For this week’s episode of Human Factors in History, we investigated the origins of our understanding of self-delusion. This was a serendipitous discovery – I came across one of the foundational studies purely by accident. But I noticed that all of the citations in this paper were from the 1940s and 50s. That seems to be when psychology researchers took it upon themselves to find out how it works, taking it over from the philosophers who had been thinking about it for millennia.
One of the original models of self-delusion relied on four criteria:
- The individual must hold two contradictory beliefs. Otherwise, it would be ignorance, not self-delusion.
- The beliefs must be held simultaneously. If one belief replaces the other, it is called learning.
- Only one of the beliefs can be conscious at a time. This is how you know they are conflicting beliefs.
- The suppression of the second belief must be motivated. This is where delusion comes in.
These models were developed before neuroscience had emerged and we have learned a lot about this since. The idea that only one of the beliefs can be conscious at a time has been modified – it seems that most of our beliefs are not fully conscious, even when we feel like they are. They barely nudge the surface. Consciousness turns out to be much less relevant in our decision making and behavior than we thought back then.
Even the idea of contradiction is more nuanced. It may not be that the beliefs are contradictory. One belief might be better with one set of assumptions and priorities while the other belief is better with another set of assumptions and priorities. Given the tremendous difference in capacity between long term memory and working memory, it is easy to imagine that a small shift of attention can change which belief makes better sense.
One implication that many of these investigations focused on is that self-report measures used in many psychological tests are quite dubious. The results of research based on self-reports or personality tests that use self-reports are of questionable validity. And yet we have continued to rely on these for many decades since. This seems like a good example of self-delusion of our own.
We can also explain this with the idea of shifting attention. There are often fundamental differences between our normative self-identity (who we are on a typical day) and our ideal self-identity (who we are on our best day). We also have a future ideal self-identity (who we hope to become someday). Which one are we basing our self-reports on? You can also toss in our social-identities: who we think other people think we are, who other people want us to be, even who we think the experimenter wants us to be. All of these have considerable contradictions among them.
I am sure that there are many other strands of history that we can follow back to self-delusion investigations. This is just one of them. There are also many examples of where misunderstanding self-delusion leads research and application of psychology to be misleading.
I am quite positive that many of you are familiar with some fascinating examples. Please share. Those of us who ignore history are doomed to repeat it – even if we delude ourselves that we won’t.
Image Credit: HaPe_Gera