I have always been fascinated by the human capacity for self-deception.
When I was a child, I became aware that people are deluded on a massive scale. They are not just deluded, however. They passionately defend their delusions against correction.
To some extent, this is just because people are liars. Society creates an environment in which deception is often useful. But many delusions cannot be explained as an attempt to deceive others. Religion is a good example. It is obviously false. It wouldn’t fool anyone, unless they wanted to be fooled. Our biggest deceptions are self-deceptions.
This raises two questions:
- Why do we deceive ourselves?
- How can we deceive ourselves?
In Social Delusions, I explained how social feedback can create mass delusions. In a social delusion, most people believe X because most people believe X. The inductive basis for the belief is just the belief itself. Social delusions are collective self-deception.
People also deceive themselves as individuals, for social reasons. A society consists of selfish individuals. Each individual tries to maximize his benefits and minimize his costs within society. In other words, he tries to maximize his rights and minimize his obligations.
An individual could increase his benefits by working hard and cooperating with others. Society is a work-exchange system. It allows individuals to exchange their labor for benefits produced by others. But each individual would like to rig the system in his favor. He can try to maximize his rights and minimize his obligations through persuasion, rather than cooperation and hard work. Rights and obligations exist only in minds (they are intersubjective), and so they can be changed by persuasion.
Advocacy and promotion are types of persuasion. The individual naturally engages in self-advocacy and self-promotion. Self-advocacy is the attempt to socially construct rights and obligations in your favor. Self-promotion is the attempt to shape how others view you, through signaling (how you present yourself to others). Self-advocacy and self-promotion are not necessarily dishonest, but they tend to be somewhat deceptive. Neither is motivated by the desire to communicate the truth.
This deception need not be self-deception. The individual knows that he is not entirely honest in his dealings with others. However, the deception of others can lead to self-deception. Dishonesty tends to propagate inward. It is easier to deceive others if you are also deceived.
Ideas have social functions, and those social functions can override the function of representing reality. An idea can be used to promote yourself, advocate for yourself, define a social identity, or simply fit in with others who have the same idea.
Knowledge is shaped by how we use it. If you mostly use a certain type of knowledge to mediate social interactions, then it will be shaped by that use. It could be more useful to have false knowledge than true knowledge, if the false knowledge makes self-advocacy and self-promotion easier.
Social pressures shape knowledge, and sometimes pull it away from the truth. The process of learning is mostly subconscious. We can learn deceptions without being aware that they are deceptions. We can learn to believe convenient lies. We can even learn to believe different lies in different situations.
Morality is a major cause of self-deception. It is a big lie that leads to many little lies. We pretend to be “good”, as individuals and collectives. The pretense of moral goodness requires that we disguise our selfishness and demonize our competitors.
Every society has a myth of its own moral superiority and the moral inferiority of outsiders. This myth has an important social function. It justifies a moral double standard. Outsiders are treated differently than insiders. Every society has to suppress conflict within the group and direct aggression at outsiders. The myth also functions as a signal of group identity — a gang-sign. If an individual rejects the myth, he is identifying himself as an outsider and an enemy. That is one of the reasons for conformity. The individual is compelled to conform to the mythos of the group, or be expelled from it. In most cases, this involves internal as well as external conformity. He not only socially professes the group mythos, he believes it.
The individual has a personal myth of his own moral goodness. This myth is tied to his social persona. He presents himself to others as a good person. Of course, this has a selfish motive. The pretense of virtue is a way to get social approval and status. People pretend to be altruistic for selfish reasons. This pretense is easier to maintain if the individual believes it himself. So, he comes to believe that he is morally good. To deceive others, he deceives himself.
The pretense of moral goodness is like the “emperor’s new clothes”, but everyone is naked, not just the emperor. Everyone claims to have different motives than they actually have, and everyone goes along with this pretense. Anyone who dares to question this collaborative pretense is labeled “evil”, as if they were unique in being selfish, rather than unique in being honest about it.
Hypocrisy is a type of self-deception. It involves two contradictory views that are activated in different situations, depending on which is most useful.
For example, there are many people who preach that the rich countries of the West should allow immigration from poorer countries. They are appealing to the moral norm that we should be altruistic and help others in need. However, the same people will not (generally speaking) take homeless strangers into their own homes, or inconvenience themselves in any major way to fulfill this supposed moral obligation. They apply this moral norm to their society, when it costs them nothing personally. They don’t apply it to themselves, when they would have to pay the costs. They use the moral norm to signal their virtue to others, but not to generate individual acts of charity. They are selfish in their application of altruism.
In most cases, people are not aware of their hypocrisy. If it is pointed out, they become confused and experience cognitive dissonance. They have learned to be subconsciously hypocritical. They don’t know that their pretense of goodness is a pretense.
Virtue-signaling is a memetic tragedy of the commons. People receive the benefits of their virtue-signaling as individuals, and they transfer the costs to the collective. Thus, there is an incentive for individuals to signal their support for socially destructive policies of various kinds. This is a major cause of social irrationality.
Virtue-signaling can turn democracy into a tragedy of the commons. Because a single vote has almost no effect on an election, political beliefs are not selected to make good collective decisions. Instead, political beliefs are used by individuals to signal virtue, often at the expense of the collective.
Social pressures push us away from the truth. Society creates a fog of delusion, pretense and deception. This fog is a tragedy of the commons. It is memetic pollution that hides the truth. Society makes us lie to each other, and it makes us lie to ourselves.