, we expand our repertoire, adding the stages as we go and changing the frequency with which we visit each. Even the best optimal illusionists get catty sometimes, as though they are still at stage 2. Sometimes, laughing at other people's folly is the optimal illusion, the best way to resist surrendering to their alternative viewpoint.

Without cattiness, it may be impossible to climb to the higher stages. Cattiness sharpens our claws. As they grow, they curl back in on us, causing the sharp self-inflicted pain from which we learn.

OPTIMAL ILLUSION

Jeremy Sherman

Can musicians feel the music
though they know the notes by name?

Can athletes play a death match
though they know it's just a game?

Could Vargas feel the heat and lust
from a pinup he had painted?

When materialists know it's glandular
do their love affairs get tainted?

When you know it's lights on silver screen
do the movies seem more pallid?

If you see through God to his creator
does your creed become less valid?

No, apparently we're able to both see through and
believe

What an awesome gift from God is this, our power to
self-deceive.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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