Addiction Begins with Self-Deception
Every kind of addiction begins with similar self-deception:
“This won’t hurt anybody.”
“I’ll only do it once.”
“I haven’t had any for a week.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“I can handle it.”
“I can quit whenever I want to.”
Believing the Lie
Billy is a seven-year-old boy who loves to draw pictures. But he’s not your typical seven-year-old who likes to draw. He has an unmatched talent as an artist. The pictures he sketches are riveting. Billy’s parents are highly moralistic. They are also coldly disengaged from their son’s talent.
They fear that Billy will grow up very prideful over his unique talents as an artist. Plus, forging a career as an artist is not a noble goal in their eyes. So Billy’s parents tell him that his drawings are not very good and that he should stop drawing. So he does. Billy lays down his crayons, his colored pencils, and his markers.
Ten years pass by, and Billy is a high school student. He takes health as one of his electives. One day his teacher gives her students an exercise in projective personality tests. Each student must draw a picture depicting the happiest moment in his or her life and the saddest moment. To his surprise, Billy finds himself doing something that he hasn’t done in ten years. He begins to draw pictures. Upon finishing his pictures, four students who are sitting nearby take a peek at the product of his pen. They are aghast.
They blurt out, “My goodness, Billy, that’s awesome! Wow, you have a real gift, man.” Billy is shocked. He suspects that they are poking fun at him. “Yeah right,” he retorts. “I know I can’t draw, so save the sarcasm.” One of the four students waves the teacher over, saying, “You gotta get over here and see this.”
As the teacher walks over to Billy’s desk, her eyes widen. She says to the young man, “Billy, these are the most incredible drawings I’ve ever seen. You really have a talent. Have you considered taking art class?” Still, Billy has a hard time believing what he is hearing. Why? Because for the last decade his parents have told him that he cannot draw well. Yet the reality all along was that Billy was a gifted artist. But that’s not how he perceived himself. The lie was easy to believe because it was repeatedly told to him by those he expected to tell the truth.
The Caffeine Study and Self-Deception
In one fascinating study some years ago, subjects were presented with evidence suggesting that there was a correlation between heavy caffeine use and breast cancer. Subjects were then asked to report on whether or not (or to what degree) they found the evidence convincing. In the female population, heavy consumers of caffeine were significantly less convinced than were those who consumed less.
The male population was significantly more convinced than were the female heavy consumers, and there was little difference between heavy and light caffeine consumers in the male population. The studies revealed, in other words, that those for whom the hypothesis was bad news were least likely to be convinced by the evidence. Related studies reveal that we often spend more time scrutinizing evidence for a view if we find it threatening than if we find it benign.
This is especially true if we’re presented with the evidence in public. Apparently, we’re more likely to scrutinize evidence for opposing views if we think we’ll be called on to answer for that evidence. If we believe we’ve been presented with the evidence in private, we’re less likely to give it much attention.
The Fictions We Live
The simple truth of our being gets lost in the metanarratives we spin. We become the fictions we live. Consequently, our way of being in the world is so false and unnatural that our presence is thoroughly ambiguous.
It is no wonder that we find the presence of most people so clouded as to be not worth noticing, and it is no wonder that a truly unclouded presence is so luminous and so compellingly noteworthy!
The Frequency Illusion
You decide to buy a certain kind of car, and suddenly you see it everywhere. A friend recommends an obscure movie to you, and by the end of the week, three more people have mentioned it. You find out you’re having a baby and now you’re surrounded by pregnant women in every shopping aisle, church classroom, and train station. It’s not just you, and it is a real thing. So real, in fact, that there are actual names for it. Known as Blue Car syndrome, or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, this is when we hear or experience something and suddenly it seems to appear everywhere.
It’s also called frequency illusion, which, of course, implies these things are not, in actuality, happening or appearing more often than normal, but because they have been brought to your attention, your brain notices them more often.
The Gorilla & The Lion
A man who is desperate for work applies to a zoo that he’s heard has some openings. “Well, it’s a little unusual, but I do have something,” said the zoo director. “Our gorilla died sometime ago, and we haven’t had the money to replace him. If you’re willing to wear a monkey suit and impersonate an ape, you’ve got the job.”
It didn’t feel terribly authentic, but the man figured a job’s a job, so he signed on. After a few awkward days he began to get into the spirit of the thing, and soon he became one of the zoo’s prime attractions. One morning he was swinging from one vine to the next with a little too much animation and inadvertently swung himself right over the wall into the cage next to his – which was occupied by an enormous African lion.
The man could feel the lion’s hot breath on his face. He knew he was a goner. Reflexively, he began screaming for help, when suddenly the lion whispered urgently to him, “Shut up, you idiot, or we’ll both be out of a job!”
Groupthink & a Mining Accident
To be sure, groups, when they are functioning well, can be among our best defenses against vicious self-deception. But when group thinking is replaced by what psychologists call “groupthink,” results can be disastrous. Irving Janis begins his treatment of groupthink by describing the case of Pitcher, Oklahoma. Daniel Goleman nicely summarizes the case as follows:
In 1950 a local mining engineer warned the people of this small mining town to flee. An accident had virtually undermined the town; it might cave in any minute. The next day at the Lion’s Club meeting, the town leaders joked about the warning. When one arrived wearing a parachute, they laughed and laughed. The message “it can’t happen here” implicit in their hilarity was sadly contradicted within a few days: some of these same men and their families were killed in the cave-in.
How We Rationalize By Søren Kierkegaard
In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard describes a “moment” familiar to all of us. It is the “little tiny transition from having understood to doing.” Here’s what he says about it:
…if a person does not do what is right the very second he knows it is the right thing to do—then, for a start, the knowledge comes off the boil. Next comes the question of what the will thinks of the knowledge. The will is dialectical and has underneath it the whole of man’s lower nature. If it doesn’t like the knowledge, it doesn’t immediately follow that the will goes and does the opposite of what was grasped in knowing — such strong contrasts are presumably rare; but then the will lets some time pass; there is an interim called “We’ll look into it tomorrow.”
During all this knowing becomes more and more obscured, and the lower nature more and more victorious…. And then when the knowing has become duly obscured, the will and the knowing can better understand one another. Eventually they are in entire agreement, since knowing has now deserted to the side of the will and allows it to be known that what the will wants is quite right.
I’m Great at What I Do
I’m a college professor — I have been for almost a decade. I work reasonably hard at my job, and I think I do it fairly well. In fact, in my honest and solitary moments, when there’s no occasion for false humility, I’d say I’m a better-than-average teacher.
I’m in good company. A recent study revealed that 94 percent of the people who do what I do think they’re doing a better-than average job. And if s not just college professors. “A survey of one million high-school seniors found that 70 percent thought they were above average in leadership ability, and only 2 percent thought they were below average.”
In terms of ability to get along with others, all students thought they were above average, 60 percent thought they were in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent thought they were in the top 1 percent!” Clearly, a lot of people are wrong about how they stack up in comparison with their peers.
Fortunately, I’m not one of them. Am I?
Let Us Not Turn the Cross Into a Metaphor
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous.
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,
we are embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
Like a Sleeping Bat
In The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor’s character Tarwater works hard not to think about his lost faith. But ultimately, we can only lie to ourselves for so long before we acknowledge the truth:
In the darkest, most private part of his soul, hanging upside down like a sleeping bat, was the certain undeniable knowledge that he was not hungry for the bread of life. Had the bush flamed for Moses, the sun stood still for Joshua, the lions turned aside before Daniel only to prophesy the bread of life? Jesus?
He felt a terrible disappointment in that conclusion, a dread that it was true…. He tried when possible to pass over these thoughts, to keep his vision located on an even level, to see no more than what was in front of his face and to let his eyes stop at the surface of that. It was as if he were afraid that if he let his eye rest for an instant longer than was needed to place something—a spade, a hoe, the mule’s hind quarters before his plow, the red furrow under him — that the thing would suddenly stand before him, strange and terrifying, demanding that he name it and name it justly and be judged for the name he gave it. He did all he could to avoid this threatened intimacy of creation.
Nothing to Hide
The relationship between wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been well chronicled by historians of the period. On one visit to the United States, Roosevelt wheeled himself right into the British Prime Minister’s bedroom, opened the door to find Churchill completely naked and yet unashamed. Churchill’s response was classic: “You see, Mr. President, we British have nothing to hide.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Opening Our Eyes to Deception
It’s important, then, to have our eyes open to this deception. How is it that so many modern promises sound true but in the end lead to our deception, or even our destruction? A long, long time ago, the English Puritan Thomas Brooks wrote:
“Now the best way to deliver poor souls from being deluded and destroyed by these messengers of Satan is, to discover them in their colours, that so, being known, poor souls may shun them, and fly from them as from hell itself.”
In other words, the best thing to do is to expose the lies, examine how they work, explore why they’re so compelling, and explain how to overcome them with the truth. We must “discover them in their colours.”
Our Moral Superiority
Researchers at the University of London concluded that “a substantial majority of individuals believe themselves to be morally superior to the average person” and that this illusion of ours is “uniquely strong and prevalent.” They write, “Most people strongly believe they are just, virtuous, and moral; yet regard the average person as distinctly less so.”
And among their study participants, “virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities, and the absolute and relative magnitude of this irrationality was greater than that in the other domains of positive self-evaluation.”1 And we have a lot of self-delusions. Perhaps you’ve heard that 93 percent of us genuinely believe we’re above-average drivers.
Perhaps you’ve seen studies that show we also think we’re smarter than average. And we’re friendlier too. Plus we’re more ambitious than average. You might think with all of this awesomeness, we might have an ego problem, but good news: we also rate ourselves as more modest than others!
So, yes, we’re better at everything than everybody, but at least we’re humble about it. That’s not surprising because we’re us, and, you know, we’re cool like that. But what about people we assume simply must be less moral than us? Murderers, thieves, and the like—surely they’d have a more reasonable assessment, right? Why, no, actually. The incarcerated population also thinks they’re more moral than everyone else. Prisoners find themselves to be kinder than the average person. And more generous. The professor who conducted the study of prisoners wrote, “The results showcase how potent the self-enhancement motive is. It is very important for people to consider themselves good, valued, and esteemed, no matter what objective circumstances might be.”
We have a serious problem:
All of us think we’re good people.
But Jesus says we’re not.
Sincerely, Brant P. Hansen
…PS. IF YOU THINK I’M WRONG—about how we think we’re good people—I offer this challenge: Go ahead and ask someone. Seriously, if you’re reading this at a coffee shop, ask the stranger sitting at the next table, “So, are you a good person? Would you say you’re more moral than the average person?”
Given my studies in this area, I can predict their response with 98 percent confidence, and it’s “I’m calling the police.” But while the authorities are being dispatched, try to get a serious answer.
If they give you their honest take, you’ll hear something like, “Why, yes, I do think I’m more moral than the average person.” This is predictable because social scientists have asked these questions for decades, and the result is the same: We all think we’re more moral than average. It’s remarkable how good we are. Just ask us, and we’ll tell you about it.
Our Unlimited Capacity for Self-Deception
Recently at church I asked our congregation, “How many of you battle with self-deception?” A few people in the crowd raised their hands. Then I asked, “How many of you know someone who is very self-deceived?” You guessed it. Almost everyone knew someone else who’s guilty of self-deception. Chances are you do too. You probably know someone who thinks more highly of themselves than they should. Or you might have a relative who thinks he’s funny, but everyone else thinks he’s annoying. You likely know someone who has a problem but will deny it until the cows come home.
It’s hard to be objective about ourselves. I laughed as I explained to our church that we have a statistical problem. Almost no one in our church believes that they are self-deceived, and yet almost everyone knows someone who is. Why? Because we have an unlimited capacity to deceive ourselves. As we lie to ourselves (“I’m a great singer”), we start to believe our lies. The more we tell the lies, the more we believe they are truth.
Persuading Ourselves of the Truth
When we observe evil, sinful behavior from a distance, the inclination is simply to see people as acting with malicious intent. We assume they are “bad people.” But often the motivations that lead to significant lapses in moral behavior are quite different. Because most people want to see themselves generally as “good,” they engage in a complex game of rationalizing and self-deception that enables them to perform these sinful acts. Over time, what starts as a set of questionable lies we tell ourselves becomes capital T “Truth.” An excellent example of this from history took place during the Watergate scandal. In an interview from 1975, the whistleblower of Watergate, John Dean, explains just how this worked with those involved in the scandal:
INTERVIEWER: You mean those who made up the stories were believing their own lies?
DEAN: That’s right. If you said it often enough, it would become true. When the press learned of the wire taps on newsmen and White House staffers, for example, and flat denials failed, it was claimed that this was a national-security matter. I’m sure many people believed that the taps were for national security; they weren’t. That was concocted as a justification after the fact. But when they said it, you understand, they really believed it.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Lyndon Johnson was known as a master at the game of self-justification. His biographer, Robert Caro, described what would happen when Johnson came to believe something to be true, he would believe in it “totally, with absolute conviction, regardless of previous beliefs, or of the facts in the matter.”
George Reedy, an aide who witnessed the same behavior, described LBJ as having “had a remarkable capacity to convince himself that he held the principles he should hold at any given time, and there was something charming about the air of injured innocence with which he would treat anyone who brought forth evidence that he had held other views in the past. It was not an act … He had a fantastic capacity to persuade himself that the ‘truth’ which was convenient for the present was the truth and anything that conflicted with it was the prevarication of enemies. He literally willed what was in his mind to become reality.”
Stuart Strachan Jr, with Source Material from John Dean, interview by Barbara Cady, January 1975; Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Knopf, 2002), p.886.
Rationalizing: Making Life Possible in a Morally Challenging World
We rationalize to make life with ourselves possible in a morally challenging world. Often the motivation for rationalization, though, is quite different. In recent decades, psychologists have argued convincing that, more often than we think, we are guided not by reasons but by affect, emotion, and gut instinct.
Interestingly, though, we tend to resist this explanation of our own beliefs and decisions. We prefer to think of ourselves as having conscious reasons for what we believe and what we do. In one fascinating study, subjects were asked which of four garments they preferred.
The garments were spread out from left to right. A noticeably disproportionate percentage 40 percent — said that they preferred the rightmost garment. This confirmed what researchers had suspected: people tend to have an unconscious preference for things on their right.
When asked why they chose the item they did, though, subjects quickly and confidently reported reasons. Some talked about the quality of the material, while others talked about the color — despite the fact that the four garments were made of the same material and were identical in color.
Self-Deception Discovers False Solutions
Self-deception . . . blinds us to the true causes of problems, and once we’re blind, all the “solutions” we can think of will actually make matters worse. Whether at work or at home, self-deception obscures the truth about ourselves, corrupts our view of others and our circumstances, and inhibits our ability to make wise and helpful decisions. To the extent that we are self-deceived, our happiness and our leadership [are] compromised at every turn.
Remember Aesop’s Fox? Having spied some ripening grapes on a lofty branch, he tried with all his might to jump and take them. Once it dawned on him that he would not—could not—succeed, sulked away, saying, I’m sure they’re sour anyway. What about the reaction of the schoolboy whose fame owing a cut finger suddenly waned when Tom Sawyer showed up with a new “talent,” having just endured the trial of having his pulled?
But all trials bring their compensations. As Tom wended to school after breakfast, he was the envy of every boy he met because the gap in his upper row of teeth enabled him to expectorate in a new and admirable way-He gathered quite a following of lads interested in the exhibition; and one that had cut his finger and had been a centre of fascination and homage up to this time, now found himself suddenly without an adherent, and shorn of his glory.
His heart was heavy, and he said with a disdain which he did not feel that it wasn’t anything to spit like Tom Sawyer, but another boy said, “Sour grapes!” and he wandered away a dismantled hero.
Gregg A. Ten Elshof, I told me so: Self Deception and the Christian Life, Eerdmans, 2009. Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1992)
The Vase and the Cat
A man wanders into a small antique shop in San Francisco. Mostly it’s cluttered with knickknacks and junk. On the floor, however, he notices what looks like an ancient Chinese vase. On closer inspection it turns out to be a priceless relic from the Ming dynasty whose value is beyond calculating. It is worth everything else in the store put together. The owner clearly has no idea about the value of this possession, because it’s filled with milk and the cat’s drinking out of it.
The man sees an opportunity for the deal of a lifetime. He cleverly strategizes a method to obtain the vase for a fraction of its worth. “That’s an extraordinary cat you have,” he says to the owner. “How much would you sell her for?”
“Oh, the cat’s not really for sale,” said the owner. “She keeps the store free of mice.”
“I really must have her,” the man countered. “Tell you what – I’ll give you a hundred dollars for her.”
“She’s not really worth it,” laughed the owner, “but if you want her that badly, she’s yours.”
“I need something to feed her in as well,” continued the man. “Let me throw in another ten dollars for that saucer she’s drinking out of.”
“Oh, I could never do that. That saucer is actually an ancient Chinese vase from the Ming dynasty. It is my prized possession, whose worth is beyond calculation. Funny thing, though; since we’ve had it, I’ve sold seventeen cats.”
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Deception. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!