Barb Cohen

Mom, Am I Disabled?

Why Are Most of Us So Good at Deceiving Ourselves?

Columbus, cognitive dissonance and autism shed light on our coping strategies.

Posted Oct 08, 2017

Is a vegetarian who eats a hamburger really a vegetarian?  In interviews conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, almost two thirds of self-identified vegetarians had eaten animal flesh in the past 24 hours, and an astonishing 27 percent had eaten red meat.

Angus Third Pounder/Adam Kuban/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Source: Angus Third Pounder/Adam Kuban/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When I reported this data to my autistic daughter, Sam, she could not wrap her mind around it at all.  How could all of these people lie, either to themselves or to the interviewer?  It got me thinking about the strategies most of us develop to rationalize our behavior everyday. Sam has not created such coping mechanisms, and I doubt she will.  In my observation, the autistic brain does not seem able to cultivate what is, depending on one’s perspective, the art of self-preservation or the art of self-deception.

Everybody holds inconsistencies and contradictions within themselves.  Some of these contradictions constitute blatant hypocrisy, as exemplified this week by a congressman with a staunchly anti-abortion voting record instructing his mistress to have an abortion.  Most of these inconsistencies, in contrast, arise from everyday choices.  I consider myself to be a good friend, but I might ignore an incoming phone call from my friend if I’ve had a long day.  I want to be supportive and engaged, but I also want to stare mindlessly at a television.  How do I justify that choice?  Or the choice to buy a single-serving container of yogurt in a plastic cup if I claim to care about the environment?

Living with cognitive dissonance, the unpleasant tension caused by such internal inconsistency, causes us such distress that we human beings have developed a host of strategies to mitigate it.  We compartmentalize our behaviors according to our professional and personal roles; we seek information to support our behaviors or beliefs and dismiss arguments that challenge it; we weigh the greater good; we minimize the self-defined transgression.  What’s one yogurt container compared to the good I’ve done through my volunteer work?  Employing these coping mechanisms allows us to sleep at night.

Sam does not have this luxury.  Facts are facts.  As Columbus Day looms, her internal conflict over the facts she acknowledges is particularly acute. She has been losing sleep.  Columbus and those who willingly followed in his path enslaved, killed, and displaced the First Nations’ people who lived here before.  She appreciates the efforts of activists to transform Columbus Day into a day honoring Native Americans, but for her a name change is not enough.  We are like Asian long-horned beetles, she tells me.  Asian long-horned beetles are an invasive species with the potential to destroy a third of all urban trees if they are not eradicated.  Perhaps we should be eradicated too.

Just Let Me Climb/Craig Nagy/CC BY-SA 2.0
Source: Just Let Me Climb/Craig Nagy/CC BY-SA 2.0

She cries as she says this.  Sam knows that she reaps the benefits of the destruction and displacement sown from the seeds of Columbus’s voyage, and she cannot separate herself from the injustice she perceives.  She questions her right to exist.

I am trying to utilize the strategies I use with myself:  “You are not responsible for the past; you cannot redress systemic injustice single-handedly; you are helping just by being present and taking a stand."  In other words, I offer the kinds of reasoning we all use to resolve our cognitive dissonance.  But Sam refuses to be comforted; she does not understand the strategies people adopt to distance themselves from the implications of their own rhetoric.  And now I am suffering from my own cognitive dissonance as I encourage her to rationalize away a difficult reality for the sake of psychic comfort.  I value her social conscience, but I also value her self-esteem.

Every person who lives with or studies autism agrees that autistic people do not understand how “neurotypical” brains work.  Autistics have a weak theory of mind: a weak understanding of what other people are thinking during an interaction.  Consequently, people on the spectrum have much trouble manipulating others to achieve their own ends.  If I understand that most of us enjoy having our egos massaged, and I am therefore more likely to receive a promotion at work if I praise my boss’s (sometimes mediocre) ideas, I may feign enthusiasm about a new project.  Similarly, I may lie about a transgression in order to avoid punishment, but only if I realize the other person did not observe me and does not share my knowledge of my guilt.

Resolving cognitive dissonance seems to require a similar theory of mind, but one that is reflected inward.  We choose the rationalization that is most soothing, often to the point of convincing ourselves that no rationalization was involved.  These mental gymnastics can be an important adaptive strength; otherwise we might become paralyzed by our own introspection. Ironically, we must know how we operate, at an unconscious meta-level, in order to deceive ourselves successfully at a conscious level.

From my observation, autistic people do not have the privilege of living with such coping strategies. They have as much trouble manipulating themselves as they have manipulating other people. They do not contextualize the behavior of others or themselves very well, so they cannot rely on context as a means of making sense of the world. To ignore select facts and their ramifications is as difficult as ignoring sensory inputs. I worry about the added anxiety Sam experiences when she cannot escape her discomfort. At the same time, I applaud the strength she must have in order to live knowingly with the contradictions of her being.