spring/summer 2006, no. 7


In Praise of Self-deception

by David Livingstone Smith


Where shall I stand, when the text of my life deconstructs itself at every turn of the page?  
— Bas van Fraassen

‘Know thyself’ is one of the most successful slogans in history. Thales of Miletus — a philosopher, who flourished in the 6th century before Christ, is credited with having coined the phrase, and Plato tells us that it was inscribed at the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and it is still popular today, over 2500 years later. ‘Know thyself’ sounds terrific in theory, but how feasible — or desirable — is it in practice? According to the Roman writer Diogenes Laertius, who wrote a popular, gossipy book six centuries later called Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Thales described knowing oneself as ‘the most difficult thing in life’.[1] Thales was not alone in this. Even the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant also spoke grimly of the ‘hard descent into the Hell of self-knowledge’ and claimed that self-observation leads to ‘the gloomiest melancholia’, while his younger countryman, the German polymath Wolfgang von Goethe kicked the condemnation up a notch when he stated that ‘know thyself’ is a ‘deception …to confuse humanity with impossible demands.’ 'Know thyself?’ he wrote, ‘If I knew myself I would run away.'[2]  Mark Twain, whose insightful writings were relished by the likes of Charles Darwin, William James and Sigmund Freud hinted why knowing oneself might be so trying: ‘Man, "Know thyself — & then thou wilt despise thyself, to a dead moral certainty.”’[3]  

On the face of it, there is something puzzling about the idea that self-knowledge is difficult to attain. After all, we are more intimately related to ourselves than we are to anything else in the universe, aren’t we? We have to live with ourselves day in and day out, so shouldn’t it follow that we know ourselves better than we know anything else?

To come to grips with the idea of self-knowledge, we need to understand what ‘knowledge’ is — what it means to know something. The English verb ‘to know’ has two meanings that are often confused. In some languages, each of these two meanings has a word all its own (in German, these are ‘kennen’ and ‘wissen’, and in French ‘connaître’ and ‘savoir’). The British philosopher Bertrand Russell was the first person to address the ambiguity of the English ‘know’, and tried to rectify the problem by drawing a distinction between ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ and ‘knowledge by description’ (nowadays shortened to ‘acquaintance’ and ‘knowledge’).[4]  To be acquainted with something means that you have come into contact with it (this, by the way, is the basis of the Biblical ‘know’ as a synonym for sexual intercourse). Knowledge, on the other hand, concerns what is true of things. When we are acquainted with a thing we ‘know’ it, but when we have knowledge of it — in the strict Russellian sense — we know about it. I am certainly not acquainted with Julius Caesar. I’ve never met the man, and, unless there turns out to be an Afterlife, or someone invents a time machine, I never will be acquainted with him. But I know that Julius Caesar’s mother was named Aurelia, that his wife was named Cornelia, that he led expeditions to Gaul and Britain, and so on. Russell’s clarification proved to be amazingly useful, because it cut through a whole thicket of confusions with one swift, clean stroke.

Let’s think about self-knowledge in light of Russell’s distinction. Obviously, we are all acquainted with ourselves, given that we are identical to ourselves and have to live with ourselves 24/7. The same cannot be said about knowing about ourselves. Sure, I know that I was born in Brooklyn, that I am six feet four inches tall, that I live in Maine, and so on. I know quite a lot about myself, but these pedestrian facts are not the kinds of things that most people are concerned with when they talk about self-knowledge. The discourse of self-knowledge is about the true driving forces of one’s life — one’s core desires, beliefs and fears — the things that ‘make you tick’ as opposed to superficial appearances. So the idea of self-knowledge presupposes a differentiating grade in the psyche, a metaphorical distinction between surface and depth, the peripheral and the central. Self-knowledge, in the interesting sense, means knowing about the wellsprings of our own behavior and it is precisely this that Thales, Kant, Goethe and Twain — not to mention Nietzsche and Freud — regarded as excruciatingly difficult.

If self-knowledge seems straightforward to you, and you just don’t get what all the fuss is about, you may be one of a surprisingly large number of people who are trapped in the gravely misconceived view of the mind formalized by René Descartes in the 17th century. The Cartesian vision of the mind consists of three interlocking components. First, Descartes held that the mind is something distinct from the body. The body is an ‘extended substance.’ In philosophical lingo a ‘substance’ is, roughly, a ‘thing’, and an ‘extended substance’ is a material object that takes up space. Descartes thought that the mind is an unextended ‘thinking substance’ that is not composed of matter, and does not occupy space. This segues into the second component. The mind, is a simple substance: it is unitary, indivisible and without parts. Finally, the mind is ‘transparent’ to itself, automatically and incorrigibly aware of its own contents. It is important to understand that both the second and third pair of characteristics spin-off from the first one. A mind that does not occupy space is by definition indivisible and an indivisible mind — a mind without parts — a mind without parts must be aware of all of its inner states if it is aware of any of them. There is just no conceptual elbow-room for a Cartesian mind to hide anything from itself.

Today we know that Descartes was wrong. There is every reason to believe that the mind is the brain, an organ that is extended in space and composed of parts — lots of them. The chunk of meat between your ears consists of just under one hundred billion nerve cells, each of which is connected to up to ten thousand others. Living brains sizzle with activity, as each member of this enormous population sends and receives electrical signals to and from its neighbors, generating constantly changing patterns of activation.

Normal human beings have an extraordinarily wide range of abilities: they can count, comprehend language, discriminate between colors, flirt, enjoy music, understand a joke, be embarrassed, empathize with the feelings of others, find their way home, get a joke, catch a ball, etc., etc. This versatility is very impressive. How can it be explained? One option is to suppose that the brain is an immensely elastic all-purpose organ – a sort of polymath or ‘Renaissance man’ excelling in a great many talents simultaneously. However, over the last two decades, many cognitive scientists have found it useful to regard our hugely complex brains as composed of hundreds or even thousands of miniature ‘brains’ — stable, functional systems — that they call ‘mental modules’. Each of these modules is a hidebound specialist that is brilliant at performing tasks that fall within its domain, but utterly incapable of handling anything outside it. The brain resembles a committee of idiots savants more than it does a single genius.

Descartes also erred in claiming that the mind is transparent to itself. We now know that most mental activity is unconscious. The cognitive processes that enable you to type a sentence, whack a tennis ball over the net, remember a loved one’s birthday, or perform virtually any other mental or physical act lie beyond the reach of self-awareness. They are as alien to your conscious mind, as inaccessible to introspection, as the workings of your pancreas. Most mental processes are unconscious in consequence of the functional architecture of the brain: we aware of the sorts of mental contents that it is useful for us to be aware of, and not others. Driving a brain is like driving a car: for the most part, all that matters is that it gets you where you want to go. However, the boundary between conscious and unconscious is not always so rigidly fixed: some mental contents can in principle become conscious, but are prevented from doing so. The act of excluding mental contents from awareness is called self-deception, a phenomenon acknowledged to be central to the human condition at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. ‘Were a portrait of man to be drawn…in which there would be highlighted whatever is most human,’ wrote philosopher Herbert Fingarette on the first page of a classic study of self-deception, ‘… we should surely place well in the foreground man’s enormous capacity for self-deception’. Throngs of philosophers, playwrights, and novelists have agreed. The Dark Continent of self-deception has even found a place on the map of contemporary psychology. As one review of the now extensive scientific research literature summed up ‘In general, people’s self-views hold only a tenuous to modest relationship with their actual behavior and performance…. Indeed, at times, other people’s predictions of a person’s outcomes prove more accurate than a person’s self-predictions.’[5]  For example, surgical residents overestimate their skills compared to objective measures on medical board exams. College students who do a good job estimating how long their roommates’ romantic relationships will last fail miserably at predicting the length of their own. Lawyers are unrealistically sanguine about their prospects for victory in court, investors make unwarranted assumptions about the potential of their investments, and most of us think that we are better than average at assessing ourselves.[6]

On the face of it, the very idea of self-deception seems incoherent. How can one and the same person be both the perpetrator and dupe of their own deception? Isn’t that as impossibly circular as pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps? Not really. The seeming impossibility of self-deception is an artifact of a wrong-headed conception of the mind — a variant on Descartes’ mistake of thinking of the mind as a simple substance. Most of us share a broadly similar and largely unarticulated assumption about our conscious mental processes, which seems so obviously true that it is difficult to question. The assumption is that thinking is an intrinsically conscious process, and that we are aware of our thoughts at the very moment that we think them. However, as Freud pointed out just over a century ago, it may be more accurate to regard all cognition as occurring unconsciously, and consciousness as a kind of afterthought. Freud thought that we are never aware of our thoughts while we are thinking them: we only become conscious of them after the fact. Consciousness, on this view, is merely a passive medium of representation. All of the cognitive action is unconscious.

We cannot directly observe the neurochemical activities that go on between our ears. But even if we could — say, by some new technological marvel — we would not understand what these brain processes mean. If someone were to show you a detailed snapshot of the processes going on in your brain at precisely 11:13:06 EST on February 16, 2005 you would be none the wiser about your mental state at that time. This does not mean that thinking involves some mysterious extra ingredient that transcends the neurological domain. It simply means that neural messages are not accessible to us as such. Freud reasoned that there must be a mechanism that translates unconscious neural activation vectors into a medium that we can understand. He thought that our brains translate the ‘language’ of neural activation vectors into linguistic symbols, representing electrochemical signals leaping across synapses as the silent monologue that we call conscious thought.

If this general picture is right, it suggests that self-deception occurs when the translating mechanism fails. The translation is garbled, inaccurate or otherwise misleading and the text of our conscious thought — which is, after all the only ostensibly direct means of accessing our inner workings — is censored by an invisible hand. Imagine that the processes described in Freud’s theory are unfolding in your brain right now. As you sit, a stream of thoughts is generated in the unconscious depths of your brain. These enter your consciousness as a sequence of unspoken sentences. Now, imagine what would happen if the system that translates neural information into unspoken sentences malfunctioned, so that that the monologue flowing through your consciousness no longer veraciously expressed your thoughts. If this happened, you would no longer be aware of what you are really thinking. And worse, you would be non the wiser because there would be no way for to compare your real thoughts, which are unconscious, with the thoughts that you falsely believe yourself to be thinking. Freud may or may not have gotten the details right, but his theory shows that re-jigging one’s model of the mind can make self-deception seem a lot less preposterous.[7]  By modifying our conception of how the mind works, and especially our conception of the role of consciousness, it becomes easy to understand how self-deception is possible.

There is a further puzzle posed by self-deception, this time a biological one. If self-deception is a piece of human nature, found everywhere and in all historical epochs, the odds are that it was a product of evolution. Evolution is driven by selection. Mother Nature chooses which traits to retain and which to discard, and she only favors those traits that are adaptive — traits that benefit an organism’s genes, either by increasing its breeding opportunities or by boosting its survival prospects. If self-deception is an adaptive trait, there must be some sense in which a person can benefit by depriving themselves of information. Of course, this conjecture flies in the face of the commonsense assumption that information is good, and the more of it we have, the more successfully we can negotiate hazards and exploit the opportunities presented by the world around us. But commonsense is a good servant but a bad master. Scientific understanding typically involves getting under the skin of reality, and moving from the merely obvious to the genuinely veridical.

To understand self-deception, we first have to consider why we deceive others. As is often the case with fundamental questions about the human condition, Plato covered the basics. In The Republic, he describes a conversation that unfolded at and informal get-together at the home of a wealthy merchant in the port of Piraeus, just outside of Athens. Eventually, the discussion turned to the nature of justice and Thrasymachus, who comes across as a bit of a bully, argued that fair play is for simpleminded fools and that astute people are ruthlessly self-serving. Eventually Plato’s brother Adeimantus remarks, in support of Thrasymachus, that:

If I am unjust, but have gained a reputation for justice, then I am promised a wonderful life. Therefore since ‘Appearance,’ as the wise men have pointed out to me, ‘overpowers truth’ and controls happiness, I must turn all my attention to that. I must draw an exact likeness of goodness around myself, as a front and a façade…. ‘The trouble with that,’ someone will say, ‘is that it is hard to be evil and get away with it for ever.’ ‘Well,’ we shall say, ‘nothing great was ever easy’. But if we are going to be happy, we must follow where the trail of our argument leads us.[8]

Adeimantus was right. Appearance trumps reality because appearance is all we ever have to go by. We are condemned to judge books by their covers, so if a person appears to be good, reliable, virtuous, and so on, we conclude that they really are good, reliable, virtuous, and so on. Obviously, then, it pays to cultivate appearances and — as Adeimantus pointed out to Socrates — exploiting others is a rewarding pastime. Wheelers and dealers have access to wealth, status and sexual opportunities that are denied to their more conscientious brethren. But cheating is also a gamble, promising profits but threatening losses. A person caught red-handed defrauding other community members is likely to be punished. At best, he will be treated with suspicion and at worst he may be killed. The obvious way to maximize benefits while keeping losses to a bare minimum is to deceive others. This way, the successful cheater can savor the best of both worlds: reaping the rewards of an unblemished reputation while at the same time getting extra benefits on the side.

What does this say about the evolution of human nature? Nature selects for what works. So, if dishonesty works, we should expect to find deception pervading the biosphere. And this is precisely what we find. Nature is a tapestry of guile, of organisms that use every manipulative trick in the book to help them survive and reproduce. The scientific literature overflows with examples. Some are masters of camouflage and seamlessly merge with their environments; others imitate toxic or disgusting objects to avoid being eaten, or disguise themselves as members of the opposite sex to avoid costly sexual competition or to finagle expensive courtship gifts.[9] Homo sapiens is also a deceptive species, and our use of tactics infinitely more devious than the techniques available to nonhuman organisms. Furthermore, our background awareness that social life is a complex game of manipulation and counter-manipulation makes us naturally wary of one another. Think of a time that you told a serious lie, and how you felt when you were telling it. Your heart was probably pounding in your chest, your breathing was rapid and shallow, and you had a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. The sensation of warmth spreading across your cheeks warned you of an impending blush and there seemed no way to stem the rising tide of anxiety. And worst of all, your awareness of all this made you even more anxious and maladroit. Could this be a situation where it pays not to know what you are up to? Mark Twain seems to have been the first person to think of this. ‘When a person cannot deceive himself, ‘ he wrote, ‘the chances are against his being able to deceive other people.’[10] Too much self-awareness can be a hindrance when trying to deceive others.

This idea was rediscovered and elaborated by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers in the 1970s. Trivers suggested that the capacity for self-deception may have been selected for because it helps us deceive others more effectively.

Biologists propose that the overriding function of self-deception is the more fluid deception of others. That is, hiding aspects of reality from the conscious mind also hides these aspects more deeply from others. An unconscious deceiver is not expected to show signs of the stress associated with consciously trying to perpetrate deception.[11]

A liar that believes his or her own lies is far more convincing than one who doesn’t, because there is no reason to be awkward and self-conscious. He who lies best lies least consciously, and the accomplished self-deceiver can manage to deliver self-serving falsehoods without even breaking a sweat.[12]  Human beings invest a great deal in ‘impression management.’ In the developed world, we spend vast amounts of money on cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, hair dye, hairpieces, fashionable clothing, perfumes and assorted bling-bling, all for the purpose of creating a desirable impression on others. We are also masters of ‘spin’, posturing, strategic omission and outright lying to seduce others into seeing us in precisely the ways that we want to be seen. For this to work, we have to keep ourselves in the dark about what we are doing. A woman applying blush and lipstick, who dyes her hair to eliminate those telltale strands of gray, cannot afford to be fully aware that she is counterfeiting signs of fertility to create a false impression of her reproductive value. A statesman proclaiming his desire to serve his nation cannot afford to realise that his heartfelt altruism is in the service of a quest for power and status — ultimately to maximize his sexual prospects. And you and I cannot afford to see through the innumerable deceptions that we unwittingly perpetrate in our daily lives. Our lives are awash with deceit, but becoming aware of it would be to sip from a poisoned chalice, because it would undermine the foundations on which our lives are built. Self-deception is not a pathological state, a deviation from the norm of truthfulness. It is normal, ‘healthy’ and adaptive. It helps get us through the night, oils the machinery of social intercourse and blunts the jagged edges of our relationships with one another. In this sense, there is arguably something nihilistic about urging others to seek self-knowledge, and something self-destructive about pursuing it. g




[1] Plato discusses ‘know thyself’ in Charmides  (164d-165b).  For Diogenes Laertus’ remarks on Thales, see Laertus, D.  Lives of the Philosophers (Washington: Regnery, 1969).

[2] Kants remarks are in Ak 25: 252 and Ak 25:863, cf..  25:477-478, 865 in Kant’s gesammelte Schriften.  (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1900œ).

Goethe, J.W. von  ‘Significant help given by an ingenious turn of phrase.’  In Scientific Studies. Trans. D. Miller (New York: Suhrkamp, 1988) p. 39 and ‘Sprichwörtlich’ In Münchner Ausgabe: Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens, Vol. 9.  (München: C. Hanser, 1985), p. 144.  For research studies on depression, self-deception and mental health that support Kant’s claims see Lane, R. D., Merikangas, K. R., Schwartz, G. E., et al. ‘Inverse relationship between defensiveness and lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorder’, American Journal of Psychiatry, 147 [1990]: 573-578.  Sackheim, H. A. and Gur, R. C. ‘Self deception, other deception, and self-reported psychopathology’.  Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology, 47 [1979]: 213-215.  Sackheim, H. A. and Wegner, A. Z. ‘Attributional patterns in depression and euthymia.’  Archives of General Psychiatry, 43 [1986]: 553-560.  Taylor, S. E. and Brown, J. D. ‘Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health’, Psychological Bulletin, 103 [1988]: 193-210; Lewinsohn, P. M et. al. ‘Social competence and depression: the role of illusionary self-perceptions’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 89 [1980]: 203-212.  Alloy, L. B. and Abramson, L.Y. ‘Depression and pessimism for the future: biased use of statistically relevant information in predictions of self versus others.’  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41 [1987]: 1129-1140; Alloy, L. B. and Abramson, L.Y. ‘Judgement of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: sadder but wiser?’  Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108(4) [1979]: 441- 485.  Alloy, L. B. and Abramson, L.Y. ‘Learned helplessness, depression and the illusion of control’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42 [1982]: 1114-1126.

[3] For Darwin and Twain see Twain, M. ‘Our guest’.  In Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1891-1910.  (New York: Library of America, 1992).  For Freud and Twain see Gay, P. Freud: A Life for our Time.  (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998).  For James and Twain see Horn, J.G. Mark Twain and William James: Crafting a Free Self.  (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1996).  The quotation is from a letter to W. D. Howells, 8/31/1884 in Paine, A.B. Mark Twain’s Letters.  (New York: Classic Books, 2000).

[4] Russell, B. The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[5] Dunning, D., Heath, C. & Suls, J.M. ‘Flawed self-assessment: implications for health, education and the workplace.’  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(3): 69-106.  p. 69.

[6] For surgeons see Risucci, D.A., Torolani, A.J. & Ward, R.A. ‘Ratings of surgical residents by self, supervisors and peers.’  Surgical Gynecology and Obstetrics, 169 [1989]: 519-526. For college students’ love affairs see MacDonald, T.K. & Ross, M. ‘Assessing the accuracy of predictions about dating relationships. How and why do lovers’ predictions differ from those of observers?’  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25 [1999]: 1417-1429. For lawyers, see Loftus, E.F. & Wagenaar, W.A. ‘Lawyers’ predictions of success.’ Jurimetrics Journal, 29 [1988]: 437-453.  For doctors see Odean, T. ‘Volume, volatility, price and profit when all traders are above average.’  Journal of Finance, 8 [1998]: 1887-1934.  For unbiased self-assessment see Friedrich, J. ‘On seeing oneself as less self-serving than others: the ultimate self-serving bias?’  Teaching of Psychology, 23 [1996]: 107-109 and Pronin, E., Linn, D.Y. & Ross, I. ‘The bias blind spot: perceptions of bias in self versus others.’  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28 [2002]: 369-381.

[7] For the details od Freud’s theory see Smith, D. L. Freud’s Philosophy of the Unconscious.  Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 23.  (Dordrecht, NL: Kluwer, 1999) and Smith, D. L. ‘”Some unimaginable substratum”: a contemporary introduction to Freud’s philosophy of mind’.  In Chung, M. C. & Feltham, C. (Eds.) Psychoanalytic Knowledge and the Nature of Mind.  New York: Palgrave [2003].  There is a substantial scientific literature supporting Freud’s hypothesis that consciousness is mediated by inner speech.  For an excellent review see Morin, A. ‘Possible links between self-awareness and inner speech: theoretical background, underlying mechanisms and empirical evidence.’  Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12(4-5)[2005]: 115-134. 

[8] Plato The Republic.  Trans. Griffith, T. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p. 46.

[9] Chapter 2 of my book Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind (New York: St. Martins Press, 2004) details many examples of non-human deception.

[10]Twain, M. (1924) Mark Twain's Autobiography. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924).

[11] Trivers, R. L. ‘Introduction.’  In J. S. Lockhard & D. L Paulhus (Eds.)  Self-Deception: An Adaptive Mechanism?  (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988) vii.

[12] Trivers, R.L. ‘Self-deception in service of deceit.’  In Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers.  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).


David Livingstone Smith teaches in the department of philosophy at the University of New England, and is founding director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology. He earned his MA from Antioch University and his PhD in philosophy from the University of London, Kings College, where he worked on topics in the philosophy of mind and psychology. David's books include Freud's Philosophy of the Unconscious (Kluwer, 1999), Approaching Psychoanalysis: An Introductory Course (Karnac, 1999), Psychoanalysis in Focus (Sage, 2002) and, most recently Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind (St. Martins Press, 2004).  His next book Where War Lives: A Journey into Human Nature will be published by St. Martins Press in 2007. His current research interests include deception and self-deception, the evolutionary psychology of war, incest and incest-avoidance and various aspects of analytical philosophy. David's essay, "The Architecture of Self-deception: Why Freud Is Still Worth Taking Seriously" appeared in Entelechy's issue 3.


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