The man who lies to himself, and listens to his own lie, comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.
When we look at all the scams around us, we’re often stunned that anyone would fall for them. Really? He said he wanted to transfer Nigerian royal assets into your bank account, and you believed him?
And from the comfort of our armchairs, we say, of course it was a scam! Who would be dumb enough to fall for that? We as a species unanimously agree that we’re way too smart to fall for the flim-flam acts that we hear about every day — yet they proliferate like mushrooms. Someone out there is falling for them. A hell of a lot of someones, in fact, or else we wouldn’t keep hearing about all the ways fools are finding to get themselves fooled.
So we agree — again, universally — that the human race is stupid. And of course, the person making that diagnosis is the lone exception. Everyone feels they’re smarter than the herd of idiots surrounding them.
And they’re all wrong. Not just because of the illogic of it, but because intelligence, or lack of it, was never really the problem. It’s lazy to be satisfied with stupidity as an explanation, and maybe a little self-serving, because it allows us to ignore a critically important question: what’s causing all this stupidity?
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I’ve written before about the self-destructive consequences of dishonesty. To recap, briefly: I argued that those who practice deception never truly get away with it. This is because any deception perpetrated on others necessarily entails lies told to oneself, and those are the lies that destroy you. When you lie to yourself, you’re doing violence to your own mind. You are deliberately sabotaging your own ability to separate truth from falsehood. In sum: it’s far better to get caught, than to get away with a lie. Getting caught in a lie hurts you; but not getting caught sets you down a path to ruin.
It’s self-deception that I’m concerned with here. Self-deception, I’ve come to believe, is the greatest enabler of the corrupted thought processes that make the success of all these ridiculous scams possible. But to understand why that is, we need to examine how it works.
The very notion of self-deception is so counterintuitive that some say, naively, that it can’t be done — yet when we look around, it’s obvious that people are doing a hell of a lot of it. We are surrounded by liars, and all of them have themselves convinced that they are trustworthy people.
So, how is it done? Surprisingly, the question of how we deceive ourselves, as far as I’ve been able to find, has never really been explored. The articles I could find about self-deception were (sorry, Internet) disgraceful. A lot is said (much of it very badly) about why we do it, and a lot about which lies we tell ourselves. But the question of how we deceive ourselves — how we get ourselves to accept what we should easily know to be false — is left unasked and unanswered. It’s a serious question, though, and the answer can clarify many things.
We can’t force a belief into our minds without a little trickery, no more so than we could do with the mind of another. You can’t look at the sun and convince yourself that it’s the moon, no matter how hard you try. Ayn Rand said, I believe rightly, that there is no such mental action as “trying to believe.” So what happens? What is the mechanism of self-deception? How, precisely, do we get ourselves over this hurdle of believing something that our reason refuses to support?
The trick is to make what is false feel true. To put it more precisely, it means putting feelings in the place of facts, but fogging our minds to evade the fact that we’re doing that. Let’s back up a step and consider the role emotions play in the thought process.
The technique of fooling ourselves with feelings has its roots in mental processes that are both necessary and appropriate, even if fuzzy. We all face situations where we have to act on imperfect knowledge. Everyone must sometimes choose which card to play, without knowing what’s in their opponent’s hand. We have to decide in whom to place our trust, or which mechanic to take our car to, or which movie to see, without knowing the outcomes. We weigh options and likelihoods, and we make guesses, because life requires it of us. Sometimes we have to choose very rapidly without having time to deliberate. So we develop ways to evaluate, very quickly, which is the best choice to make, and when we have to make these lightning decisions, our emotions help us to make the selection.
We play the card that we have a better feeling about, because we trust ourselves to have learned good evaluative criteria in advance. When we’re faced with uncertainty and complexity, our gut gives an immediate read-out of a long and complex series of weights and measures, many of which are processed subconsciously. If we have prepared ourselves well for the situation, and our thinking habits are sound and disciplined, then our minds are wired so that the “gut feeling” that we get is more likely to be helpful to us. It isn’t knowledge, but it’s a sense of possibility that can carry a great deal of weight. An experienced card player who gets a gut feeling about what to play might not be sure where the feeling comes from without spending time to analyze it, but he knows better than to ignore it. An inexperienced player, on the other hand, will not have that kind of a feeling to go on, or if he does, it will be far less trustworthy.
Our emotions don’t tell us what’s true; they can’t possibly. The only proper standard of truth and falsehood is evidence, i.e., the concrete data of reality. But without sufficient evidence, we sometimes have no choice but to go with our gut. If we’ve practiced good thinking and have a broad range of experience to draw from, then our emotional leaning is more likely (but never guaranteed) to be helpful. That’s how emotion often plays a valid role in decision-making. Just to reinforce the point, I am saying that this is not only appropriate, but necessary and right.
But since emotions are not knowledge, they can sometimes run counter to our knowledge. And when they do, we may find ourselves wishing that what is false were true. In those cases, it is possible to go with our emotions to the detriment of reason. That’s when we discover an endless variety of methods that can make a false idea feel right. If we weaken our minds enough, and think evasively enough, we can transform that wish that it were true into a feeling that it is true, and with practice we can make it feel like that’s just as good.
This is the key to self-deception. We can’t force our minds to simply believe that the water is wine; minds don’t work that way. But we can refuse to look at evidence, equivocate, indulge cognitive biases, rationalize, and evade our way into thinking that we’re honest people even if we just switched the labels and bought wine for the price of water. We can make it feel true, and we can make ourselves live with substituting that feeling for actual truth. This the mind can do, even as it does tremendous harm to itself in the process.
What has happened, in philosophical terms, is that our clever self-deceiver has made himself accept a different standard of truth and falsehood, one that is impervious to evidence. He has elevated wishes and feelings above facts. He has made his feelings the arbiter of truth and falsehood, right and wrong. And that is the true damage done by self-deception, which, as I’ve argued, is necessarily entailed by all dishonesty.
Self-deception doesn’t just damage your ability to separate truth from falsehood. It deliberately discards the means by which that separation is possible. That is fundamentally what makes a liar stupid.
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For an example, let’s consider the case of a chronic gambler. If you look objectively at casino games, then you know that the house wins — or else how would they stay in business? But chronic gamblers are adept at making themselves feel like they can come out ahead, both in the short term and in the long run. Watch the creatures that spend nights in front of slot machines, and notice their routines. They develop specific habits, carry lucky charms, and practice careful rituals. Everything from choosing the right machine to how they pull the lever is carefully ritualized to make themselves feel that they can manipulate the dark forces of Lady Luck in their favor, even though luck, by definition, is that which cannot be controlled. There is no honest way to believe you can control blind luck — but you can fool yourself into feeling that way.
How? The slots player will cherry-pick from his memories, carefully avoiding any actual math or measurement, so that the jackpots appear more common, and the nights of endless loss less common. Evading contrary evidence is easier than objective evaluation; not thinking is easier than thinking. (Living with the consequences, though…) He’ll also convince himself of false theories of probability, to make himself think that a machine is “due” to pay out. These theories can’t hold up to scrutiny, but that’s no problem; all he has to do is not scrutinize them. As long as he limits his thinking and evades any evidence that threatens his feeling, he can go on feeling that those false theories are true. His goal is not to objectively evaluate the evidence at hand, but to preserve the feeling that he can beat the house. And it gets easier the more he does it.
If you have trouble finding ways to reinforce these “truth feelings,” other people are usually happy to help you. You can manipulate someone into telling you you’re right; you can accept the word of an authority without examining it; you can accept the opinion of the majority; or you can find an intellectual to tell you that there’s no such thing as truth anyway, so you might as well believe whatever you want. It’s so easy, when you let others tell you what to believe; but the more you do it, the more you have to turn off your own brain.
Here is a list of many, many different ways you can get something that’s false to feel true, if you’re in need of one. An honest and careful thinker, who is truly concerned about truth and falsehood, must stand guard against them. The one who wants to get away with something will embrace them in various forms, but he has to block out any possible awareness that he is doing so.
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Thus there are two essential components to self-deception: (1) Embracing emotion as the standard of truth and falsehood, while discarding reason and evidence; and (2) Using bad thinking methods (or deliberately not thinking) to give an unsupportable idea the feeling of truth.
But look at what it does to you.
Those who practice dishonesty might tell themselves that they’re attaining practical success; but if you keep this essay in mind, you’ll realize how wrong they are. Because once the will to deceive yourself is in place, and all the mechanisms of evasion are in place, then you’ve got the ingredients to bring yourself to ruin.
The tragedy is how bad it can get, and how good you can get at self-deception, once you’ve practiced it enough to really damage your relationship with reality. Based on the downward trajectory you’ll see in liars over time, you can see that self-deception gets easier and more automatic with experience and practice. And the misery and fear that come with such habits get worse and tragically worse.
Now let’s return to the problem that opened this article. Why do people continue to be fooled by obvious cons? What explains their failure to see through them? This: that every person who practices dishonesty has already fallen for the oldest fraud there is: the idea that they can get away with substituting emotion for reason.
By the time you’re comfortable leaning on wishes and evasions to the detriment of thoughtful rigor in pursuit of truth — by the time your years of self-manipulation have weakened your mind sufficiently — you’re ready to accept the Nigerian scammer and worse. If you want his idiotic lies about an easy fortune to be true, then that’s all that matters. He’s figured out how to use those urges you’ve programmed into yourself, and you’ve got no defense to fall back on. If you see through this one, you’ll fall to the next — because once your feelings have spent enough time in command of your thinking, you can’t expect reason to reassert itself when it’s most desperately needed, any more than the chronic gambler can be expected to reevaluate his lifestyle before putting his rent money on red. (An irony of this article: Dostoevsky, author of the excellent opening quotation, had a gambling problem.)
The fraud perpetrated on the self is what lies at the heart of all deception. It’s what makes all liars into idiots and victims. I don’t claim that there are no innocent victims of fraud; honest error will always be a part of life. But I do claim that all dishonest men are certain to fall victim to other dishonest men, sooner or later.
People commonly think that con artists are the ones most able to spot and avoid cons. Now you know why I disagree. Everybody recognizes a con in hindsight; but it’s the experienced con artist who is most certain to get taken, sooner or later. There’s an entire online community dedicated to showing how easy it is to make fools of the Nigerian email scammers. Some have even devised ways to steal money from them.
Once a person gives in to the temptation to judge truth and falsehood based on their wishes, they have flown a flag that says they are ready and willing to be manipulated. It only takes someone low enough to cater to the particular form of irrationality they’ve chosen. They may believe themselves to be as smart and streetwise as they come, but they are the property, fully owned, of anyone who is willing to play along with the false reality they’re seeking.
Remember that it’s not always your wallet they’re after. How about when a politician, intellectual, or religious leader comes around peddling snake oil? If he’s pushing an agenda that you’d like to support, how dedicated will you be to verifying his claims? How will you reject his lies, especially if you’re already aligned with his particular camp and you want those lies to be true? And if you find a truth spoken by his opponents, how will you embrace it, if it’s in conflict with your own agenda?
More to the point, how will you identify the deeper premises that those lies flow from, and evaluate their truth and falsehood? How especially, if it turns out that you share those premises, in part or in whole? What will you do if these investigations threaten your personal beliefs? Will you have the strength to blast out those beliefs and demand true ones in their place? Or will you give up, because they “feel” true, and you no longer have the strength to overthrow the weight of preconception?
It’s before the spiritual and intellectual con artists that people most eagerly line up to be fleeced — and it’s here that the stakes are highest of all. Adolf Hitler came to power with broad democratic support. Each American president is leaving us poorer and more vulnerable than the one who came before him, to the sound of trumpets. Who among us is able to identify the lies they tell in common?
How many of my readers have just thought up an intellectually lazy answer to that question, and walked away from it feeling satisfied?
I’m trying to challenge you right now. Be challenged. Everything you love may one day depend on it.
People who practice self-deception do so by weakening their own minds. They are utterly helpless in the face of intellectual con artists. Almost all of us consider ourselves smarter than the people around us. It’s an incredibly rare person who’s right, but when they are, I say it’s their honesty that makes them right, far more than raw brainpower.
Yes, some people are naturally gifted with brains, while others aren’t. But in my view, honest people are always better off than dishonest ones. The dishonest ones are helplessly vulnerable to hucksters peddling frauds, particularly frauds of the intellect. Only an honest man can stand a chance against them, because only he can claim to judge truth solely by evidence, and not by some tasty stew of wishes and emotions. Only an honest man can stand an effective vigil against the many kinds of sloppiness and bias that can invade human thinking. A dishonest man might be able to identify the symptoms of bad thought on an intellectual level, and he might be able to spot them in cases that don’t affect him — but he can never be expected to identify and eliminate the bad habits that he has deliberately infected his own judgment with.
The old saying goes: “You can’t cheat an honest man.” For the first time, as I write this article, I believe I fully understand what that means.
Honesty doesn’t make you immune to error. It doesn’t mean you’ll never fall for a deception. You have to be just as watchful as ever against carelessly losing the things that matter in your life — but you, and only you, have the chance to get it right. A dishonest man is doomed to victimhood by his own self-deception. He has fooled himself into feeling he can be fooled only when he wants to be fooled — and that is what makes him stupider by far than any honest man, no matter how dim. Until he treats himself like someone who deserves to hear the truth from himself at all times and in all situations, he’s beyond help.
Don’t be that man. Recognize that self-deception is self-destruction, and never, ever let it be a part of your life.
Everyone claims to be honest. The majority have no right to say it, even if they can manipulate themselves into feeling it. But honest people do exist. And all of us have the potential to be someone who doesn’t just feel it, but knows it. Practice honesty, to yourself above all. Everything you value depends on it.