Stop lying to yourself: pride and self-deception, part 2

Stop lying to yourself: pride and self-deception, part 2 September 30, 2018

We have an enormous capacity for self-deception. This is particularly dangerous when pride comes into the picture, because we can develop a skewed perception of ourselves, others, and the reality around us.

How and why can the brain deceive itself? And what should we do about it?

The cognitive mechanisms of self-deception

Three psychology experiments can help us understand how self-deception happens.

The first is the “Invisible Gorilla” experiment. The task is simple: participants view video of two teams (one wearing black, one wearing white) passing two basketballs. Researchers ask them to count the number of times the white team passed the basketball. About halfway through the video, a gorilla enters the scene, faces the camera and thumps his chest, and exits. The gorilla spends nine seconds on camera, but half the participants don’t remember seeing him. This shows that humans have selective attention and are remarkably blind to details.

The second psychology experiment, called the “Lost in the Mall” study, presents participants with four short narratives from their early childhood. Three narratives are true and one is false. Researchers can get participants to endorse the false narrative as true, showing that you can generate fake memories when it fits with your self-understanding. This was confirmed in 2013, when neuroscientists at MIT were actually able to implant false emotional memories into the hippocampus of a mouse.

Finally, researchers at Stanford discovered that people tend to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses. In other words, they tend to seek out and accept data that reinforces their prior understanding, whereas they tend to reject data that challenges their ideas. This confirmation bias effect is particularly strong for emotional ideas – like your self esteem.

These experiments suggest that the mind is NOT a tape recorder. Rather, it’s like a blackboard with a chalk outline of reality. Over time, the image fades to a broad sketch of who you are and where you’ve been. Through this process, prideful self-interest can step in and deceive us, making us believe a more attractive and self-reassuring reality.

The origins of self-deception

So our brains can deceive themselves… why?

On one level of explanation, we have to wonder why this would be favored by evolution. A few naturalistic explanations come to mind.

  • Selective attention allows you to retain only what is valuable; if we tried to remember everything, we would run out of long-term storage.
  • The possibility of false memory implantation could be tied to a greater imagination, as well as coping with traumatic memories.
  • Confirmation bias could conserve energy, because it saves you the time and effort of taking in all of the available information.

Regardless of the evolutionary mechanisms that brought us here, it’s hard to break out of self-deception. This is especially true when pride and self-interest get in the picture.

But living in self-deception ultimately disconnects you from yourself, others, and God. By putting forward a false narrative of who you are, you stifle the life, joy, and passion of your true self. By avoiding hard or painful truths, you can’t fully enter into relationship with others. By choosing to live in an alternate reality, you limit your experience to what you can imagine or construct, making you blind to God’s presence. Self-deception closes you off to love.

So what do we do?

Ending your need for self-deception

Like most behavioral change, ending your need for self-deception starts with small changes.

  1. Grow in awareness of your internal noise. A rich life of prayer, especially silent contemplation, is essential to self-awareness. This will help you identify how and why you engage in self-deception.
  2. Accept your flaws so you don’t have to hide them. A growth mindset can help here. Ultimately, this comes down to accepting the fact that you are a dependent, imperfect, but loved daughter or son of God. Self-compassion will then help you gaze on others with compassion.
  3. Catch yourself in the act. When do you hide the truth, embellish the facts, or justify your wrong choices to yourself? Make a mental note, ask why, and ask how you can practice honesty in those moments.
  4. Get a friend or family member to help. Ask them for honest feedback, and to keep you accountable. Growth in holiness always occurs best in the context of relationships of love.
  5. At the end of the day, beg for humility! Try praying this (super tough) Litany:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved…
From the desire of being extolled …
From the desire of being honored …
From the desire of being praised …
From the desire of being preferred to others…
From the desire of being consulted …
From the desire of being approved …
From the fear of being humiliated …
From the fear of being despised…
From the fear of suffering rebukes …
From the fear of being calumniated …
From the fear of being forgotten …
From the fear of being ridiculed …
From the fear of being wronged …
From the fear of being suspected …

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I …
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease …
That others may be chosen and I set aside …
That others may be praised and I unnoticed …
That others may be preferred to me in everything…
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

Further reading recommendations

For a strange (but totally worth it!) novel from inside the mind of a delusional narrator, read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

For beautiful reflections on humility, the true self, and love (among other topics), read Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.

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