It seems to me that self-deception can describe two different things - conscious and unconscious self-deception.

Sometimes the elephant believes something untrue all by itself without the rider ever getting a look in. The claims of elephant in the brain seem to focus on this type of unconscious self-deception.

At other times the rider is complicit in endorsing a particular known untrue belief. The elephant analyses a situation, determines what it is beneficial to believe and motivates the rider to believe this. The rider has access to information which indicates that this isn't true. If the rider brings this information to full attention then it is one of those rare occasions where he can override the elephant's desires. However the rider also has the option to push the information to the side and believe a beneficial lie. It is possible to do this well enough that the information is forgotten or completely overridden with new, inaccurate, information.

In pushing the information to the side, the rider can sometimes just never bring the information to full attention. Failing that, it can drown the information out by presenting other information (which agrees with its favoured interpretation) as loudly as possible in order to doubt/ignore/forget the information which it doesn't like.

At least, this is something I experience but I don't know whether other people do. I have a few examples where this has happened and have even experimented with allowing myself to start down the route of conscious self-deception to see what it feels like. To me it feels like cognitive dissonance (feeling hot, brain feeling "fuzzy", adrenaline kicking in) whilst the rider works on counteracting the information. I guess this would be followed by the relief of resolving said dissonance when the rider starts to believe the lie but I haven't experimented that far!

The literature appears to be understandably non-committal on whether the subjects are consciously aware of their self-deception - I guess that would be pretty hard to determine.

So my question is - do other people recognise this as something which happens to them? How would you describe the experience? Is it something which you've trained yourself to recognise when it starts?

New Answer
New Comment

1 Answers sorted by

Gordon Seidoh Worley


Yes, this is definitely something I notice in myself. I started noticing it at a very young age (maybe 7 or 8) and it feels like I have disagreeing beliefs or, to put it more how it may feel from the inside, like multiple statements about the world are true (are facts) yet they disagree. Typically there is some valence attached to these statements such that some feel like I'd more like it if they were true than others.

I've not deliberately trained this much, but I do notice it and investigate it when it comes up.

2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Recommendation: Make the title an actual question. I expect this will slightly increase the number of people who become interested in answering.

Brings two things to mind:

  • The Dark Arts of Rationality series and its compartmentalization and inconsistency techniques. I'm toying with that a bit, but I don't have a good account to give yet.
  • The fact (apparently) that placebo work even if you know they are placebo.

So I'd say that clearly many people are getting self-reported benefits from self-deception.

Key in understanding the phenomenon is the system 1 / system 2 (fast / slow) distinction. Typically you know in system 2 that you are deceiving yourself but you act out the deception in system 1.