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Fans of The Simpsons will recognize my title as one of Bart Simpson’s favorite lines, and it is an apt description of our basic stance toward life. I’ve recently read two articles which show how ingenious we human beings are at using self-deception to both blame others when things go wrong and give ourselves undue credit when things go right. We’re so good at it, in fact, that we do it without even realizing we’re doing it. A Course in Miracles claims that we are practicing self-deception on a far more immense scale—that in fact virtually our entire experience of the world is based on it. This can be difficult to believe, but if the tendency is so evident in daily life, is it really so difficult to believe that our self-deception runs deeper than we think?
The first article is by psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson. She begins by marveling at all the myriad ways former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has deflected blame for the current financial crisis. Surely, as a major determiner of American financial policy for nineteen years, he must have had something to do with the meltdown. But in his eyes, at least according to his testimony to Congress, the crisis was caused by a long list of factors—including even the fall of the Berlin Wall—that conveniently didn’t include him or his policies.
But Halvorson doesn’t write this to demonize Greenspan. Sure, it’s possible he might be simply lying, but Halvorson suspects that for the most part, he really believes what he’s saying. She believes that his testimony is mainly an example of what psychologists call “the self-serving bias—the tendency to see ourselves as responsible for our successes, but to see other people or the circumstances as responsible for our failures.” Because we’re trying to protect our own self-esteem and look good in the eyes of others, and because it’s easier for us to see what others do than what we do, we have a natural tendency to shift blame for negative outcomes from ourselves to others.
To provide further instances of this, Halvorson cites an article by psychologist Tony Greenwald which lists real-life examples of people’s descriptions of their auto accidents to their insurance companies. Here you see self-serving bias in a blatant and hilarious way, as these people will say virtually anything to make it look like the accident was in no way their fault:
“As I approached the intersection, a sign suddenly appeared in a place where a stop sign had never been before. I was unable to stop in time to avoid an accident.”
“The telephone pole was approaching. I was attempting to swerve out of its way when it struck my front end.”
“A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.”
“My car was legally parked as it backed into the other vehicle.”
We laugh at these examples, but are we really so innocent of this ourselves? Countless psychological studies show that we are not—that in fact, we have an amazing tendency to lie to ourselves in self-serving ways without knowing it. We may think only other people do this kind of thing, but that is—you guessed it— just another form of the self-serving bias in action. Without even realizing it, we’re constantly painting a false picture of us as the good guys and others as the bad guys.
The second article, by Ed Yong, examines the self-serving bias from a slightly different angle. He describes various experiments by researcher Zoe Chance, in which people cheat on tests (consciously or unconsciously), but then tell themselves that their good performance on the test is due to their talent rather than the cheating. This is essentially the flipside of the phenomenon Halvorson describes: Rather than unduly blaming others for their failures, they’re unduly praising themselves for their successes.
In her initial experiment, Chance had two groups of equal number take a math test as a prelude to taking a longer second test. One group had an answer key at the bottom of their tests; the other did not. Needless to say, the group with the answer key did well. But what’s interesting is that when asked to predict their score for the second test, which both groups were told would not have an answer key, the group that had the answers for the initial test predicted higher scores for the second test than those who had no answers. In other words, they deluded themselves into thinking that their good performance on the first test was due to their own talents, rather than to the fact they had the answers given to them. (And in fact, their predictions of greater success on the second test were wrong—when both groups actually took the second test, they performed equally.)
Moreover, the group that had received the answers to the first test apparently didn’t even realize that they had overestimated their own abilities. When Chance asked another group to hypothetically go through the exact same scenario in their minds and give their opinion on whether they would do better on the second test if they had gotten answers to the first, they said they would not expect a better score on the second test. In other words, they predicted they would not fool themselves as the group that had actually received the answers to a real test had done. They were unaware of the tendency to self-inflation, which makes it likely that the group that actually got the answers to the test was unaware of this as well.
This tendency for self-inflation seems to be more prominent in some people than others. To test this, Chance gave both groups of test-takers a questionnaire that (unknown to them) tested their tendency to deceive themselves. It turned out that those who scored high on the self-deceiver scale both predicted higher scores on the second test and had a propensity for “taking credit for their answers-aided performance.” Some people, it seems, are especially good at telling themselves that they are much more talented than they actually are.
As I said earlier, many studies document our tendency to lie to ourselves to look good. Chance herself did a study which showed that when given two fake sports magazines and asked to say which one they liked better, men inevitably picked the one that had a sexy swimsuit cover, but claimed the reason for their choice was that the magazine itself was better. (She titled her paper on this study “I read Playboy for the articles.”) Colleague Michael Norton did other studies which showed an unacknowledged bias against female candidates for a construction company management position, and against racial minorities.
But isn’t it possible that some people, rather than deluding themselves, are simply being honest? Could it be that some of the test takers with the answer keys didn’t look at the answers and honestly thought that they would do very well on the second test? Isn’t it possible that some of the men really liked the swimsuit magazine for the articles, and truly thought their candidate for the construction management position was better? Of course. But it is the percentages that are suspect here. The fact that so many of the test-takers with the answers overestimated their abilities, and so many of the men picked the swimsuit issue shows that something fishy is going on here.
But could it be that the apparently self-deceiving participants in these experiments actually knew the truth, but were just lying to the researchers or puffing up their test performance estimates to look good? This is certainly possible, so Chance devised another experiment to test it. She figured that if she gave participants a cash reward for assessing themselves more accurately, they would have sufficient incentive to do so. So, she ran the same test scenario again, telling participants they could earn money for both their score on the second test and how well they predicted it. But despite this incentive, those who had received the answers on the first test still inflated their predictions of the second-test score. The money incentive didn’t make them any less self-deceiving. As Yong puts it:
Chance has found that cheaters not only deceive themselves, but are largely oblivious to their own lies. Their ruse is so potent that they’ll continue to overestimate their abilities in the future, even if they suffer for it [in this case, by not winning as much money]. Cheaters continue to prosper in their own heads, even if they fail in reality.
Or as Chance herself puts it: “Our findings show that people not only fail to judge themselves harshly for unethical behaviour, but can even use the positive results of such behaviour [such as higher test scores and certificates of recognition] to see themselves as better than ever.”
I mentioned certificates of recognition because Chance did one more experiment that adds one more chilling element to all this. Okay, so financial incentives for self-honesty didn’t make the participants any more honest. But what if the participants were rewarded not for honesty and accuracy, but for cheating? In a final run-through of the test scenario, Chance gave some participants in both test groups special certificates of recognition for above-average scores. For the students who didn’t have the answer key, this had no effect on their predictions for the second test. But for the ones who did have the answer key, the certificate caused them to predict even higher scores on the second test. Their self-assessment was even more inflated.
The implications? As Yong says, “Cheaters convince themselves that they succeed because of their own skill, and if other people agree [in this case, through giving them a certificate of recognition], their capacity for conning themselves increases.” Chance’s conclusion: “The fact that social recognition, which so often accompanies self-deception in the real world, enhances self-deception has troubling implications.”
The implications of both of these articles are troubling indeed. We have a distressing capacity for unwittingly deceiving ourselves into believing both that others are worse than they really are and that we’re better than we really are. When things go bad, we give others the blame even when they had nothing to do with it; when things go well, we give ourselves the credit even when we actually used unscrupulous means to succeed. And since we’re all doing this and constantly getting rewards and recognition for it, it seems that this tendency for self-deception will be difficult to overcome.
But wait—there’s more. As I said earlier, according to A Course in Miracles, our capacity for self-deception is far, far greater than we think. Halvorson refers to how hard we work to “protect our image,” and in the Course’s view, the lengths to which we go to do this are truly extreme. Our entire experience of the world, it says, is based on an incredibly sophisticated game of self-deception. In its pages, the Course deconstructs this game, presenting a multilayered picture of the facades we use to mask who we really are.
The topmost layer, the layer we show to the world, is what the Course calls the “face of innocence” (T-31.V.2:6). The Course describes the primary stance of this self-concept succinctly: “It believes that it is good within an evil world” (T-31.V.2:9). We’re all familiar with this stance: I’m the good guy, just trying my best to make it in a dog-eat-dog world. Those other people out there, on the other hand, are a bunch of snakes in the grass. I try to be nice, but the world is so full of evildoers out to get me that sometimes I just have to take the gloves off. I have to defend myself, after all. Sure, maybe sometimes I go a little overboard in self-defense, but even when I do, it’s just an innocent mistake.
As you can see, this view carries with it the ultimate double standard. Even when you do actually acknowledge your mistakes, you have a justification for them that preserves your own “goodness” and “innocence.” Other people, however, don’t get the same charitable treatment. Whatever mistakes you may make, those vile acts of the evildoer over there are another thing entirely: “Yours are mistakes, but his are sins and not the same as yours. His merit punishment, while yours, in fairness, should be overlooked” (T-27.II.13:5-6).
This is the self-serving bias writ large. Clearly, it is the level on display in the articles we’ve examined. It is our face of innocence that denies responsibility and blames others for everything that goes wrong. It is our face of innocence that points to those careless pedestrians denting our car with their bodies and sneaky stop signs magically appearing in front of us. It is our face of innocence that cheats on a test and sees the results as evidence of what great test takers we are. It is our face of innocence that constantly elevates our own image at the expense of everyone else’s.
It’s not difficult to see this kind of self-deception in action when those “evil” others do it. But the Course is clear that everyone does this, at least to a certain extent. (Though I think it is possible to counteract this tendency with honest effort.) Everyone shows a face of innocence to the world: “No one who makes a picture of himself omits this face, for he has need of it” (T-31.V.4:2). As far as the Course is concerned, the face of innocence is the superhero mask we all wear when we interact with the world.
This is so true, isn’t it? Don’t we all see ourselves as the good guys? In all those battles between good and evil, how often does anyone on either side say, “Those guys over there are the good guys. We’re the bad guys”? Did Hitler say to himself, “I’m evil incarnate”? Of course not. In his eyes, he too was good in an evil world, the noble Aryan hero ridding the world of evil Jews and other undesirables. As repulsive as this sounds to us, we have our own versions of this—only the specific groups labeled “good” and “evil” differ. And we get positive social recognition for it too, especially from our own in-group; as Chance demonstrated, this recognition has the effect of cementing our self-deception even firmly into place.
(Just to be clear: I’m not saying that therefore no one is actually doing good and no one is actually doing things that would normally be regarded as evil because of the suffering those things entail. I think that clearly some individuals are more advanced spiritually and are therefore reflecting the goodness of God far more effectively in the world than others. The Course would agree. My point here is simply that given our egos’ investment in self-deception, our own assessments of this are often profoundly skewed.)
But according to the Course, the face of innocence is a deception designed to hide a deeper layer of our self-image. This deeper layer says okay, I’m pretty messed up, but those evil others out there are to blame for making me that way: “I am the thing you made of me, and as you look on me, you stand condemned because of what I am” (T-31.V.5:3). This layer, in turn, hides an even deeper and darker layer that says I myself am evil, and there’s no one to blame for it but me. Underneath all of our self-inflation and deflection of blame onto others, according to the Course, is a self-image in which we are the snakes in the grass; we are evil incarnate:
You think you are the home of evil, darkness and sin. You think if anyone could see the truth about you he would be repelled, recoiling from you as if from a poisonous snake. You think if what is true about you were revealed to you, you would be struck with horror so intense that you would rush to death by your own hand, living on after seeing this being impossible. (W-pI.93.1:1-3)
No wonder we work so hard to cover this up! Yet how can we deceive ourselves so thoroughly? How can we not even realize that we’re doing it? Chance’s experiments showed how we can surreptitiously look at the answers to a test and then conveniently forget that we’ve done so. The Course claims that this ability to conveniently forget goes a lot deeper than we realize—to the point that we can even give ourselves physical illness and then intentionally “forget” that we’ve done so. It is this “quick forgetting” (W-pI.136.5:1) that enables us to actually believe it when we inflate ourselves and blame others. It is this that enables our various self-deceptions to work.
All of these self-deceptions, according to the Course, are defenses against the truth of who we really are. And what is that truth? We think it’s that “evil, darkness and sin” level Lesson 93 speaks of, but that too is a self-deception. Underneath that layer of our self-image is our true Self, which our egos are trying to hide in order to keep themselves in business. And ironically, underneath the face of innocence and the layers below it, our true Self is truly innocent. Underneath our inflated sense of our goodness and our equally inflated sense of our evil is our true goodness. Lesson 93 goes on to give us the good news:
Your sinlessness is guaranteed by God. Over and over this must be repeated, until it is accepted. It is true. Your sinlessness is guaranteed by God. Nothing can touch it, or change what God created as eternal. The self you made, evil and full of sin, is meaningless. Your sinlessness is guaranteed by God, and light and joy and peace abide in you.
Salvation requires the acceptance of but one thought;—you are as God created you, not what you made of yourself. Whatever evil you may think you did, you are as God created you. Whatever mistakes you made, the truth about you is unchanged. Creation is eternal and unalterable. Your sinlessness is guaranteed by God. You are and will forever be exactly as you were created. Light and joy and peace abide in you because God put them there. (W-pI.93.6:1-7:7)
The good news of this passage is that while we have made all sorts of mistakes and continue to do so, they are all illusions taking place in an illusory world. Therefore, they are not sins, because they have done no real harm. Our sinlessness is guaranteed by God. We never actually turned ourselves into evildoers. Nothing we’ve done here has had any effect whatsoever on the eternal fact that we are holy Sons of God, abiding forever in His light and joy and peace.
This passage points to the Course’s solution for how to get out of this web of self-deception. And we do need to get out of it, for we will never find happiness as long as we are ensnared in it. Halvorson points out that as long as we deceive ourselves in this way, we’ll never even realize when we’re making mistakes and thus never be able to learn a better way to do things. The Course agrees. In the line following its depiction of our double standard of seeing our mistakes as innocent and other people’s mistakes as sins, it says, “In this interpretation of correction, your own mistakes you will not even see. The focus of correction has been placed outside yourself” (T-27.II.14:1-2).
Halvorson thus recommends that we get a lot more honest about our own mistakes: “The best way to handle a failure is to look honestly at how your own actions contributed to the outcome, emphasizing what you can change so that your performance improves from now on.” I think the Course would agree. It’s not easy, but in the Course’s view, if we put our minds to it we have the ability to even overcome the “quick forgetting” that keeps our self-deceptions in place: “But what you have forgot can be remembered, given willingness to reconsider the decision” (W-pI.136.5:2). It can be done, if we really want to do it.
However, I don’t think we’ll really want to do this to any significant extent as long as deep down we think we’re full of “evil, darkness and sin.” That passage says we’re so convinced of this that we would try to kill ourselves if we fully faced what we think we’ve done. As long as this evil self-image is in place, how likely are we to get really honest with ourselves? Who wants to go digging around for poisonous snakes?
Therefore, from the Course’s standpoint, while we do need to get honest with ourselves and take full responsibility for our mistakes, we need a strong positive incentive to do this. So, in order to get honest without the terror of the snake hunt, we need to do what Lesson 93 tells us. We need to constantly remind ourselves that our sinlessness is guaranteed by God, that our evil self-image is meaningless, that our mistakes have not changed the truth about us, that light and joy and peace forever abide in us because God put them there.
In other words, we need to change “Don’t blame me—I didn’t do it” to “Okay, I did it within the illusion—but I remain as God created me.” This is the way out of self-deception, the way to remember the glorious truth of who we really are.