Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The invincible man: Intentions are pure but disconnected from behavior

The invincible man: Intentions are pure but disconnected from behavior

Imagine someone whose intentions are beyond reproach. He really really wants to do the right thing. He declares that he cares completely about you.  Nevertheless, his intentions have negligible effect on his actions. He does inconsiderate things that hurt.  If you call him on it, he treats it as an attack on his intentions.  He is offended and persists in declaring his intentions with passion and clarity. And he's right--in and of themselves, his intentions are really really beyond reproach.

Imagine an animal now, dangerous and ferocious but with the power of rationalizing speech, a vocalization like a bark that to your ears sounds like "I mean well." The speech has no influence on the animal's actions.  It's just a display characteristic like antlers or plumage.   Its speech persuades you but doesn't persuade the animal. 

Such a person or animal would come across as a psychopath, someone who gives lip service to doing the right thing but in the service of doing the wrong thing. The causes of psychopathology are diverse. This is one variant--someone who really really really means to do good even though he doesn't.  And you could say there are two variations on this variation.  There are those who do inconsiderate things because they can't make the connection between word and deed and there are those who don't make the connection between word and deed because they don't want to.

Harvard evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers noted long ago that having the capacity to lie is biologically adaptive, as is having the capacity to detect a liar, as is having the capacity to lie undetected, which is best served by believing your own lies. The better you are at believing your own lies the less likely you are to reveal your lie with unconscious signals.

Self-deceptability is therefore a tool of some value, especially when you can deceive yourself about your own motives--believing your heart is in the right place regardless of where it really is. Self-deceptability frees you to do what you want to do and shields you from being identified as self-serving.

It's not clear whether self-deceptability is a trait or the lack of one. The question is one of origins. Do we start with low self-deceptability and acquire it or do we start with high self-deceptability and never learn to control it?  Both can happen but the latter is more likely.  Starting with the former though, picture someone with a pretty normal childhood.  He becomes a responsible adult and then somehow falls into circumstances that compel him to do the wrong thing a lot.  Maybe alcoholism, or a secure and affirming job that calls for lying, cheating or stealing.

What to do about the wrong you did yesterday?  We generally like to feel good about ourselves. Few of us can stand the cognitive dissonance of doing wrong by our own standards.  That dissonance is often what motivates us to get our act together and do the right thing. But as often it motivates us to decouple our self-impression from our actions. This is the down-side of "one day at a time."  Whatever gets you through your last screw-up.  We can be as blind as we need to be in order to keep our circumstances viable one more day.  All it takes is a way of saying I'm good that is decoupled from the evidence.

The decoupling doesn't have to happen all at once.  We just end up gravitating toward any reason to feel justified in what we've done. I think we all harbor this prayer:

God grant me one good reason for what I just did.

And there may be no gift God gives us in greater abundance than this one. Indeed He himself can serve as this gift as when someone defends his actions as God's will. 

Whenever we lie even a little, we subtly recalibrate our BS detectors. Using flexible interpretation we gain greater flexibility.  It's mouth yoga.  The wider you stretch your mouth to swallow an unbelievable thing, the wider it will stretch to swallow or express unbelievable things in the future. 

That's a reason to never lie, but I certainly don't endorse that strategy.  I think lying is necessary, inevitable and sometimes the right thing to do.  I think people who believe you can simply solve this problem by pledging not to lie are lying about the human condition.  It's a meta-lie--lying about lying.  This meta-lie makes people who claim to be very honest particularly dangerous. After all, their intentions are good:  "Me lie to you??!  It would never be my intention to deceive you."

No, Trivers is right.  It is irresistibly adaptive to have lying, justifying, self-justifying and self-deceptability in one's repertoire.  Which brings me to the other origin story.  The main way "God" grants us one good reason is by giving us the capacity to tell stories about our behavior. That's not the only function self-reporting serves of course.  Indeed self-description is also our greatest source of self-discipline, the ability to say "What I'm doing is wrong."  But self-reporting frees us to say what we want to hear, and to decouple our self-description from our actions.

Few of us would argue that a child is born with an impeccably accurate capacity for self-reporting. So though some people acquire self-deceptability to cope with the demands of later life, all of us are born with a capacity for self-deceptability.  And some of us simply never learn how to constrain much our innate natural tendencies to self-report inaccurately.

You will meet the invincible man. His or her invincibility might be invisible to you. You and I are to some extent the invincible man ourselves.  God is generous to us too, granting us one good reason.

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"The mind cannot support moral chaos for long.  Men are under as strong a compulsion to invent an ethical setting for their behavior as spiders are to weave webs."  John Dos Passos (1896-1970)

"A failure to feel any guilt or shame about his misdeeds is considered the mark of a psychopath, if the lack of guilt or shame pervades all or most aspects of his life."  Paul Ekman, Telling Lies, 1985

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

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