Officials or engineers at a large automaker convince themselves that it's OK to install software that cheats on vehicle emissions; shareholders lose their investments, consumers are betrayed, and 11 million cars spew destructive gases around the world.
A smoker goes for a hike, decides that she's careful enough with her cigarettes to light up, and accidentally starts a forest fire that destroys tens of thousands of acres, hundreds lose their homes, and six firefighters die.
A driver tells herself that it's OK for her to text while driving, gets distracted, hits another car, and kills three kids.
A clergy member rationalizes that having sex with a boy will actually give the boy the love and affection he so badly needs. The boy carries intense shame as long as he can but eventually kills himself.
These are just more dramatic examples of the psychological defense mechanism that we all use to some extent every day -- rationalization -- the attempt to use reason to justify behavior that is neither reasonable nor justifiable. Often the results are minor and relatively harmless: some unkind words tossed out, a hundred extra calories consumed, a few dollars spent impulsively, or a couple of grams of carbon dioxide created by a light bulb left burning needlessly.
But these small self-deceptions can add up, and the results can be painful and destructive, to ourselves and to the community around us.
Would any of this happen if we were more aware? Yes, certainly some of it would still happen. But certainly less of it would happen, too.
Why We Do It
We deceive ourselves for many reasons: sometimes to simply justify an indulgence, but more often to avoid feelings of insecurity. We justify destructive behavior out of a deep need to feel smart, virtuous, powerful, or competent. But basically to feel safe. Insecurity is at epidemic levels in our can-do culture and it takes a huge toll through compensatory self-deception.
For instance, let's look at the role of insecurity and self-deception in racism. If we need to feel better about ourselves we may think critically of someone or some group of people in order to prop up a diminished self-image. In a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, students who were told that they had scored poorly on an IQ test were more likely to denigrate people of another race. And if we deny that racism is both insidiously prevalent and deadly, we are deceiving ourselves.
Note that we try to use reason to justify behavior. Many of us would like to think of ourselves as totally rational beings -- as if all of our decisions were conscious and logical. Rationalization likes to pose as civilized, enlightened and commonsensical, and is thereby more insidious. When we believe that we're so sensible, we're more vulnerable to being swayed by our feelings. We deceive ourselves by thinking we are acting on reason, when we're really acting on emotion.
As Robert Trivers has written in his book on self-deception, The Folly of Fools: "A very disturbing feature of overconfidence is that it often appears to be poorly associated with knowledge -- that is, the more ignorant the individual, the more confident he or she may be." (Page 22)
On the other hand, when we take into account feelings (such as insecurity) that influence our attitudes and actions, we're less likely to self-deceive, and less likely to engage in destructive behavior.
What We Can Do About It
But here's the problem: How do we know when we're deceiving ourselves? First of all, we need to acknowledge that we all self-deceive to some extent. Then we can honestly and compassionately use self-reflection to try to see where our vulnerable spots are.
But probably the most effective approach is to be involved with people that can help keep us honest: family, friends, communities such as 12-step groups, or a therapist. Ideally they help us not only with specific instances in which we might deceive ourselves, but more importantly they help us to recognize our patterns of self-deception, our blind spots, and take them into account. (I think that this is one of the healthy benefits of friendly or affectionate teasing.)
This is one of the reasons that I believe that depth psychotherapy is good not just for the individual, but also for the rest of the world: Week in, week out, you do your best to be honest with yourself, and that honesty becomes a habit. You take into consideration the feelings that would otherwise exert unconscious control, and you do your best to behave more mindfully. You learn that you (your conscious ego) are not always driving your own bus, and you learn that other parts of your personality (the less conscious parts that you might try to deny) are often in the driver's seat.
One hundred years ago Carl Jung named these aspects of the personality that we try to hide from others and from ourselves "the shadow," the part that's not exposed to the light. Now we have an increasing trove of sophisticated research which confirms that much of our behavior is initiated outside of consciousness.
But that research also implies that we are able to make conscious decisions to arrest unconscious behavior -- if we acknowledge the existence of the unconscious. When we stop trying to deny that we have a shadow -- and believe me, we all have a shadow -- we deal more effectively with it. Denial of shadow is one of our most ubiquitous forms of self-deception.
And here's why all this matters: the more aware you are, the more you're part of the solution. The more of us that are conscious, the less vulnerable our world is to crazy, self-deceiving and self-destructive herd mentality.
So the next time you have that vague sense that something's not quite right, that maybe you're fooling yourself, slow down and check it out. Ask yourself and those around you what's really going on. You may be doing your small part in making the world a safer place.
You can follow Gary on Twitter at gary_trosclair.