Monday, May 5, 2014


Biological anthropologist Robert Trivers in his book, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, identifies seven categories of self-deception (pp. 15-27):

  1. Self-inflation, i.e., self-aggrandizement
  2. Derogation of others, i.e., wrongly belittling another person
  3. Biases of power, i.e., power distorts one's view of self, others, and world
  4. Illusion of control, i.e., thinking one has more power than is the case
  5. Construction of biased social theory, i.e., wrongly conceptualizing how one's social group functions
  6. Moral superiority, i.e., mistakenly believing you occupy the moral high ground
  7. False personal narratives, i.e., inventing, intentionally or otherwise, an autobiographical story that is not factual.

Trivers persuasively argues that self-deception results from both human genetics and cultural influences, suggesting that the split may be 50-50. Deception is also pervasive. For example, in courting, humans universally give thought to personal grooming, seeking to convey a particular image. Genetics predispose a liking for certain body types or shapes; culture shapes plumage preferences.

In what ways, large or small, do you engage in deceit or self-deception? Who does this harm? Who benefits from it?

I'm unconvinced that all forms of self-deception and deceit are wrong. Someone who always speaks the truth, as s/he sees it, is at best socially awkward and at worse sometimes needlessly cruel. Some forms of self-deception may induce us to become a better person as we pretend to be a person that we hope to become (some forms of psychotherapy rely on this technique as does the power of positive thinking popularized by clerics such as Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller). Integrity may connote seeking to walk a path more fully, reavling who one hopes to be, instead of consistently and accurately revealing who one is.

In these 50 days of Easter, how can self-deception constructively lead to living more abundantly?


George Clifford said...

A reader emailed me this comment:

Self-deception including the list in this posting all include an element of idolatry; putting oneself in the place of God. Inflating aspects of life to make myself special, above others, which is greatly encouraged in our society, means that the equality we all have before God is forgotten. If one lives in the knowledge of God’s radical acceptance of all people, then everything in the list becomes impossible to do.
This does not mean becoming a doormat because God also gives each person the quality of being forgiven, loved and free. But so is everyone else.

George Clifford said...

Another reader emailed this comment:

What would S.I. Hayakawa say? "Deceit" and "Self-deception" are loaded words. I agree with you that a world full of people who do not censor themselves would not be a great place. Not only are truths better left unsaid at various times, but there is also the question of telling the truth versus the entire truth.

Besides, as one gets older, one discovers that truth is not always invariable as one gains a greater awareness of new, broader facts.

The Gospel of Mark appears not to object to deliberate obscurity.

George Clifford said...

Obscurity is often more honest than its opposite: a fullness of expression/detail that communicates either self-deception (I think that I know more than I really do) or an attempt to deceive others. Elements of mystery, paradox, and obscurity can often the point the way to life’s deeper dimensions.