Self-Deception Has Many Faces

Self-deception involves incongruity between beliefs, actions, and the world

Posted May 06, 2015

“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving yourself.”—Ludwig Wittgenstein 

Self-deception is often easy to recognize in others but far more difficult to recognize in ourselves. With another, we may have a better perspective that is not colored by an investment in seeing that person or his circumstances in a certain light. With ourselves, we both lack perspective and have an investment in seeing and understanding ourselves and our circumstances in certain ways. The lack of perspective combined with needing and wanting to see ourselves and our circumstances in certain ways is why self-deception is so potentially dangerous and debilitating if it runs too deeply or in too many directions.

Self-deception has many guises, which also contributes to its being difficult to identify. There are the more familiar forms of denial, rationalization, and minimization.  But what exactly is self-deception?

A preliminary definition:  Self-deception is a set of practices and attitudes that hinders a person from making a reliable assessment of her situation. As a consequence, she is unable to appropriately recognize her own agency and often fails to grasp what is or isn’t her rightful responsibility.

Self-deception may be intentional. It may be unintentional.  The line between the two is blurry; one form can often change into another. The more frequent direction is from intentional to unintentional. In certain situations, engaging in intentional self-deception may be necessary and life-saving.

Two very different cases involving different types of self-deception illuminate these features. The first case involves denial.

Consider a person who is experiencing something traumatic such as domestic abuse. She may tell herself that it isn’t really happening or endows it with very different meaning.  She may know on some level that it is really happening but she denies it as a matter of survival or preservation of her well-being. She may become habituated to telling herself the same story about what has happened; it is her primary way of making sense of what she’s experiencing. The intention to preserve herself may recede deep into the background over time. Her self-deception moves from being intentional to unintentional. In this case, there is a clear investment in not seeing/accepting that she is being abused. As is often the case in abuse, the victim gets it wrong about what she can or cannot do; she can’t see where her agency ends and her abuser’s begins. She may believe that she can control enough in the environment so that her abuser will not get set off. And for some victimes, they may assume they are somehow responsible for what others are doing to them.

In this case, self-deception may be adaptive and helpful in some ways. At the exact same time, it may be dangerous and debilitating. This case of self-deception creates a double bind that is extraordinarily difficult to escape.

The second case involves procrastination, an especially tricky form of self-deception. Consider a person who knows that he has a substance use disorder (SUD). He can clearly describe his drinking patterns, increased tolerance, and feelings of withdrawal as well as chart the adverse effects caused by his drinking. He’s taken more online quizzes than he can count and has told his friends that he knows his drinking has progressed down the spectrum to full blown disorder. He knows he is an alcoholic and that he needs to do something about it. Today he makes himself the promise that he will get help tomorrow. Tomorrow he makes the same promise. This is procrastination.

Procrastination is a failure of the relationship between knowledge and the will, according to Soren Kierkegaard. Knowledge should guide our actions but when we know what we should do but are unwilling even for a moment, a gap opens. A quick as a wink moment of hesitation can grow into a long series of moments of nonaction.

Procrastination is deceptive because it masquerades as activity. The man who promises to get help can tell himself that he is gathering more information, getting his affairs into order, making arrangements, etc. He can keep turning all the considerations he can possibly identify over in his mind. Repeatedly. He can begin to manufacture other concerns that warrant consideration. He can tell all his family and friends everything he’s doing. At the end of each day, though, he still has not gotten help.  

This person has an investment in seeing himself as the sort of person who does something about a problem. He may even see himself as the sort who grabs the bull by the horns. He is doing many things. In fact, he may be a whirling dervish gathering facts and “taking care of business.” But all this activity may make it very hard to accurately see his situation; he’s still not getting help. He isn’t exercising his agency effectively, which in turn means that he isn’t fully taking responsibility.

As Kierkegaard notes, procrastination is like sewing without tying a knot at the end of the thread. One makes the motions but one actually doesn’t sew. The practical consequences are quite different; the seat of your pants will still be split.