How Reasonable It Is to Deceive Yourself?

Now we even have a scientific explanation why people like Wessely and Mc Clure behave like they behave. Someone should tell them that even if they work hard they only would get a D+.

ScienceDaily (Sep. 28, 2010) — Anyone who simply denies the facts is most certainly behaving unreasonably -- aren't they? Bochum's philosophers Prof. Dr. Albert Newen and Christoph Michel expound that in some cases it may be useful to deceive yourself. The self-deception can be an important motivating factor and not entirely lacking reason. The reason may be locally restricted, however basic strategies of rational evaluation processes remain intact.

Become as good as you think you are
Self-deception is a common everyday phenomenon. Someone who sees the facts, but refuses to admit them, is generally described as unreasonable -- wrongly, say Prof. Newen and Christoph Michel. Because self-deception can be an important factor in keeping up motivation. For example: if someone is not very good at mathematics [or science], but convinces himself he is, this false self image can provide important motivation to prepare intensively for a math test [or deny the fact that CFS has a physical cause and do everything in order to keep this wrong image]. The hard facts on the other hand, for example, if his teacher tells him quite plainly that even if he works really hard he won't get more than a D+, would destroy his motivation.
Distortion of reality is damaging
Of course, self-deception can also lead to a massive distortion of reality. If a father e.g. puts his 16-year-old son's declining school marks down to his puberty and persuades himself that they will get better again by themselves, but ignores the fact that his son is skipping days of school, coming home drunk every weekend and hiding alcohol in his room , the self-deception no longer has a positive effect. In this case, it leads to a distortion of reality, which becomes harmful for the self-deceiver who is interested in the welfare of his son.
Reason is locally restricted
"These two examples show that the answer to the question of whether self-deception is unreasonable is not as clear as it seems at first glance," says Prof. Newen. "Self-deception is not always unreasonable, but is an essential factor for stabilising motivation. Indeed, the strategy of self-deception is even mainly based on rational consideration processes which, however, no longer work in the usual way in relation to certain facts." The researchers therefore do not see the essence of self-deception at all as a breakdown of reason, but merely as its local failure in narrowly enclosed areas, whereby, however, basic strategies of rational evaluation processes remain intact.
Distinction from recent theories
The new theory of self-deception is clearly distinguished from those theories according to which self-deception only consists of my saying something other than I actually think (self-deception is neither just insincere speech nor a comment which is not to be taken seriously). Self-deception is, on the other hand, also not the same as one-sided beliefs caused by biased attention processes ("biased belief formation"): because the latter lead to certain obvious facts no longer being available to a person. They are not registered at all, while a self-deceiver registers the facts, but then "refuses to admit them." For this purpose, they are reinterpreted in the light of the viewpoint he is trying to safeguard, whereby pseudo-rational processes play a primary role.


Senior Member
Sofa, UK
Interesting ideas...the thread seems worth bumping...

I've used similar sorts of strategies consciously myself in the past, to "become who I wanted to be" - just by 'acting' as if I already was something, I put myself into situations where it gradually came true. It was consciously self-deceptive at first; later, it wasn't a deception. It can be a useful self-development tool.

Tried it for many years with the psychological theories of ME/CFS as well. The psychological theories are actually, of course, the most attractive for the sufferer: they hold out the prospect of recovery along with a bonus of personal transformation. I wonder how many of us here have gone through long periods in our lives when we wished it were true, tried to believe it were true, even underwent years of therapy searching for that psychological cause? I spent a lot of money on it, myself, and in fact at first, for several years, when my first doctor advised me to try to ignore the sensations I was experiencing, I genuinely did believe him and applied every meditation and thought-control technique I had at my disposal. I had found CBT techniques very helpful indeed with depression, so there was a long period of time when I was quite optimistic about it.

Trouble was: it didn't fit the facts. I just got sicker and sicker the more I tried to believe I wasn't really physically ill. Eventually, I reached a crisis point, and concluded this whole approach was getting me nowhere. I walked out on that doc, and into the world of those heretical MCS docs...and my recovery began. It's been a slow upward curve ever since, albeit with frequent relapses, and by identifying and avoiding triggers and re-engineering my life around those requirements, I've made huge progress. The underlying reality has never changed, at any point. I still react consistently in the same ways to all my subtle immune vulnerabilities, of which there are many, which took years to identify. But I've learned to manage them fairly well.

So...self-deception, the power of belief, mind over matter etc etc...I think I know a thing or two about all that. The crucial thing that more people need to understand about all that stuff is: it only goes so far. Reality has a way of bringing you down to earth with a bump. Next time anybody tells me "You can do anything you want if you really put your mind to it", I think I'll try to get them up to the top of a cliff, and ask them if they think it'd be really cool to be able to fly - and if so, perhaps they'd care to prove their own theory? But I'm afraid I'm still not self-deceptive enough to believe that such people can ever be made to listen to reason...