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Joseph Hallinan summarizes his book like this: "This book is not an ode to self-deception," he writes. "I do not believe you should walk around intentionally kidding yourself, pretending that up is down or that night is day. In most cases, striving to see the world accurately is immensely better than seeing it innacurately.… My goal here has simply been to point out that self deception, for all its obvious downsides, is an inherent human trait. It has been around a long time, and it endures for a reason: under limited but crucial circumstances, it helps us perservere. It does this, chiefly, by affording us that key piece of psychological scaffolding: a sense of control.… People with a high sense of control tend to live happier, healthier, longer lives. Viewed from this vantage, a little self-deception is not only helpful, it's essential." This synopsis is found in the concluding pages of the book, and any reader who skips to the end looking for an executive summary would likely be intrigued. But anyone who reads the book from the beginning would probably be quite confused and disoriented when they arrive at this concluding statement from the author, since most of the text that precedes this reassuring summary doesn't match it at all.
What Hallinan has actually written is more like an exhaustive catalogue of the many forms that self-deception can take. Not all of these forms are helpful and healthy; most of them remain debilitating and dangerous.
The book begins and ends by praising self-deception as a "hidden power" that we should embrace enthusiastically. The first chapter is a discussion of the "medicine of imagination" using the placebo effect as a demonstration of self-deception's power to heal the body with success that rivals or even exceeds the power of medicine. This is an argument about the power of self-deception to change the physical, objective world—to make a damaged body whole again. The final chapter of the book returns to this theme, but now with an emphasis on the psychological rather than physical benefits of self-deception. The argument here is that self-deception can create optimism which gives us the power to endure challenging circumstances and remain productive and happy in the process. These two chapters match the thesis that Hallinan claims for himself in the book's conclusion (and in its title): that self-deception is an asset, a hidden power and secret strength that we should celebrate.
But in between these celebratory chapters Hallinan gives us eight other chapters about the dangers of self-deception. These dangers include all of the following:
• mass hysteria (many examples are given of communities and cultures that seem to go mad as everyone rushes to imitate some bizarre behavior or belief)
• literally killing yourself by means of self deception (examples include death by hypochondria, voodoo and other forms of magic, a broken heart, learned helplessness, etc.)
• narrowmindedness and dogmatism created by expectation that shapes and limits perception (that too is a kind of instinctive and reflexive self-deception)
• narrowmindedness and dogmatism created by prejudices that develop over time and become self-confirming (the logic of conspiracy theories and cults)
• our need to pretend that we are in control even when we are not, and all the ways that this need is exploited by business, the media, etc.
• superstitions that become obsessive complusive limitations that must be serviced for a lifetime (all the usual suspects are here, such as the fear of the number 13 and walking under ladders)
• the phenomenon of being drunk with power (obviously there's nothing positive about this one)
• risk optimism, and other similar phenomena that all share the underlying theme of deceiving ourselves that the rules and dangers that affect the rest of the world do not apply to us
As you can see the book is mostly (8 out of 10 chapters) about the dangers of self-deception, so it is rather disorienting to read passages like the one I cited above where the author suggests that self-deception can be nothing but a force for good. I got the impression that Hallinan really wanted to wrote a book that flipped the common sense view of self-deception on its head and argued instead for the counter intuitive and surprising conclusion that self-deception is one of humanity's greatest skills—but he found that there simply wasn't enough material to support that thesis, so he settled for something like a general report or catalogue of all the forms that self-deception can assume because that did provide enough material for a book, and in that book he could at least say something about what he really wanted to discuss—which is how self-deception can be a useful adaptation and even a skill. But the book in its current form does not at all eliminate the tension between self-deception as a virtue and self-deception as a vice. Because the book is such a thorough catalogue of self-deception it only amplifies that tension.
Though the book may not settle that score it is still a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the fascinating phenomenon of self-deception. Hallinan summarizes many classic experiments in social psychology and also other research from business and the social sciences in a breezy and engaging style that reminded me of Mary Roach's many books that explain science to non-scientists (e.g. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers or Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex). Like Roach, Hallinan organizes a mountain of research and data into a very engaging and enjoyable narrative that is easy to follow. Though most of the case studies come from social psychology the book is certainly interdisciplinary in spirit and Hallinan does not hesitate to borrow from every field that has ever tried to make sense of self deception. For example in the discussion of the placebo effect that begins the book it was fascinating to be reminded that William James, the philosopher who wrote "The Will to Believe," was also a medical doctor and a psychologist, and that he could have observed the phenomenon of belief creating reality in all three of those fields.
This book does a fine job of complicating any effort either to condemn or to glorify self-deception. The evidence reported here calls any such reduction or simplification into question; it's just not that simple to separate good self-deception from bad. I don't think this is what the author set out to do in writing this book, but it is still a valuable accomplishment.
© 2016 Stuart Dalton
Stuart Dalton, Philosophy & Humanistic Studies Dept., Western Connecticut State University