Mental Self-deception

          Stren #38, The Avoidance Response, explained one of the eight choices available to our will to direct action.  You met a number of mental pathways that cause us to distort reality, some of which result in us believing that our understanding is accurate.  Because we cannot make effective decisions when reality is blocked from our perception, these patterns are especially dangerous to our well-being.  This stren, #90, Modern Flight Patterns, revisits this important topic as promised, to provide a more thorough understanding of the danger created by mental self-deception.  By increasing your recognition of self-deception, you will attain better control of your life’s experience. 

          The animal portion of our brain  is hardwired at birth with one of our most powerful survival instincts – survival of the fittest.  The most common action choices available to our ancestors in their dangerous environment were fight and flight – physical confrontation or running and hiding.  Danger automatically triggers an emergency “red alert” action state.  Our body undergoes rapid physiological changes to increase our energy level so we can take immediate action.  Chemicals such as adrenalin and stress hormones are released, along with sugar for energy; blood is diverted from our digestive system to muscles; heart rate increases to get more blood to muscles and to the brain make us more alert.  The precision and complexity of this emergency response is a wonder to be admired.  Individuals with the most effective resources to fight or run had the greatest chance to reach reproductive maturity and survive. 

          Nature’s selective tripling of our cerebral cortex, the human portion of our brain, over the last million years, and the introduction of language approximately 50,000 years ago has brought about an important change.  Our ability to consciously manipulate symbols to create common sense solutions and negotiate rules of civility has made us distinct from animals.  The primitive fight/flight response is replaced by methods that are more adaptive in a civilized society.  Physical fighting is usually prohibited and punished, and modern technology makes physically running and hiding more difficult, but the intelligent use of language has allowed us to create alternative “rules” to let us survive and thrive.  Brain has surpassed brawn to provide us unprecedented power that makes us undisputed “king of the beasts.”

          As we develop language and civilization, we invent numerous mental actions to fight or escape danger.  Instead of running from danger using our feet, we apply mental power.  A popular way of running is to “magically” remove the danger from our conscious awareness.  Such self-deception allows us to play now but at great expense later – “short term gain, long term pain”!  The animal portion of our brain, with its motto, “I want what I want when I want it,” has its way until our cerebral cortex has sufficient maturity and common sense.  Present feelings are innately more powerful than objective reason, which lacks the force of emotion unless we teach ourselves the endorsement skills that link emotion to the intelligent action choice.  Common sense wisdom using current knowledge can upgrade prewired solutions that have become ineffective or dangerous.  Stupidity, failing to apply common sense to mental power, increases danger as we ourselves become our own worst enemy. 

          Some expressions of our avoidance actions are deliberate and readily recognized by our conscious mind.  Common examples include procrastination – finding another activity to escape an unpleasant task; substance abuse – inappropriate use of alcohol, drugs, and food; telling lies – “It was my brother who did it”; and physical or emotional withdrawal – deliberately changing a job, spouse, friend, or location rather than facing a stressful situation.  Patterns involving mental self-deception are among the most difficult to manage because individuals believe their own distorted thinking.  Intelligence enables our mind to create various mental means to avoid stress.  Our animal brain is hardwired to instinctively run and hide from danger, and, lacking common sense, it is preprogrammed to seek safety and pleasure and avoid immediate danger and discomfort.  Our cerebral cortex has a more realistic perspective of the long term consequences of self-deception.  It is better positioned to create original actions that prevent the unhappiness and danger that accrues when we block out reality.     

          Individuals who rely on self-deception behaviors to avoid stress often lack motivation and resist giving up their “defense” against discomfort.  Unaware of their lack of awareness, they are more resistant against engaging in the self-education that inspires better alternatives.  Two of our most perceptive minds have provided us complimentary means to recognize our self-deception, a prerequisite for us to take effective action.  Freudian defense mechanisms and Pavlovian conditioning terms have enriched us with new sets of word handles to grasp how we distort reality.  Each helps our conscious awareness to see the effortless self-deception invisible under our radar. 


          We are indebted to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Anna, his daughter/disciple, who identified many of the mental mechanisms we develop to “run away” from the difficult realities of modernity.   His “talk therapy,” psychoanalysis, offered a safe environment to express whatever came to one’s mind.  Difficult or uncomfortable themes would come to the surface in layers, and once accessible to consciousness, they could be examined with the help of the therapist and resolved.  While the treatment was impractical for the mass population because of its cost, it was a valuable research tool.  Freud, a keen observer and winner of Germany’s highest writing award, the Goethe prize, identified many methods by which we unknowingly distort reality.  Self-deception that blocks out our perception of reality can be very dangerous because it shuts down or redirects our problem solving energy to easier but less important issues.  Accurate labels help us identify them in others and ourselves, thus enabling us to take effective action. 

          We all engage in self-deception because it suits our instinctive need to reduce anxiety and perceived danger.  Our mind invents mechanisms to defend against unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and actions.  Some methods of self-deception are so effective in reducing anxiety that they are accepted as truth.  The Common Sense Test of common sense (stren #91) is seen as meaningless, and the attempts by others to replace dogmatism with logic are resisted.  Freud and his disciples have provided us with effective labels to summon what is invisible to our conscious awareness.  The meaning assigned to these labels will help you become consciously aware of the realities we need to face now to prevent the greater danger that comes from ignorance: 

•    denial: we block external events from consciousness and fail to recognize what is apparent to others.  “I can stop drinking whenever I choose.”

•    rationalization: distorting reality to make it less threatening; excuses believed by the individual but no one else.  “It’s because my biorhythms are off.”  “My (our) way, the right way.”  We come to believe our lies.  Self-deception begets more dangerous self-deception. 

•    projection, paranoia: projecting our uncomfortable ideas/feelings onto others; the opposite of turning emotion inward, or guilt.  “They don’t like me because I have pimples.”  “They are thinking evil thoughts and want to harm me.”
•    introjection: imitating someone else’s traits to appease one’s own perceived lack.

•    reaction formation: overcompensation; for example, a person who is unable to accept their attraction to a member of the same sex despises gay people.

•    substitution/displacement: anger is turned inward or to another; upset with the boss,  he kicks the dog or yells at his family.  Depression is often anger we refuse to acknowledge and turn inward.  Our culture prohibits aggression towards others by teaching the human quality we call “guilt.”  The normal “rage response” to frustration is unacceptable and a source of great anxiety.

•    identification with an aggressor: in a highly publicized incident, heiress Patty Hearst was captured by revolutionists, mistreated, and raped, and then identified with their cause and participated as a willing advocate.  Some experts considered her behavior classic brainwashing.

•    undoing: rituals or magical gestures that cancel out unpleasant thoughts, as seen in repetitive hand-washing.  Scrupulosity, excessive atonement, is most common among priests and those with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

•    asceticism: self-denial. The urge for forbidden pleasure, often sexual, is a source of anxiety.  Renouncing pleasure and inflicting pain on oneself is associated with greater rewards for obedience, especially in the hereafter.

•    regression: in the face of stress, we revert to a behavior from a safer time, such as finding a substitute “security blanket;” a four-year-old wets himself or sucks his thumb when a new sibling gets more attention; a docile person may suddenly exhibit primitive aggression or childlike behavior.

•    repression: we fail to recall events or names that would ordinarily be remembered.

•    phobias:  while we may block out the memory of an upsetting event or belief, anticipating the anxiety once linked to the event triggers a “red alert” emergency response.  “What if” followed by anticipation of the most negative (if unlikely) outcome is common: “What if ... I’m trapped in the elevator; the bridge collapses; the plane crashes?”  A hypersensitive emergency response may “go off” without apparent provocation.

•    isolation: emotion is replaced by intellectualization.  Upon the death of a loved one, the bereaved is totally rational. Emotion and symptoms of grief may follow much later.

•    sublimation: the energy associated with unacceptable thoughts or actions is expressed in socially acceptable ways.  Unhappy at home, this person invests abundant energy in his profession or philanthropic service. [Note: sometimes self-deception has a beneficial effect.]

•    conversion disorder (formerly called hysteria): symptoms that appear to be physical are mentally induced.  Fainting was common in Freud’s era, and paralysis of a limb may prevent some action associated with anxiety.

•    physical and/or psychological “illness”: Feigned or exaggerated physical and/or mental illness may excuse one from facing a stressful reality.  Becoming Napoleon or some other powerful person is more satisfying than being “a nobody.”

•    psychosomatic (mind/body) stress: virtually every organ may be the target of a sustained exaggerated state; muscle contraction headache, and neck and back pain are common examples.

          These mental mechanisms that defend us against anxiety are often combined, such as rationalization and denial, to create the helpless/hopeless response.  Common self-deceptions such as, “My action won’t count,” “It’s not my problem,” “I’m too busy,” give temporary comfort while avoiding the reality of irreversible harm from procrastination or avoidance.

          The various forms of self-deception suit our needs temporarily.  Anxiety is reduced by distorting our thoughts and perception of reality.  The most extreme example of the danger this causes is failing to recognize the imminent danger all of humanity faces from the proliferation of WUD.  Nearly our entire population holds the false believe that they are helpless to make a difference; yet common sense would conclude the most likely way we can prevent this catastrophe is to unite peace advocates.  Such collective action requires that a critical number of individuals recognize that their active participation is the most likely way we can create a safe world, which cannot take place while we are caught in self-deception.  
          As a first year medical student, I had the privilege of attending a medical interview with a different terminally ill patient, conducted by Professor Jacob Finesinger every Saturday morning.   Finesinger was interested in determining the benefits of telling patients with a terminal illness the nature of their condition instead of the more common practice of “sparing” them the difficulty of facing their prognosis.  Some patients expressed appreciation for the candid information so they could plan their treatment and remaining days.  Yet, many individuals, having been told, acted in subsequent interviews as if they had no knowledge of their condition, sometimes even being irate about being ignored.  When told again, they “forgot.”  Finesinger concluded that patients wanted the truth, but that partial truth was justified when it was determined an individual was not psychologically ready to receive the whole truth.


          The Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), introduced an objective research methodology, complimentary to Freud’s “free association” method that helps us to recognize our self-deception.  He studied a dog’s natural reflex to salivate when presented with food.  When he sounded a bell each time the food was presented, in a short time, the dog would salivate to the sound of the bell even without food.  He concluded that behavior, including emotions, were based on reflexes that could be “conditioned.”  From Pavlov’s discovery, John B. Watson showed that a young child, unafraid of furry animals, could be conditioned to become fearful and cry when an unpleasant sound was paired with the presentation of a rabbit, dog, or other furry animal.  When the unpleasant sound was no longer presented, the child remained fearful of furry animals, or even a fur coat. 

          Experimental psychologists assert that any event can be paired to any natural response so that the unnatural event, such as the bell or unpleasant sound, will act as an alternative or “second” signal to trigger the natural event.  Sounds, sights, odors, even words and symbols can influence our physiology, mood, and attitude.  Humans are distinct by the degree to which an unnatural signal such as the word “evil,” or an image like the Christian cross or Nazi swastika may trigger behavior that includes our emotions and beliefs.  Beef, ham, monkey brain, sheep’s eye, or ants are a tasty morsel for some, but will disgust others, depending on prior training.  In a recent newspaper story , Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman described once trying lobster, a violation of his religious views, and immediately vomited.  I have directly witnessed this response when a college friend, Mohammed, found what was unmistakably bacon on his soup spoon after being assured no meat was present; another friend fainted after doing what she felt was the polite thing by swallowing the baby bird appetizer presented to her while traveling in China.  The mere thought of biting into a lemon has sufficient power to cause pursing of the lips.

          Stage hypnotists are known to rapidly convince a subject to walk and cluck like a chicken or perform some foolish behavior, and be totally unaware of their folly in the post-hypnotic state.  Perhaps the greatest danger to our survival is that we are so easily “brainwashed” without being aware of it.  Jun Togo, a Japanese peace advocate , has created the term “good and evil addiction” to identify the major cause of bigotry, prejudice, harmful aggression, terrorism, and war.  How perceptive!  Through the years when we are immature, our cerebral cortex is undeveloped, and we are dependent on our animal brain, we are conditioned to view the world in two categories.  We learn to owe our allegiance to “good, right, friend,” and revile and punish what is “evil, wrong, and foe.”  Cooperation and collaboration to create a peaceful world will not be possible until we make ourselves consciously aware that the world isn’t divided into us, the good side, and them, the bad side.  Einstein’s greatest discovery was not E=mc2; his most important insight was “... a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” 


          In preparing this stren on self-deception, a sudden vision connects the insights of Freud and Pavlov. Animals and people alike inherit a survival of the fittest instinct that distorts our perception by dividing the world into opposites.  We are all slaves to the either/or two category thinking that biases us to promote our side ... the good side at the expense of their side ... the evil side.  Only we differ from other life in that we have a specialized freedom organ; we are designed to acquire language and sufficient universal knowledge to influence our own destiny.  We may free our will from fate and circumstance, from nature and our nurturers, to become our own person, what we call self-mastery. 

          The animal portion of our brain has been prewired and perfected through trial and error over hundreds of millions of years to preserve the species – survival of the fittest at any cost!  We not only identify with our species; we are designed to show allegiance to our subspecies, our tribe, our family, and what we interpret as “our side.”  Freud and Pavlov each discovered ways to enlighten us to the self-deception that is innate in our way of thinking.  We are all preconditioned by the survival of the fittest programs encoded in our genes to distort reality into “our side” and “not our side”!  We then label this distortion with such second signals as “good/evil,” “right/wrong,”  “love/hate,”  “help/hurt,” on and on.  Once this dynamic is understood, we can position ourselves to direct our energy to a newer way of thinking.  As we free our will from fate and circumstance, we empower our cerebral cortex with self-mastery, to become our own person.  We will continue to favor dominance through destructive confrontation and war until we teach ourselves the common sense wisdom to cooperate for our mutual benefit.   
          Our cerebral cortex, once mature and educated to think using common sense, is capable of recognizing the benefits of both...and processing of information.  Both...and thinking adds wisdom to the authority of past experience.  It creates awareness that both “good and evil” are within each of us, and not what distinguishes “us” from “them.”  We need the contributions of all tribes to make our wishes and prayers our reality, to make ourselves the humane species to which we aspire.  The common sense wisdoms of our cerebral cortex are considerably more adaptive and dynamic than the static trial-and-error action patterns preprogrammed within our animal brain.  Our animal brain is a well-meaning parent that teaches its child’s freedom organ its perspective, but can predict rebellion from “the old man’s” perspective as the child matures and acquires common sense.  Progress requires that we continue to create newer ways of thinking to replace those that have served to bring us this far.  

          No less than the survival of our species depends on waking ourselves up to our self-deception!  As long as we allow the either/or dichotomous perception of reality to dominate our thinking, no effort to attain lasting peace and well-being will succeed.  World organizations such as the League of Nations and United Nations, religions such as Christianity and Islam, ideologies such as capitalism and communism, governments such as Russia and the United States, political parties such as Democrats and Republicans, divisions by ethnicity, skin color, gender, geographic location, tribal affiliation, and so on, will continue to favor harmful confrontation to dominate more than cooperation and collaboration for mutual benefit.  If we are to prevent the imminent “big bang” that will reverse whatever progress we have thus far enjoyed, we must take urgent action.  This stren will serve its purpose if it helps to wake us up to our self-deception so we can inspire ourselves to establish education in a newer way of thinking that makes common sense common.             


1 The medulla, pituitary, pons, pineal body, cerebellum, and thalamus
 2 The Ego and the Mechanism of Defense; Anna Freud, Hogarth Press, 1937.
 3 The Hartford Courant, “Lieberman’s New Book Extols the Sabbath”,  9/6/11, p. A4.
 4 Good and Evil Addiction;
 5 The New York Times; May 25, 1946.