Five Faces of Self-Deception in a Post-Fact World

Emperor's New Clothes for self-deception post

 

How do we handle the internal conflict that arises when facts or events contradict deeply held beliefs? In his groundbreaking book, When Prophecy Fails (1956), Leon Festinger and his co-authors sought to answer that question by investigating a doomsday cult. The group was led by a Chicago housewife who claimed to channel warnings from the fictitious planet, Clarion. Through automatic writing she was told that the Earth would be destroyed by a cataclysmic flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. The faithful quit jobs, left spouses and gave away money and possessions, in preparation for the arrival of a flying saucer that would rescue them.

Leon Festinger for self-deception postWhen the flying saucer did not appear, and the flood did not happen, the cultists changed the narrative, and then changed it again. They convinced themselves that their clocks were wrong. When they recognized that their clocks were correct, they set a new time for the arrival of the spaceship. When that event failed to occur, they convinced themselves that God had chosen to spare the world at the last minute because of their good deeds.

To explain this behavior, Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance.”  This theory states that when there is discordance between our beliefs and external events or actions, we either change our actions or change our beliefs. Many people are reluctant to change their behavior, so they double down on their belief. In the case of the Clarion cult, so many had sacrificed so much in preparation for Armageddon, they were unwilling to change their actions, so they changed the narrative of their belief.

Self-deception is familiar to most of us. Willful ignorance allows us to evade examining situations that conjure cognitive dissonance. (“It’s okay to cheat on my diet on weekends.”) Often we rationalize our deceptions under the pretense of not wanting to hurt others (we know those little white lies are lies!), or to not “rock the boat.” This kind of self-deception occurs in various degrees in most of our relationships, but especially where there is disequilibrium in power, as between employee and boss.

Sometimes self-deception is an unconscious protective mechanism that enables one to survive a threatening experience. Prisoners in concentration camps needed a buffer of self-deception to remain faithful to the idea of their liberation even when their daily lives suggested otherwise. We may deceive ourselves about the seriousness of an illness or about our impending death. The difficulties of such situations encourage us to ignore the truth in order to thrive.

The Fox and the Grapes for self-deception postMorality and ethics enter the domain of self-deception when our self-deceiving conflicts with the greater good. As Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo, “How much truth does a spirit endure? How much truth does it dare?”

At its most devastating, self-deception can demonstrate the human capacity to split off or dissociate the parts of the self that perpetrate war, torture, and abuse. Nobel Prize-winning writer Luigi Pirandello captured this when he wrote in a private notebook, “There is somebody who’s living my life. And I know nothing about him.”  We see the fragmentation of self not only in those suffering from dissociative personality disorders, but also in those engaged in brutal and bullying acts while maintaining a “normal” persona. We all know the clichéd trope of the mass murderer who lavishes affection on his dog.

The expression Post-Fact World has now seeped into our vernacular. We seem to have entered a time not only of questioning facts, but one of moral ambiguity as it relates to truth. Unless we are willing to try to attend to the truth as it is, not as we wish it to be, and to confront our capacity to self-deceive, we may experience an unprecedented turbulence in our lives.

The Five Faces of Self-Deception

  1. Evasion of examining one’s biases or strongly held beliefs.
  2. Moral forgetfulness.
  3. Avoidance of contradictory beliefs or evidence.
  4. Avoidance of feelings that contradict beliefs.
  5. Over-rationalization and the tendency to blame others.


Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination

Atomic Skull by Jim Leedy for Empathy post

 

Sometimes a book we’ve had for years falls off the shelf at just the right moment. I read James Hillman’s book, A Terrible Love of War, in 2004 when it was first published as a response to 9/11. In this, his 28th book, Hillman sought to examine the archetypal roots of our “madness for battle,” the “myths, philosophy, and theology of war’s deepest mind.” He was moved to write it because of what he found missing in other books about war. He rejected, for instance, Susan Sontag’s concluding assertion in Regarding the Pain of Others:

“We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand. Can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby stubbornly feels. And they are right.”

“She is wrong,” Hillman counters, “If we want war’s horror to be abated so that life may go on, it is necessary to understand and imagine.”

In an interview years after he was secretary of defense, Robert McNamara stated that the catastrophe of the war in Vietnam over which he presided pointed to “a failure of imagination.” Years later, comparing our unpreparedness for the attack on Pearl Harbor with that on the Twin Towers, National Security Agency director Michael Hayden famously said, “perhaps it was more a failure of imagination this time than last.”

For both men, a failure of imagination implies a failure to apprehend a reality that is present but hidden or incomprehensible, which is to say, that we do not apprehend we cannot comprehend. In order to understand and respond to something, we must first be able to see it.

Muriel Rukeyser in 1945 by Imogen Cunningham -- for Empathy postMuriel Rukeyser came to a similar conclusion in 1949. In The Life of Poetry, she writes: “We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare. It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories…But around and under and above it…is the history of possibility.”

It is this sense of hidden possibility, of renewed inspiration that now urgently calls for my attention. A failure of imagination implies a failure of empathy, our ability to stand in another’s shoes. Empathy and imagination seem to many the weak sisters of rigorous rational thinking, and yet, might they be an avenue to creative change? This strikes me as critical for us now as individuals and as a society. Can a Clinton voter imagine the anxieties of a Trump voter? Can a Trump voter imagine the fears of a Muslim?

We live at a time of enormous turmoil and transition, a time when re-apprehending and re-comprehending how we view the world is crucial, and re-examining the governing modes of how we make meaning timely.

Nobel portrait of Albert Einstein -- for Empathy postEinstein said we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. He also said the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. We often forget that each of us has our own ready source of imagination in our production of dreams. Each of us possesses a variety of marvelous, fantastic, even weird images and scenarios remembered from our nightly vision. Here, in our own production studios, we might discover creative insights that have the potential for personal and cultural transformation.

Listen to Einstein describe a dream he had as a teen:

“I was sledding with my friends at night. I started to slide down the hill but my sled started going faster and faster. I was going so fast that I realized I was approaching the speed of light. I looked up at that point and I saw the stars. They were being refracted into colors I had never seen before. I was filled with a sense of awe. I understood in some way that I was looking at the most important meaning in my life.”

Later in life, Einstein reflected, “I knew I had to understand that dream and you could say, and I would say, that my entire scientific career has been a meditation on my dream.” This dream led to him figuring out the mathematics of relativity theory.

Freud and Jung have argued that our dream images are not random and without meaning; with scrutiny, we can find that they contain a secret language of symbolic representation. These representations are both individual and personal, arising out of our unique experiences, but connected, especially in Jung’s interpretation, to a collective unconscious.

Structurally, dreams unfold as series of sights, sounds, and feelings that do not necessarily make logical sense. The interpretation of dreams relies upon their metaphoric and associative logic, the juxtaposition of unlikely or unrelated elements that can evoke surprising meanings. This is how many poems “work.” Take these lines from “Blue Mountain,” a poem by Roberta Hill Whiteman.

“Crickets whir a rough sun into haze.”

And “I sweep and sweep the broken days to echoes.”

To parse these lines would be to destroy their music and cadence and beauty, but we get what she means! To quote Rukeyser again: “A poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water…” The work a poem does, she writes, is to transfer human energy, “and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.”

Poetry and dreams originate in that part of our psyche involved in our archetypal roots and mythic imagination. Einstein is only one example of how the geniuses of science and industry – and artists – respond to the world and its problems with the force of their imaginations, by “thinking outside the box.”

André Breton in 1924 -- for Empathy postThis is the route of mystery and surprise, of new conjunctions and startling awarenesses. As André Breton wrote in his Surrealist Manifesto, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states – outwardly so contradictory – which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality…”

Freud and the Surrealist artists he inspired looked for ways to expose the deeper substratum of psyche by freeing oneself of the ego’s conscious control. The use of drugs helped, as did alcohol. Automatic or spontaneous writing, collage, assembling unlikely elements into a painting freed artists from the constraints of tradition and conventional imagery. These methods of accessing the unconscious continue to be popular today. Writing workshops, workshops on trauma and addiction often use uncensored journal writing as a means to reach into dissociated aspects of self.

Becoming conscious is a lifelong task. Our dreams beg to be brought into the daylight world, to be honored, to be understood. And perhaps one of us will find within our dreams the insight or idea that might generate the transformation in empathy and imagination that James Hillman seeks – and which would benefit all of us.