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The battle in Baghdad recently provided a prime example of self-deception. As American tanks surrounded the building where he has his office, the Iraqi Information Minister appeared before TV cameras to announce that the Americans were nowhere near Baghdad. As my wife keeps telling me, denial is not just a river in Egypt!

Now whether you think the Americans ought to be there or not, they were there, and are there, and the Information Minister knows that they are there.

Or does he?

Sometimes we think we are merely deceiving others, when we are actually practicing deception on ourselves!

In the sixth book of the Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis comments that the trouble with trying to make yourself more stupid than you actually are is that you very often succeed. Of course, self-deception on this scale is extremely uncommon, practiced only by dying regimes. 

Or is it?

Do You Practice Self-Deception?

I would suggest that self-deception is rather commonly practiced. If few of us manage to deny tanks at half a block, most of us can deny evidence that’s right in front of us.

Most of us likely know someone who is a hero in his (or her) own mind. Such a person is filled with stories of accomplishments that nobody else can verify. I recall one friend who was a tank driver in Vietnam at the same time as he was in school in this country. I don’t actually know which story was true. Another had a list of educational accomplishments that were quite impossible within two or three of his lifetimes, but somehow had never completed any program of education. Whenever he was challenged to actually produce, he was unable to do so. Both of these men were tremendously intelligent, but both were blocked from greater achievement by what they had convinced themselves they had done.

We’ve all heard stories of various cases in which military officers have worn ribbons to which they were not entitled or claimed experience that they did not possess. Sometimes it’s a simple deception; what’s worse is when it is self-deception, and the person begins to believe that their imagined reality is real.

What about the religious or spiritual person who claims disciplines which he or she does not actually possess? In the best case, that person may simply be cut off from actually learning a new discipline. In the worst case, he may convince others of his knowledge and attainment and lead them astray. Such self-deception, I believe, can lead to Jim Jones (Guyana) or David Koresh (Waco, Texas). Both claimed spiritual leadership and knowledge. I suspect both were convinced of their claims, and that to some extent their own self-assurance—the depth of their self-deception—helped deceived others. In both cases this self-deception destroyed both them and many others.

Or consider a politician who claims abilities he or she does not possess in order to get elected? In that case we can have a person in leadership whose skills are considerably less than those necessary for the job. Again, the depth of self-deception can actually help convince others and help the self-deceived person move forward in their career, right up to the moment of destruction.

Another case in which I notice this problem is in popular discussions of various scientific or philosophical comments. People become convinced of their own expertise by talking to people who are not capable of challenging their knowledge. I could become convinced that I have an excellent knowledge of biology if I only talk to laypeople. But if I talk to actual experts I begin to realize that my knowledge is actually very sketchy. I’m not an expert in that subject and shouldn’t pretend to be—to myself or others.

Avoiding Self-Decption

How do I avoid self-deception? Here are some ideas.

  1. Don’t go it alone. None of us know everything. We all have to depend at some point on the knowledge of others. We should be careful who we depend on, but there is no way to avoid depending on someone.
  2. Take care to expose yourself to a variety of ideas and sources. You might choose to reject many of them, but make sure you have heard them.
  3. Be introspective—think about yourself and what you know and don’t know. Ask yourself questions. Don’t be vulnerable to deception.
  4. Never assume you’ve moved beyond the need to learn.
  5. Don’t assume that your perspective is the only possible one. Test other options. You may not find them useful, but make sure you’ve actually considered them and have good reason to reject them.

And most of all, don’t try to be any more stupid than you actually are.