Self-deception

When I was a child, I made a conscious decision never to lie to myself. No matter how forbidden or unwelcome the thought, I would never try to hide from myself that I had thought it.

All kinds of things occur to a person. You can’t help what thoughts occur to you; all you can do is keep yourself from acting on thoughts that are unacceptable, such as, the desire to kill someone who’s hurt you in a relationship. The thoughts themselves are not under your conscious control. That I recognized this early in life made it easier, in a way, for me to do zazen or sitting meditation. I know I can’t stop the thoughts from coming; what I can do is stop myself from grabbing onto them.

All of this effort to be honest, though, may very well be a contributing factor in my lifelong, chronic depression. 

Have you heard this? Countless studies have proven that non-depressed people lie to themselves way more than depressed people do. Depressed people are far more likely to report, for example, that they are average drivers; most non-depressed people will claim to be above-average, though this is statistically impossible. Successful people, like the best athletes for example, are especially good at self-deception. They have to be. “I’m the best. I’m going to win. Nobody can beat me.” That kind of thinking is way more likely to help you win the race than “I’m only slightly above average; many of these people are better than I am” – although that may be true. Fair enough.

I enjoy listening to a science program from WNYC called Radiolab, which I highly recommend, and they discuss all of this in the show called Deception, which you can listen to here. A pair of scientists came up with a list of embarrassing questions to ask people in order to get them to have two thoughts at once, so they could see what was happening to them physiologically. Radiolab has the questionnaire on their website here.

A few sample questions from the show:

  • Have you ever enjoyed a bowel movement?
  • Have you ever thought of committing suicide to get back at someone?
  • Have you ever fantasized about raping, or being raped by, someone?

The questions each break some kind of taboo, yet the assumption is that, at least at some point, every person has had such thoughts. These admissions are so embarrassing that most people would have trouble not only admitting the truth to another person, but they might not even be able to acknowledge the truth to themselves. I, of course, had no trouble answering in the affirmative, every time.

They’ve used this questionnaire in many, many studies, and invariably come up with the same results. People who lie to themselves are more successful, happier, better at business, and better at working in teams. I believe it.

However, those who answer the questionnaire honestly tend to be slightly more depressed than others. Depressed people lie less.

Here’s a quote from the show, from one of the authors of the Self-Deception Questionnaire, Harold Sackeim of Columbia University:

“They see all the pain in the world, how horrible people are with each other, and they tell you everything about themselves, what their weaknesses are, what terrible things they’ve done to other people, and the problem is they’re right. And so, maybe the way that we help people is to help them be wrong…. We’re so vulnerable to being hurt that we’re given the capacity to distort as a gift.”

That’s their answer. If people who see the world as it truly is are depressed, we need to teach these people to lie to themselves.

My response to that answer is probably a typical depressed person’s realistic response: that’s pretty depressing. But can we just look for a moment at where all these so-called successful, happy, self-deceiving people have gotten us? How good do you think those guys at Goldman Sachs are at lying to themselves? How about the folks at BP? Or politicians? Or that anti-gay bigot who was just exposed as a massive hypocrite? Or those responsible for any number of terrible events and situations?

My answer to this problem is the complete opposite. While I have learned that a certain amount of self-deception can give me more confidence, I don’t want to get in the habit of lying to myself. I’d rather be able to see the world as it truly is, and see the sadness that results, and not be incapacitated by it. Maybe it’s better to see the truth, and still be able to act. Maybe that’s a better goal than merely producing more “successful” people.

Maybe we need to reevaluate what we mean by “success.”

And maybe, just maybe, there are quite a few people in this world who need to learn how to stop lying.

6 Responses to “Self-deception”

  1. absurdbeats Says:

    Yeah, I remember hearing about this work years ago, and as a depressive, I took a kind of smug pride in it: I may be a wreck, but at least I’m not foolin’ myself.

    But now I’m not so sure—about either the wreck-edness or the foolishness.

    I think I was and in many ways still am a wreck, but that’s not all that I am, and while I can see the crud of the world, the world isn’t all crud.

    So maybe the issue isn’t one of happy deception vs gutter reality, but of trying to see all that there is, good and bad. No, we can never see everything and much of what we see will be awful, but if we recognize we can’t see everything maybe we can recognize that not everything is always bad.

    Hm. Unclear. I guess I want to push back against this notion—one I’ve held on to for too long—that only the dark stuff is real and serious, and that the non-dark is frivolous and unworthy of attention. And that goes not just for the world but for myself, too.

    But having spent most of my adult life cultivating the dim, it’s hard to let in even a little light.

  2. soundofrain Says:

    Good point. The one extreme is as bad as the other, and of course it’s arguably worse to see only the bad, since that discourages action, particularly unselfish action. But in either case, it depends on the individual response to it.

    When I’m very very depressed, it’s almost impossible to see any good. The best I can do is neutral. But I’ve never had a problem seeing the non-bad as frivolous. I wonder if that’s a typical view.

    Is that the disease part, that I – or you – can’t see the light sometimes? But what about people who can’t see the dark? Aren’t they also diseased?

    I think it’s natural for each of us to think our own particular mix = normal, when really, I don’t think there is a normal. Just a range. I don’t know how much we can move within that range.

    As for letting in light, well, nature would be a good place to go, if you can find any.

  3. Jeffrey Says:

    Even though self deception may have some ability for us to aleviate depression, in all due respect, those who are self decieving often have the worse coping skills and are very miserable underneath it all. Many of them drink, don’t exercise, are highly stressed and unable to express their emotions or thoughts clearly.

    Although I am new to Zazen and Zen Buddhism, it has been one of the most amazing things in my life which has helped me overcome some of the greatest obstacles in life, a psychotic episode with manic features brought on by medication mishaps. I lost all of my faith following that episode and dealt with a deep and resounding depression afterwards. Now I have recovered and much of that due to what Zazen has given me. It did not restore my faith, it restored my connection to myself and life.

    There is much beauty in life, and there is great suffering. There are wonderous joys and gut wrenching pain. Yet in the stillness, the still mind, which I have experienced a few times, a wonderous thing emerges.

    In the moment of the stillness of the mind, there is peace, equanimity and happiness. A place we can go to again and again. A place we cultivate and build our lives from.

    Bring joy to someone elses life and you will not only aleviate suffering, but bring about more happiness in your own. Even a small gesture does good things.

    And these things help us overcome depression even as we let go of our self delusions and see reality for what it really is.

    I am not always happy, but I am not depressed. But I am grateful to say that I am not decieving myself anymore!

  4. HauntedHarpsichord Says:

    I think it’s ok to be depressed sometimes with the things that happen around us in the world. I think we are constantly pressured, especially in the US, to FEEL GOOD, LOOK GREAT! WIN ! GET RICH ! BE SUCCESSFUL ! (otherwise one simply MUST have some medical diagnosis and take pills to correct this supposed “flaw”) – like we’re all members of some giant fucking cheerleading squad. phhht.

    I think that those of us who have trouble with depression do have happy, content and perhaps even joyful (gasp!) moments, and finding those moments sometimes in even very “small” things, can permit fleeting nanoseconds of ecstasy.

    The other day I was looking out my window and was mesmerized by this tiny, absolutely stunningly beautiful hummingbird, with a bright fire engine red chest, flitting in the bushes behind my house, only a few feet from my windows. At one point, it stopped and seemed to hover, and was, I swear, watching me, as I watched it. Then went back to sipping nectar out of the passion flower vines. For a brief moment, the abject sadness went away. ….

  5. Nancy Says:

    I love this post, thank you for sharing! As someone who just started to look a bit deeper into Buddhism, I find your perspective really interesting – that being truthful to yourself may have negative consequences. I look to meditation as a way to become truly self aware, and I look forward to being self aware because it is a step in the right direction towards true happiness. I mean.. if you’re self aware, you can’t have insecurities, right? I’ve always seen my insecurities being the root of my unhappiness. If I can be really comfortable in my own skin, who will have the capability of bringing me down? Always I guess there is a caveat to everything. Thanks again for sharing!

  6. soundofrain Says:

    I always think more awareness has got to be better… but I wouldn’t look for a magic solution to anything. I hope that just sitting with your insecurities can help you see that they’re not real.

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