Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

Self-deception: a how-to guide

Posted in Books, People / organisations, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on March 25, 2008

If you think you do not know how to deceive yourself then you probably already know exactly how to do so. But, for the few innocents among us, I recommend the book “Mistakes were made (But not by Me)“. Frankly, I bought it for the name alone. Needless to say, politicians are over-represented, mainly because lying to others first requires a mastery of the ability to lie to oneself.

A shorter and funnier alternative is lecture by Robert Trivers (originally posted on IT Conversations). As Trivers recounts, there are three techniques for self-deception:

  1. Using the active voice for positive personal actions, and the passive for negative ones. For example, “I created this success” but “this failure happened”. This is a restatement of the principle that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan.
  2. Heaping general praise for positive actions by those in the in-group (e.g. “my friend did something great because he is a great person”) but only specific for out (e.g. “my enemy did something great”). Conversely, for negative actions, those in the in-group get specific condemnation (e.g. “my friend did something bad”) while general condemnation is reserved for those in the out-group (e.g. “my enemy did something because he is a terrible person”).
  3. Selective memory, including no correlation between confidence and accuracy. The latter point is particularly serious for the judicial system, where the degree of confidence of a witness is taken as an indication of the accuracy of their statements.

Trivers also mentions something that saddened me: the first world war was last in which the military died to protect civilians; since then, the reverse has been true.

Which brings us these statements:

  • “I believe that success will be fairly easy.” — John McCain (9/24/02, CNN)
  • “I believe that we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time.” — John McCain (9/29/02, CNN)
  • “The American people … were led to believe that this would be some kind of a day at the beach which many of us, uh, fully understood from the very beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking.” — John McCain (8/22/06, CNN)
  • “I knew it was probably going to be long and hard and tough. And those that voted for it and thought that somehow it was going to be some kind of an easy task, then I’m sorry they were mistaken. Maybe they didn’t know what they were voting for.” — John McCain (1/4/07, MSNBC)

Selective memory anyone?


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