Self-Deception a Double-Edged Trait

Article excerpt

Consider these common human tales:

* A prominent politician who made his reputation combating prostitution loses his job after being discovered to have consorted with many "escorts." He believed he would never be caught.

* A sociopathic man charms a young woman and convinces her he will love her forever. She is infatuated with him. He dumps her a month later.

* A gambler is "convinced" his next bet will win back his previous losses and ends up losing his shirt again.

* Voters elect a politician who promises to solve all their problems but are disillusioned a few years later when things have barely changed.

* A woman with severe chronic fibromyalgia seeks the help of a shaman in her village in Haiti. Her pain amazingly disappears for a few days before recurring.

The human brain has been both blessed and cursed during its evolutionary journey by developing the capacity for self-deception. Unlike other living things, humans are capable of massive self-deception--as these tales show.

Advantage: survival

Self-deception's upside is obvious, with established survival value. Hope, optimism, and self-confidence in dark times are antidotes to capitulation, despair, and inaction. Infatuation helps perpetuate the human species, and "eternal love" leads to other obligatory self-deceptions such as "till death do us part." Sometimes self-deception helps communities survive by promoting altruism, charity, and compassion for strangers.

For us in the health professions--especially psychiatry--self-deception's benefits for patients are well recognized: a remarkable healing capacity, an almost magical placebo effect from drug therapy or psychotherapy, and the advantages of positive transference toward the physician. Without self-deception, our patients could not respond to support and reassurance or resist hopelessness and the urge to give up and end their lives.

Disadvantage: suffering

But self-deception has a serious downside as well, from hubris and arrogance that end badly to blind faith and gullibility that lead to joining cults and "drinking the Kool-Aid," from unshakable belief in astrology or fanatical pursuit of a cause to believing in nothing and wasting one's life with nihilism. …