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Self-deception-illusive fantasy  

Huzaima Bukhari

“The greatest deception men suffer from is their own opinion”Leonardo Da Vinci

In a highly deceptive world where everyone is out to deceive each other for own vested interest, the biggest disservice one can do to oneself is fall victim to self-deception in a negative way. Observing the world around with an objective eye, looking at things with sensibility and using the essential tools of knowledge, one should be able to intelligently distinguish between reality and fiction, truth and falsity, wrongdoing and ethics. No doubt, we often resort to lies whenever it suits us but there is awareness that whatever is being said or shown is far from truth. At times, lies do help to avert a serious situation which can become explosive if one tries to be honest. For example, if someone has taken refuge in your house from a potential killer and you deny his presence when confronted by him; even though you are lying but the intention here is to protect the refugee from losing his life. There are other times where silence about some known fact also plays a similar role in helping to avoid unpleasantness.

Self-deception does have immense significance in our lives as it can have both positive and negative effects. Rational thinking is for the logical minds but do observe the behavior of blind followers or those who believe in a set of bizarre ideologies having no solid grounds but mostly based on emotional attachments to certain tenets. They tend to act with belief of such intense magnitude which overshadows all pragmatism, making them look like a group of robotic morons, no matter what their educational qualification is or whatever stratum of society they come from Beguiled by someone or something, they bask in a world of trickery rather than coming to terms with reality. With this intoxicated mind, they are often forced to commit felonies or end up harming themselves or their loved ones. Psychologists have propounded many theories about why humans intentionally or unintentionally fall prey to deception, especially self-deception.

Robert Triver, an evolutionary biologist and sociologist, proposes that deception is used by living beings as a means to survive and gain advantage over one another. A good example would be that of sweet smells emanating from flesh eating plants to attract insects or as in the animal kingdom making alarm calls or mimicry to ward off dangerous predators. As a result, self-deception evolved to better mask deception from those who perceive it well. Triver’s notion of self-deception goes as: “Hiding the truth from yourself to hide it more deeply from others.” This can be explained from the example of an honest person who, if forced into giving a false statement could appear nervous with tell-tale signs of perspiration, excessive blinking, change in the tonal quality of the voice etc. However, if self-deception enables a lying person to be aware of his own nervous tendencies, he will refrain from presenting such signs and will consequently be taken as telling the truth. Many criminals have successfully cleared the lie-detector test by this method.

Concept of self-deception can be perceived in our daily life. The traffic law violators, who first flaunt the rules and when confronted, are shamelessly not remorseful—this clearly shows their self-deceptive attitude whereby they teach themselves that what is wrong is not exactly wrong where they are concerned. Similarly, when males of a conservative family murder their women for alleged loose moral character, they are not repentant about their gruesome act because they self-deceive themselves in considering their killing as rightful.  These are some of the aspects of human self-deception, the nature of which is only now beginning to be understood by cognitive psychologists. Thus where the battered wife tries to keep a cheerful face before her children she is actually described as in a state of denial and covering-up to continue with portraying her family as “happy”.

Various researches have now provided firm scientific evidence that the unconscious mind plays a significantly potent role in mental life of human beings and the roots of self-deception seem to be in the mind’s ability to allay anxiety by distorting awareness. Keeping this in view the present state of affairs with which some politicians of our country are involved can be understood in better perspective. With the release of Panama Papers, many people including prominent public office holders came under fire for being in possession of assets beyond their known means. During the trial their argument centred around not only acknowledging ownership of assets but also expressing surprise over why they were being questioned about them. They sincerely did not believe that they had committed any crime in amassing wealth in their capacity as public office holders and they were probably entitled to skim off some of the cream in granting different government contracts. Of course paying taxes is the duty of the citizens of a country but not the law-makers sitting in the assemblies so even this aspect should be ignored.

This is what self-deception is all about. It is a mindset that was acquired through learning over a long period of time. Starting from the cradle in the lap of parents for whom material wealth takes precedence over moral values of their children, this continues throughout youth and mature age when the cluster of ‘courtiers’ sing undeserved praises and bow before their might Since no one ever dares to take their actions head-on, they falsely start believing in the validity of their wrongdoings, consequently becoming trapped into self-deception. While the accountability courts’ spears of accusations stand poised against them, they in sheer ‘innocence’ helplessly look towards their advocates for support. When reality is shown as troublesome a cozy calm can be maintained to deny pertinent facts and ignore key issues. 

Some cognitive psychologists use the term “blind-sight” that is where one part of the mind can know something, while the part that supposedly knows what is going on—awareness—remains oblivious. According to late Emanuel Donchin (1935-29018), “Awareness is a limited capacity system. We don’t know—and don’t need to know—about most of the stuff the mind does. I have no idea how I search memory or get grammatically correct sentences out of my mouth. It’s hard enough to handle the little that reaches awareness. We’d be in terrible shape if everything were conscious.”

Perhaps these public office holders’ minds were playing tricks on them by ‘intelligently’ filtering the undesired information that could overwhelm their self-deceptions. Their warped perceptions of things place them in a world of make-believe where nothing they do is immoral or wrong.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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