Self-Deception and Other-Deception

10 November 2011


Self-deception is a part of the human condition. When I hear people attempting to explain apparently inscrutable human behavior, and doing so without reference to self-deception, I often respond by saying that nothing about human life and human relationships can be understood withing taking account of self-deception.

The overcoming of self-deception is an essential step in the direction of honesty and intellectual maturity. Not that that work is ever completed. There are always new and ingenious ways we find to fool ourselves, and we must always be on guard. The price of honesty is eternal vigilance, as it were. And we are fortunate to have had some fine philosophical expositions of self-deception, especially those of Nietzsche and Sartre. Generally speaking, one takes tuition with the “masters of suspicion” — Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche (called such by Paul Ricouer) — in order to begin the painful process of making oneself honest with oneself.

One need not, however, recur to recondite philosophical expositions of self-deception. We find the idea perfectly exhibited in (of all places) Charles Dickens:

“All other swindlers upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself. Surely a curious thing. That I should innocently take a bad half-crown of somebody else’s manufacture is reasonable enough; but that I should knowingly reckon the spurious coin of my own make as good money! An obliging stranger, under pretence of compactly folding up my bank-notes for security’s sake, abstracts the notes and gives me nutshells; but what is his sleight of hand to mine, when I fold up my own nutshells and pass them on myself as notes!”

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Chapter 28

Here Pip has gotten too big for his britches, and doesn’t want to be associated with people from his earlier days now that he is a man-about-town in London with great expectations.

As difficult as it is to overcome self-deception, it is not the only deception danger that we face in life. The most obvious form of deception is what we may call other-deception. The most common form of other-deception is when someone attempts (perhaps successfully) to cheat us or lie to us.

Our response to lying and cheating is as straight-forward as the offense: we seek to defend ourselves by maintaining our vigilance against getting scammed, making a rough estimate of the character of another, and using all our cognitive resources in the attempt to uncover fraud before we become a victim. We will compare the story another tells us to our own knowledge of the situation, to the testimony of others we trust, and we will test the story against our general background knowledge to determine whether or not it makes sense.

In regard to this straight-forward form of other-deception we can usually do a reasonably good job of protecting ourselves. The exception is when self-deception and other-deception come together. When we deceive ourselves we are especially vulnerable to the deceit of others. This is especially the case when we deceive ourselves about the moral character of others, believing them to be stand-up citizens when in fact they are mercenary self-seekers.

There is a further sense of other-deception that is much less familiar than either self-deception of straight-forward lying. We can distinguish at least two varieties of other-deception, and these are the intentional and the unintentional. The straight-forward cases of lying and cheating are obvious instances of intentional other-deception. So what is unintentional other-deception?

While the terms I am using are unfamiliar, and phenomenon of unintentional other-deception has been sufficiently significant to public events that it has figured prominently in the news over the past few years. Perhaps the most familiar form of unintentional other-deception is what has come to be called “group think.” This is when a number of people — members of the intelligence community, the president’s cabinet, think tank gurus, and others — go along with what each other say for a variety of mixed motives: not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to gainsay a colleague or especially a superior, wanting to tell people what they want to hear, and so on.

Group think has been commonly blamed for the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which, after the invasion of Iraq, was demonstrated not to be the case. A great many intelligence failures by large, bureaucratically organized nation-states are rightly attributed to group think, i.e., unintentional other-deception. Bureaucratic administrative structures penalize imagination while rewarding conformity, which is a perfect recipe for reinforcing group think.

The excellent paper on strategic shocks by Nathan Freier, KNOWN UNKNOWNS: UNCONVENTIONAL “STRATEGIC SHOCKS” IN DEFENSE STRATEGY DEVELOPMENT (which I have previously cited in Strategic Shock in North Africa), opens with an introduction examining the “failure of imagination” in strategic planning. Although Freier goes to some lengths in analyzing strategic failures of imagination (i.e., massive intelligence failures), he doesn’t treat this as a particular case within a larger context of deception in human affairs. I think it would be valuable to pursue just such an inquiry, especially given the role of security and surprise among the commonly-cited nine principles of war.

On a more personal and perhaps a more pervasive level, unintentional other-deception is commonly found throughout society, and usually for the same mixed motives mentioned above in a bureaucratic context. Groups of people routinely isolate themselves from the larger body of society — recent sociologists have called this “the big sort” — precisely so they do not have to endure the pain have having others rudely contradict them. Also, social groups form around common interests, and a large number of individuals intently devoted to a common interest are more likely to think alike than a random sample of the general population. Such social groups are self-selected for unintentional other-deception.

On a yet more personal level, it is widely recognized that individuals usually require a support network in order to function as a member of society. Immediate support networks usually include family and friends and perhaps representatives of organizations with which an individual has a substantial relationship. While such support networks are crucial for individuals, especially in trying times and in surviving a crisis, these support networks often take the form of closed cliques that are self-reinforcing of the delusions and self-deceptions of individuals.

The personal pain of having a close friend of family member be honest with us can be so great that it is felt to be a betrayal. Friends and family are, of course, aware of this, and they usually try to avoid painful honesty for this reason. And this is one reason it is often so difficult to intervene when a friend of family member’s life is going down the drain. There is a whole literature on “staging interventions” in order to address exactly this problem.

Here, again, as with the vulnerability a person experiences in regard to liars and cheats (intentional other-deception) when one already deceives oneself, we see that self-deception also increases one’s vulnerability to unintentional other-deception.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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