Resolving to deceive

Stephen Montgomery 21 January 2008

this time of year sees vast swathes of people vehemently decide to change something negative in their lives; give up smoking, drink less, be nicer to people, do a bit more work, you name it. But when the next New Year comes around, most of us will have failed to make any head-way in our quest to improve ourselves.

Undeterred, 60% of us who fail at the first attempt vow to change the same thing next year, and the year after. Why do we continue to deceive ourselves into thinking we’ll better ourselves this year?

This kind of misrepresentation of reality to the conscious mind is likely to be a common, everyday occurrence. It works through subconscious mechanisms. It may involve overstating your perceived strengths, understating your undesirable characteristics or hiding a repetitive habit from your conscious self. The consequences of self-deception may be disastrous. For example, the crashing of Air Florida Flight 90 during a snow storm in 1982 that resulted in the loss of 78 lives has been attributed to self-deception on the part of the pilot, related to the weather conditions and state of the plane. Given the frequency of its occurrence and the disastrous outcomes involved, for self-deception to be maintained through evolution it must confer some sort of benefit. That is, in terms of survival and reproduction, the good must outweigh the bad.

Biologist Robert Trivers has identified a number of possible scenarios whereby self-deception is a beneficial state of mind. Trivers sees the conscious mind as a social front which can be used to manipulate other individuals. We are probably much more aware of how behaviour can be orientated so as to deceive others. Being deceived is usually not a good thing, so mechanisms have evolved to spot situations where someone is trying to mislead us.

Self-deception, however, may aid in hiding a deceitful act; if you don’t know you’re doing it, your victim is less likely to spot it too! Even if they do spot it, the deceiver may be able to avoid the costs of getting caught by more successfully pleading innocence. So it pays to deceive yourself in order to deceive others. Deceiving others of your intentions may be crucial for survival and reproduction in social animals. Think of a social monkey trying to keep his banana for himself or trying to have sex with a female that is defended by a dominant male: in both cases it might be smart to let others think you don’t have a banana, you wouldn’t be interested in one if you had one and the only thing that you’d be interested in less, is sex with any of the females from the dominant male’s harem. “What banana? Sex—haven’t even thought about that…”

Self-deception may help in developing sexual relationships and rising in social and economical status through self-promotion. It may do this by convincing both yourself and thereby others that you are more important, beneficial or harmless to them than you really are. So self-deception may be a ploy to gain social benefits by masking deceitful and selfish motivations. Perhaps this can shed light on why so many people adopt, abandon, then re-adopt New Year’s resolutions. Things we resolve to do are usually characteristics we would like others too see in us: fit (“lose weight”), healthy (“stop smoking”), successful (“make more money”).

A positive reaction from friends and family regarding your resolution may aid in their own self-deception regarding a particular fault: “maybe it’s not so bad after all”. There may also be a social benefit in terms of the way others perceive your faults. Perhaps they may be more willing to turn a blind eye to them since you have declared a desire to change them. In this way, New Year’s resolutions may deceive others into being less critical of your faults. For the time being anyway.

Considered in this way, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much if by 2009 we’ve forgotten our resolution for 2008. Maybe the benefit comes from misrepresenting our faults, and intentions regarding them, to others. What better way to do so than by misrepresenting them to ourselves?

Stephen Montgomery