Why We Fool Ourselves

Let’s accept it, all of us deceive ourselves. We lie to ourselves through our teeth. Our minds habitually distort (or ignore) critical information. We routinely engage in what we call wishful thinking, we bury our heads in the sand, and once in a while we never forget to drink our own Kool-Aid.

If you don’t believe me, tell me, why do smokers (but not non-smokers) choose not to hear the dangerous effects of smoking? Why do people systematically underestimate their risk of contracting COVID-19? And why do most people believe they are better drivers, leaders, managers than the average?

Sigmund Freud believed self-deception is a (somewhat unconscious) coping strategy or a defence mechanism — a way for our ego to protect itself, and for us to preserve our self-esteem. We have a habit of repressing painful thoughts. (What’s Freud’s lifelong obsession with repressed feelings?)

Remember Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” from A Few Good Men? Yeah, Nicholson is our subconscious trying to save us from the truth. Our egos and self-esteem are fragile and need to be shielded from distressing information — like the fact that we didn’t get promoted because we aren’t good enough, and not because of favouritism. We are like that fox in Aesop’s fable, and the grapes are sour when we can’t have them.

This sounds plausible, except for this: information is the lifeblood of the human brain, so why would evolution design our brains this way — making it ignore or distort valuable information? If the goal is really to preserve self-esteem, a better way to go about it is to simply make the brain’s self-esteem mechanism more robust (or should I say antifragile) to threatening information.

If evolution is the best possible outcome after millions of trial and error, we can’t possibly say that evolution didn’t know what it was doing. Because then self-deception would be like trying to reduce a fever by putting the thermometer in cold water. The temperature would read low, but it won’t stop us from shivering.

We do deceive ourselves, but unlike what Freud and the likes assumed, self-deception isn’t inward-facing, defensive, and self-defeating. It’s rather outward-facing, manipulative, and self-serving.

In his book The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling talks about “mixed-motive games” that people play where their interests partially overlap but also partially diverge. Therefore, players have an incentive to cooperate, but at the same time they are also at odds with each other.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Schelling talks about the games we play in real life — where we have to cooperate but also compete, sometimes at the same time. For example, while making a deal, we have to cooperate with our counterpart so that we can make the deal, but also compete so that we benefit the most out of it.

Mixed-motive games are what our minds are built for. But having said that, they can sometimes incentivise strange, counterintuitive behaviour. Schelling explains this with the game of chicken.

A game of chicken is played between two rednecks in their cars. The players race toward each other at full speed (like Jason Statham and Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious 7) and the player who swerves first loses the game. It’s a fun way to get seriously injured (or die) for nothing, but traditionally speaking it’s a game of bravado. But if you really want to win, you have to do something extremely stupid.

But what could be more stupid that agreeing to play such a game in the first place? It’s removing your steering wheel from your car and waving it at your opponent while you are seconds away from crashing into them at full speed. This way, they’ll know that you’re locked in, dead set, hell-bent, and have completely lost your mind — irrevocably committed to driving straight through no matter what. At this point, unless they want to die, your opponent will have to swerve first. In other words, mixed-motive games contain the kind of incentives that reward self-deception.

In common sense, it’s better to have more options and more knowledge. Yet, as Schelling argues, sometimes limiting or sabotaging ourselves is the winning move. To be clear, there’s no value in actually sabotaging ourselves per se. The value lies in appearing to sabotage ourselves, thereby convincing the other player that we’ve sabotaged ourselves.

In a game of chicken, you don’t win because you’re unable to steer, but because your opponent believes you’re unable to steer. In The Dark Knight, the Joker doesn’t get an upper hand when he meets the mob because he has a bomb, it’s because the mob believes he would blow himself up along with them, you know because he’s the Joker and can literally do anything.

But it can’t be faked. Joker was the Joker. He didn’t fake it. When you’re playing chicken, it won’t do much good to yell at your opponent, “Hey, I’ve torn off my steering wheel!” They won’t believe you until they see you’ve actually done it. The best way to convince others we believe something is to actually believe it.

Politicians are great examples. The social pressure on their beliefs is enormous. Politicians, at least the successful ones, don’t really lie — they regurgitate their own self-deceptions. Why else do you think Trump promised to build a wall?

In conclusion, we humans must self-deceive. Those who refuse to play such mind games will be at a disadvantage. Thus, we are often wise to ignore seemingly critical information and to believe easily refuted falsehoods (think anti-vaxxers, far-right conservatives, and far-left liberals) — and then to prominently advertise our distorted thinking because these are winning moves. Evolutionarily speaking, the better we deceive ourselves, the better we deceive others.

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