“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” -Richard Feynman
When I was a boy, my parents often praised me for being intelligent: “Vishal, you’re so smart”; “You’re an intelligent boy”; “You’re as bright as kids come.”
Later, I learned their well-intentioned compliments were setting me up to play the fool.
When I started my first job, I found myself around seriously intelligent people. I remember one day, when I was sitting in a business meeting with several attorneys, I had the realization that I wasn’t all that intelligent. Whenever one of them asked me to explain my reasoning, I’d stammer, backtrack, and manage to say almost nothing to the point.
When I reflected on my terrible performance, I realized that most of my learning hadn’t equipped me to defend a position against intense scrutiny. Defending a position required more than memorizing facts; it required understanding the Why and How behind the facts. Yet most of my education had been geared toward memorizing things, not understanding them.
The pattern continued into adulthood. Even though I read widely, it wasn’t aimed at developing understanding; it was aimed instead at collecting talking points that I could use to impress family, friends, or coworkers—people who wouldn’t ask too many why- or how-questions.
The root cause of this pattern was a desire to feel intelligent—a desire to live up to the image that my parents had unintentionally instilled in me—the desire that I now realize trapped me in a cycle of self deception.
What is Self Deception?
Deception in general happens when you fool someone into having false beliefs. Self deception happens when the person you fool is yourself. It’s possible to get trapped in a cycle of self deception—a cycle that reinforces your false beliefs and that prevents you from knowing and understanding what’s true.
Social psychology shows that humans have a fondness for self deception. People routinely overestimate their positive attributes and underestimate their negative ones. For example, people routinely overestimate their intelligence, attractiveness, and competence; and they underestimate their mistakes, character flaws, and ignorance.
Why do they do this? There’s evidence that some degree of self deception contributes to mental health. Among other things, magnifying our positive attributes and minimizing our negative ones can boost our self-esteem, and self-esteem is essential to mental health. But self deception has a downside: it prevents us from seeing how things really are and from making well-informed decisions.
One of the positive attributes we would like ourselves to have is having true beliefs. We want to feel right about our opinions, beliefs, needs, or feelings. We all want to feel like our view of the world is correct. The problem is that feeling right is not the same as being right, and the desire to feel right can trap us in a cycle of being wrong.
Feeling Right vs. Being Right
Feeling right is not the same as being right; that is, you can feel as though you have true beliefs even if your beliefs are false. Acquiring true beliefs is hard work. It involves learning about a subject matter by studying expert opinions, examining the evidence for and against competing views, assessing the strength of that evidence, making a reasoned judgment about what’s true, and being open to correction in the future.
Being right is hard work. Feeling right, by contrast, is easy. You can feel right just by getting feedback from people who agree with you. Their praise and recognition can make you feel right even when your beliefs are wrong.
Enter: The Cycle of Self Deception
We all want to feel right. It’s part of our instinct for social acceptance: we want to feel as though people agree with what we think. In fact, social acceptance is one of the big evolutionary factors that has molded cognitive biases. (Another is the need to act decisively with little information: hence our tendencies for snap judgments, hasty generalizations, and stereotyping.)
But our desire to feel right can motivate us to think, feel, and do things that yield exactly the opposite result: it can motivate us to insulate ourselves from information and ideas that challenge us to recognize we might be wrong.
The term for insulating ourselves from ideas that challenge our beliefs is “confirmation bias.” Research in evolutionary psychology suggests that we’re hard-wired to magnify information that supports the beliefs we already have and to filter out information that challenges those beliefs.
Consider two examples:
- Suppose I’m a conservative who thinks that immigration is bad for the US. Rather than seeking out counterarguments that would challenge my view, I might watch conservative media, read conservative blogs, and talk to conservative friends who all agree with what I already think.
- Suppose I’m a liberal who thinks that we should have open borders. I might read the New York Times, read liberal blogs and talk to liberal friends on a regular basis to confirm my immigration beliefs.
Hearing views that match your own makes you feel like you’re right, but it doesn’t make the beliefs right. It makes you feel confident and intelligent, and because you enjoy those feelings (who doesn’t?), you keep going back to those sources for more. As a result, you get trapped in a cycle that makes you feel right even if you’re wrong.
(Some people call this an “echo chamber” effect: it’s like being in a room in which you say things only to have the four walls echo those same things back to you.)
Breaking the Cycle of Self Deception
“But what if I actually want to be right and not just feel right? How do I do that?”
If you’re committed to knowing and understanding what’s true and not merely feeling like you know and understand it, you need to break out of the cycle of self deception. The first step is to acknowledge your ignorance; it’s to admit that there are many things you don’t know, and that you need to learn more about.
This step is essential: you can’t learn something you already know, so if you’re telling yourself that you already know something, your mind is closed off to learning more about it. We’ve all had the experience of trying to teach something to someone who’s convinced they have nothing to learn: it’s really hard to get through to them.
The fact is, it’s painful to admit we’re ignorant. So we avoid admitting it, and that avoidance stops us from learning; it keeps us trapped in the cycle of self deception. When you’re afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer,” you deceive yourself about being right: in reality, you’re just feeling right.
When you believe things simply because they line up with the image you have of yourself, you are preventing yourself from taking the steps that are necessary for having true beliefs. You are sacrificing being right for feeling right.
To break out of the cycle of self deception, you need to admit that you don’t know. All learning starts when you acknowledge that you’re ignorant, and say, “I’m ignorant about a subject, but I don’t want to be ignorant about this subject.” Admitting ignorance is the only way to put yourself on the path to really know a lot.
Path to Knowing and Understand
If you don’t want to be self deceived, then you can start by withholding judgment on things you don’t understand. Next, collect evidence from experts in that particular field. When you understand a subject, then you are more likely to be right. If after learning about the subject, you still don’t understand it, then it’s okay to say, “ I don’t know.”