Disbelieve It or Don't

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.


  1. The image of george in the flight suit left me with a lasting impression. The lasting impression was that he should have added a sock to his undies that day.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Fascinating post, Michael. I work with a lot of salespeople. The product is big, big ticket. The best ones deceive their customers from start to finish (and I think they both believe the bullsh*t), but all of them are deluded to some extent, i.e., they think they're going to get rich, they think they are "helping" their customers, etc.

  4. Yeah, I agree. Great post. Very interesting topic, this self deception thing. So many different levels to it that could be discussed. Since I first read this post a few hours ago, I've been thinking about self deception as a coping mechanism that just comes naturally to us. And how others are compelled (more often than not, in my opinion) to confront (your, mine) self deception in a cold way. And when they do, they are practicing their own form of self deception, being fooled into thinking that they don't do the very same thing -- or something very similiar -- themselves.

    Like I'm doing now! Turning it outward, instead of inward.

    It's always been a topic that interested me.

  5. People who can trigger a "can do" attitude in the face of difficulty can find out if they are the real leader very quickly. If I look around and there is a trail of sick or dead bodies in my wake, then I am a deceiver and not a leader. If I look around and there are healthy people in my wake, then I am a leader. I have been both. One has to be very careful when to implement the "can do" force.

    Great post, Michael.

  6. This is truly a heart and soul post. Here's a bunch of "attaboys" for you.

  7. Remember what George Costanza said: It's not a lie if you believe it's true.

    Mission Accomplished is the "light at the end of the tunnel" of our time.

  8. "Culture of Gullibility" pretty much summed it up. Unfortunately.

  9. Socks in pants seems to be a theme this week... Hmmm... {-;

    "big Big ticket" eh, Larry? You aren't sellin' WMDs, now are ya bro? On 2nd thought, let's just maintain the "deception".

    Thanks, Ed! The topic is def one of interest.

    BG, I tend to over-excuse people for whatever reason(s) but I think the Cold approach is just easier on the confronters cuz it keeps 'em from feeling anything that might keep 'em from the confronting.

    But I'd say you're right and that such often means they've not THOUGHT enough to understand the reasons behind whatever it is they're confronting.

    Whoever said life was easy? Oh yah. Shrub's Nannies...

    If I look around and there is a trail of sick or dead bodies in my wake, then I am a deceiver and not a leader. If I look around and there are healthy people in my wake, then I am a leader.

    Exactly! I like the way you said it, Mary. "what's left in my wake" Results/Consequences speak louder than Anything else!

    Thanks Pop! :)))

    Dig it, Brando. I'll be postin' today's Think Progress 'toon later showing Shrub diggin' up the old version as well.

    Indeed, Kevin. It's like we'll really buy anything if someone can convince us, against even a cursory investigation, that it'll make us smarter/happier/more-popular/etc...

    Honestly, I blame it on our species history (and PRE-history!) of warfare and Authoritarian leaders. We may or may not consciously want people to tell us what to do or how to live, but that is precisely what so very many end up doing. Like it or acknowledge it or not.

    While I think such a phenomenon may quite likely have been an inevitable part of us surviving in the past, I can't disavowal of empirical truths doing us much good going into the technological future.

    I'm really glad y'all liked this topic. It's my contention that self-delusion - more than any other facet of human experience - is the biggest trouble-maker in our species' evolution.


  10. Adorable GirlfriendMay 01, 2007 9:37 PM

    I would agree with BG's assessment. We all have our delusions and coping mechanisms.

  11. Good post Michael...thoughtful like only you can be.

  12. This is one of the best posts I've read, by you or anybody else. You've really hit something on the head that a lot of people are too busy not talking about, for obvious reasons!


  13. Great post, MB.

    I suppose that in this day and age where spin doctoring rules, it's nice to know that people are still able to spot bullshit when they see it.

    I just wish that it was more people.

  14. Trivers needs to be on meds of some kind.

    He won the big Craaford prize, then soils it by writing this uncollegial screed in the WSJ actually threatening another academic:

    Wall Street Journal
    Letters to the Editor
    Wednesday, May 23, 2007

    In regard to Alan Dershowitz’s commentary “Finkelstein’s Bigotry” (editorial page, May 4): In it he asserts that “He [Norman Finkelstein] has encouraged radical goons to email threatening messages; ‘Look forward to a visit from me,’ reads one. “Nazis like [you] need to be confronted directly.”

    But all of this is untrue. I wrote the letter in question (April 15, 2007), but without Prof. Finkelstein’s knowledge, interest or approval. The key sentences had nothing to do with Prof. Finkelstein: ‘Regarding your rationalization of Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians, let me just say that if there is a repeat of Israeli butchery toward Lebanon and if you decide once again to rationalize it publicly, look forward to a visit from me. Nazis – and Nazi-like apologists such as yourself – need to be confronted directly.

    As for being an academic goon: I am late responding because I was in Europe lecturing after receiving the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

    Robert Trivers
    Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences
    Rutgers University
    Somerset, NJ

    According to Wikipedia:

    Robert L. Trivers, (born 19 February 1943) is an American evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist...Trivers originally went to Harvard to study mathematics, but wound up studying U.S. history in preparation to become a lawyer. He took a psychology class after suffering a breakdown, and was very unimpressed with the state of psychology. He was prevented from getting into Yale law school by his breakdown, and wound up with a job writing social science textbooks for children (never published, due in part to presenting evolution by natural selection as fact). This exposure to evolutionary theory led him to graduate work with Ernst Mayr at Harvard 1968-1972 (he never got a bachelor's degree anywhere). He was on faculty at Harvard 1973-1978, then moved to UC Santa Cruz.

    He met Huey P. Newton, Chairman of the Black Panther Party, in 1978 when Newton applied (while in prison) to do a reading course with him as part of a graduate degree in History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz. Trivers and Newton became close friends, Newton was godfather to one of Trivers' daughters. Trivers joined the Black Panther Party in 1979. Trivers and Newton published an analysis of the role of self-deception by the flight crew in the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 (Trivers, R.L. & Newton, H.P. Science Digest 'The crash of flight 90: doomed by self-deception?' November 1982, pp 66,67,111).

    The Black Panthers bit show really bad judgment. The failure to get into Yale law makes me wonder if the guy is jealous of Dershowitz, the famous Harvard lawyer.

    In any case, with scientists conducting themselves like this, it's no wonder the public has lost its trust in scientists.

  15. Hmmm... Unfortunately, and regardless of what I think of Trivers politics (what you've writ is all I've read,) I do think the public puts Way too much weight on personality and disposition for ALL whom they look to for authority.

    For that, the greater part of the blame must go to underfunded and ill-equipped primary schools and, of course, to the reticence of the "public" itself to let go of comfortable delusions even when they are empirically and demonstrably countered by Empirical facts.

    As to Huey, well, I hate that his tactics worked so well. But they sure did at least as much to sway the public towards Civil Rights as did the more civil and peaceful efforts of Martin Luther King's cadres.

    Most folks, such as all those who voted for W the 2nd time, just hate admitting it.

    Especially to themselves...


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