When Seeing Is Disbelieving
By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, April 30, 2007; Page A03
Four years ago tomorrow, President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln and dramatically strode onto the deck in a flight suit, a crash helmet tucked under one arm. Even without the giant banner that hung from the ship's tower, the president's message about the progress of the war in Iraq was unmistakable: mission accomplished.
Bush is not the first president to have convinced himself that something he wanted to believe was, in fact, true. As Columbia University political scientist Robert Jervis once noted, Ronald Reagan convinced himself that he was not trading arms for hostages in Iran, Bill Clinton convinced himself that the donors he had invited to stay overnight at the White House were really his friends, and Richard M. Nixon sincerely believed that his version of Watergate events was accurate.
More importantly is the fact that it takes an abundance of regular ol' homo sapiens to "disbelieve" the facts in front of them in order for such folks to get elected or supported in the first place. It takes a culture of gullibility for the sake of each of our gain in order to be the bedrock of support to delusional leaders.
Folks like Bill O', in the previous post's video, will argue long and loud that such delusions help me, as a person. Forget that it hurts those around us, regardless of whether they share the delusion or not, and in spite of the evidence showing damage.
The practice doesn't come from "no where", of course. If so many of us do it, it must have a biological basis. According to evolutionary biologist, Robert Trivers;
"Self-deception evolves in the service of deceit for two reasons," he said. "It improves your ability to fool others and, second, it reduces the cognitive costs of deception."
The thing to keep in mind, Trivers says, is that even as evolution rewarded deceivers, it also punished deceivers who got caught. (The ability to spot deception evolves along with the ability to deceive.)
Deliberate deception among humans, furthermore, requires effort. It requires you to hold both the truth and the untruth in your mind, and consciously suppress the truth. This is why the stereotype of liars depicts them with sweaty palms, croaking voices and shifty eyes -- lying can be hard work, and liars are often nervous about getting caught.
Self-deception, said Trivers, who has studied the phenomenon in contexts ranging from the Challenger explosion to a plane crash in Florida, offers a way around this psychological hurdle. If you can make yourself believe the untruth, for example, by marshaling evidence that supports your view and ignoring evidence that contradicts your position, it becomes that much easier to persuade others.
Like many other aspects of brain functioning, self-deception does not require people to sit down and decide they are going to lie to themselves. (That would actually defeat the point of self-deception.) No, it usually happens subtly, without the person even being aware of it.
"The costs of deception are being detected and punished," Trivers said. "There is definitely a downside to self-deception, and that is you are putting yourself out of touch with reality, but it cuts down the risk of getting caught."
[(Dis)believe it or don't.]
Personally, I've found the folks in my life who have helped me the most, are those who have managed to help me over the hurdles of my own self-deceptions. Regardless of whether they were cold or compassionate, thought the nasty brutal methods more than a few authoritarians in my life have tried haven't helped in the least. At least not in the moment.
That's probably the main thing that has made me want to strive for the middle-ground. Unlike Garrison Keilor's suggestion that the only thing in the middle is road-kill, I've found that those in the middle who aren't afraid to face the facts, no matter how uncomfortable they may be, are generally the folks who live the most contented and socially efficacious lives.
Not that there's anything wrong with being prepared to go to an occasional extreme, or being able to forget the facts in order to keep on keepin' on. Sometimes, no matter how high the hurdle or whether one has ever made such a leap before, you just gotta tell yourself, "I can do this impossible thing."
And, sometimes, despite the facts, it'll get us through 'til we're either able or have no choice but to face reality. Sometimes though, it just cause more death, despair and destruction in the cause of a lie.