“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life,” Virginia Woolf wrote as she considered how our illusions keep us alive, shining a sidewise gleam on an elemental fact of human nature: We are touchingly prone to mistaking our models of reality for reality itself, mistaking the strength of our certainty for the strength of the evidence, thus moving through a dream of our own making that we call life. It can only be so — given how many parallel truths comprise any given situation, given how multifarious the data points packed into any single experience, given that this very moment “you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you,” we are simply not capable of processing the full scope of reality. Our minds cope by choosing fragments of it to the exclusion, and often to the erasure, of the rest.
But what we choose and how we choose it defines the measure of our sanity, and how we go about choosing our adaptive delusions over the maladaptive ones defines our fitness for life. That is what philosopher Amélie Rorty (May 20, 1932–September 18, 2020) explores in a marvelous 1994 paper in the Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, marvelously titled User-Friendly Self-Deception.
Recognizing that “many varieties of self-deception are ineradicable and useful,” Rorty writes:
We should not wish to do without the active, self-induced illusions that sustain us. Nor can we do without second order denials that they are illusions, the second order and regressive strategies that we self-deceptively believe rationalize our various self-deceptive activities. The question is: how can we sustain the illusions essential to ordinary life, without becoming self-damaging idiots? Are there forms of user-friendly self-deception that do not run the dangers that falsity, irrationality and manipulation are usually presumed to bring?
Self-deception, she notes, has various “cousins and clones” — among them “compartmentalization, adaptive denials, repressed conflicts and submerged aggressions, false consciousness, sublimation, wishful thinking, suspiciously systematic errors in self-reflection” — some of which are socially rewarded for their adaptive value in helping us attain our goals:
When we admire persistent and dedicated single-minded attention that systematically resists the distraction of fringe phenomena, we call it courage or purposeful resolution.
But as much as self-deception might animate our own inner lives, with our reflexive tendency to mistake self-righteousness for morality, we too readily indict with self-delusion anyone whose model of reality differs from ours:
The person who does not have our favoured reactions is open game for the charge of self-deception, if not of a more serious form of psychological abnormality.
One necessity of self-deception is the paradox of the self in time: We must each answer the question of what makes us and our childhood selves the “same” person despite a lifetime physical and psychological change, and we can only do so with a certain measure of self-deception, because, of course, in some essential sense we are not the same person — our personhood is pocked by inconstancy and inner contradiction, unstable across time. As Iris Murdoch reminds us, “the self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion” — the fundamental illusion upon which the structure of human life is built.
Rorty considers the psychological roots and mechanisms of self-deception:
Like deception, self-deception is a species of rhetorical persuasion; and like all forms of persuasion, it involves a complex, dynamic and co-operative process. Successful deceivers are acute rhetoricians, astute seducers who know how to co-opt the psychology of their subjects. They begin with minute and subtle interactions designed to establish trust, with a manner of approach, certain gestures and intonation patterns, intimations of directed and redirected attention.
With an eye to the social dimension of all deception, she adds:
Deception and self-deception are not merely detached conclusions of invalid arguments: they are interactive processes with a complex cognitive and affective aetiology.
The canny self-deceiver puts herself in situations where her deflected attention will be strongly supported by her fellows.
It is extremely difficult to sustain self-deception without a little help from our friends, often rendered by observant but tactful silence.
This very fact points at the best antidote to harmful self-deception:
Since we are highly susceptible to socially induced self-deception, the wisest practical course is to be very careful about the company we keep… Unfortunately self- deception is just the thing that prevents us from seeking its best therapy: it does not know when to expand, and when to limit its epistemological company. Fortunately, we have many other kinds of reasons for being astute about the company we keep. With luck, a canny self-deceiver’s other psychological and intellectual habits — a taste for astringency and a distrust of hypocrisy, for instance — can prevent the wild imperialistic tendencies of self-deception from becoming entrenched and ramified.
Much self-deception, Rorty observes, is not a matter of outright lying to oneself, but of selective attention and fragmentation of truth:
Self-deception need not involve false belief: just as the deceiver can attempt to produce a belief which is — as it happens — true, so too a self-deceiver can set herself to believe what is in fact true. A canny self-deceiver can focus on accurate but irrelevant observations as a way of denying a truth that is importantly relevant to her immediate projects.
This is something that stems from the psychological machinery of all deception, possible because “any experience is open to an indefinite number of true and even relatively salient descriptions”:
Clever deceivers rarely tell outright falsehoods. It’s too risky. The art of deception is closely related to the magician’s craft: it involves knowing how to draw attention to a harmless place, to deflect it away from the action. Deeply entrenched patterns of perceptual, emotional and cognitive dispositions serve as instruments of deception. A skilled deceiver is an illusionist who knows how to manipulate the normal patterns of what is salient to their audience. He places salient markers — something red, something anomalous, something desirable — in the visual field, to draw attention just where he wants it. The strategy of perceptual self-deception is identical: the trick is to place oneself where patterns of salience are likely to deflect attention away from what we do not wish to see.
But for all of its pitfalls, and for all the urgency of continually questioning when it becomes self-defeating, self-deception can be greatly beneficent in our endeavors of self-transformation and growth, offering assurance that bolsters our will and an antidote to the “generalized uncertainty about the worth of our projects.” Rorty writes:
By convincing themselves that a desired self-transformation is within relatively easy reach, canny self-improvers can use self-deception as an energizing instrument.
Self-deception is also necessary in propping up the precarious pillar of modern life in this century of selfing — identity:
We invent something we call our identity, resting our self-respect on our engaging in its projects, independently of any other measure of their merits.
But perhaps the most essential function of healthy self-deception is in allaying our ambivalence about projects and life-choices that bring us tremendous rewards, but also have tremendous personal costs, an accurate assessment of which might undermine our willingness to undertake them:
Without some species of self-deception, our dedications, our friendships, our work, our causes would collapse. In deciding to have children, we ignore the travails of parents, obliterating our otherwise keen awareness of the typical relations among parents and children; in devoting ourselves to writing philosophy, we conveniently forget how little philosophy we are willing to read; in the interest of sanity and joy, we sidestep our deep ambivalences about our kith and kin.
Disguising and submerging the ambivalence that is natural to most of our enterprises not only brings us the energy, verve, style and ease that successful action requires; it also helps to assure the social co-operation that is equally essential to our individual and collective projects. A good deal of the polite conversation of social life, — the public description of the joys of our social roles and functions (friend, mother, teacher, scholar) — channels and streams us to play our parts without the mess, confusion and upheaval that would occur if we openly expressed our natural and sensible ambivalence about these roles. It is virtually impossible to imagine any society that does not systematically and actively promote the self-deception of its members, particularly when the requirements of social continuity and cohesion are subtly at odds with one another and with the standard issue psychology of their members. Socially induced self-deception is an instrument in the preservation of social co-operation and cohesion.
Complement with Walter Lippmann’s superb century-old anatomy of deception and self-delusion, then revisit Rorty on what makes a person: the seven layers of identity, in literature and life.