Liar, liar: Why deception is our way of life

Abdul-Baha wrote, “Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues.” Perhaps it is our constant deception, then, that makes of virtue the struggle that it is. I was so taken by this article by Dorothy Rowe, about our self-deception, that I have copied it out here.

How did we get ourselves into this mess? Continual wars and conflicts, climate change and economic crisis loom at the international level, while as individuals we continue, generation after generation, to inflict pain and suffering not only on other people but on ourselves. Why do we have such difficulty in learning what we most need to know to mitigate our most destructive behaviours?

Throughout history there have been a few individuals whose insight into what goes on inside us is as clear as their understanding of what goes on around them, yet with what looks like self-induced stupidity most of us have been wholly unable to learn what they have been telling us.

Take the Stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus. He commented on human behaviour this way: “It is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things.” In other words, it is not what happens to us that determines our behaviour but how we interpret what happens to us. Thus, when facing a disaster, one person might interpret it as a challenge to be mastered, another as a certain defeat, while a third might see it as the punishment he or she deserves. Crucially, the decisions about what to do follow from the interpretation each person has made.

For me, this uncertainty lies at the heart of what we need to know if we are to understand ourselves and behave differently. And yet throughout history we have denied this truth because what it tells us about ourselves is that, while we are not responsible for most of what happens to us, we are always responsible for how we interpret it. And we seem to dislike taking responsibility for ourselves as much as we dislike uncertainty.

Over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists have shown that Epictetus was right – and given us important clues about our neuropsychology. They have found that our brain functions in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we can ever know are the guesses or interpretations our mind creates about what is going on. To create these guesses, we can only draw on basic human neuroanatomy and on our past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same neuroanatomy or experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way.

This is frightening. It means that each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. Moreover, if everything we know is a guess, an approximation, events can, and often will, invalidate our ideas. Each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. This is frightening

Can you bear to remember that time in your life when you were going along feeling secure and thinking, “This is me, this is my world, that was my past, this will be my future,” when suddenly you found that you had made a major error of judgement? When you realised that many of the ideas underpinning your whole sense of being a person – that sense of “I”, “me”, “myself” – had been invalidated by events?

Have you ever had the sensation of falling through infinite space, shattering, crumbling, of being about to disappear like a raindrop into the ocean? Perhaps you knew that what was falling apart was not your sense of self but some of your ideas. You knew that you now had to go through a period of uncertainty until new ideas emerged.

But if you did not know this, you would have been utterly terrified, so terrified that you would do anything never to go through such an experience again.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have either ignored this experience, maximised its significance as a full-scale “breakdown”, or minimised it as a “panic disorder”. Yet this feeling of falling apart is an essential part of our lives and of most of our narratives. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy and her companions emerge wiser and strong from the invalidation of their idea that the wizard could solve their problems, while paradoxically Othello is destroyed by the invalidation of his belief that his wife Desdemona had been unfaithful.

We first experience the terror of being invalidated when we are small children, but by the time we are 3 or 4 we have learned a way of avoiding it: we have learned how to lie. From then on, whenever we glimpse the faintest possibility that our “selves” might be threatened with annihilation, we lie.

First of all, we lie to ourselves. Why? Because we fear that we do not have the strength and courage to face the truth of our situation. We even lie about lying, preferring to call our lies anything but a lie. We say: “He’s in denial” or “She’s being economical with the truth”.

We lie in our private and work lives, to friends, family and colleagues. Often we tell them what we call “white lies”. Some of us do so because we need people to like us: our greatest fear is of being abandoned and rejected. Others tell white lies to avoid the chaotic feelings they get from seeing other people being upset by the truth: they know the world is a chaotic place, and to survive in it they need a personal island of clarity, order and control.

At a public level, we lie about nearly everything, from the true level of corporate wealth to expenses and evidence that humans are responsible for changing the climate.

When it comes to such global-level events, you might think finding out what is true would be a top priority, especially as we start out neurologically blindfolded. But it is not. For all of us there is something more important than finding the truth. We are too frightened to confront the facts because doing so means confronting the danger that most of what supports our sense of who we are could disappear.

Unlike lies, truths require evidence to support them. But no matter how much evidence we accumulate, our truths will always be approximations and absolute certainty will exist only in our fantasies. Lying gives us the temporary delusion that our personal and social worlds are intact, that we are loved, that we are safe, and above all, that we are not likely to overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in living in a world we can never truly know.

We can never escape uncertainty: it is part of our very being. Scientists struggle daily to accept uncertainty, and still search for “evidence”. In our personal, professional and collective social lives it looks as if we may have no choice but to confront uncertainty if we are to survive – and survive well.

So we will need to be very careful in future about choosing the situations in which we lie. All lies have networks of consequences we did not expect or intend. The lies we tell may well protect us and our personal – or collective – sense of self in the short term, but in the long term and in a linked-up, complex world, the consequences can be truly disastrous. After all, when we lie to ourselves and to others, we multiply a thousandfold the inherent difficulties we have trying to determine what is actually going on inside us and around us.

One day, neuroscientists may be able to describe the damage we do to our brains when we lie to ourselves and to others, when we create confusion about knowing something that we deny we know. Let’s hope that by then we can start to believe – and to use – the scientific truths we will be telling ourselves.


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