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Psychological Numbing

It may seem contradictory to say that intentionally deceiving oneself by hiding the truth and preventing accurate information from entering the conscious decision-making process can have some benefits. The ability to self-deceive has become an ally of modern human self-preservation. Maybe the earliest humans who walked the planet, who had few competitors and limited access to information, did not need the ability to fool themselves, or others for that matter. Today’s world is different. Leaders and workers have many seen and unseen competitors and a deluge of information to inform, misinform, and confuse them. Perhaps then, self-deception can help shield one from too much stimulation.


An Evolutionary Adaptation

A seemingly negative function like keeping certain potentially damaging information from one’s consciousness sounds like a bad thing. Some scientists have argued that this is the case, that self-deception is a detachment from reality hindering one’s ability to accurately appraise life events. Other researchers have argued the opposite; that self-deception has emerged as a means to protect one’s mental capacity from overwhelming and conflicting stimuli.[1] The ability to self-deceive may even orient a person favorably towards the future, allowing them to see past setbacks as blessings in disguise.[2]


Robert Trivers’ earlier example of his petty thievery serves to shed some additional explanation on this concept. He explained that, from an evolutionary standpoint, the human mind developed a capacity to detect when adversaries or competitors were trying to gain an advantage through deception. The ability of the human mind to construct complex theories of social interaction, about personal relationships, work-life, social responsibilities, and racial biases may have evolved to detect cheating in others. Self-deception, he explained, stemmed from this evolved ability, although independent of one’s increased capacity to fool others. In his example in an earlier post about his stealing blackboard chalk in the classroom, he stated that this activity operated at the unconscious level. The benefit he, the petty thief, gained by keeping this activity at the unconscious level, was that this behavior would not interfere with other behavior, and vice versa. The unconscious activity of stealing chalk could continue unencumbered by other activities that required his attention and brainpower.[3]


Self-Preservation

There are certain human functions that one might engage in to help preserve life and limb but come at a cost. To go through the mental expense of concocting a lie to fool either others or oneself must benefit the person. Such a person may act selfishly to advance their objectives while being selfishly unconcerned with how their actions affect others. In this sense, lying to others or to oneself is a natural phenomenon that is a necessary function of daily life.[4] There are consequences, both mentally, spiritually, and materially, if one is caught trying to manipulate someone else, so the deception had better be worth it.


Self-preservation seems like one of the functions that are worth the effort, even if the effort has some detrimental side effects. Sissela Bok, an author who has written about lying and secrecy, discussed how many religious and philosophical traditions take self-preservation to be the most fundamental characteristic of any human. Two such self-preservation mechanisms, the use of violence and keeping secrets, are especially natural and legitimate activities.[5]


Protecting Oneself from Negative Thoughts

Deceiving oneself does not have to serve life and death situations. Unlike our human ancestors, people today seldomly face the struggle to survive every minute of the day, so committing deception may serve less dire needs. Self-deception can serve to boost one’s self-esteem and give them the confidence they need to operate in a high-stress, very competitive workplace environment. People who self-deceive may simply be trying to avoid negative thoughts and feelings or trying to deny inputs that are psychologically negative.[6] This practice may actually be psychologically healthy, as these people have to contend with fewer negative thoughts, resulting in higher expectancies of personal success.[7]


Psychological Numbing

Even though the prevention of the admittance of damaging information into one’s psyche may have immediate benefits, like boosting one’s self-esteem, making this a habit can have a cumulative, detrimental effect. If one repeatedly rationalizes self-deception as a means to preserve oneself, this activity can become routinized.[8] Repeated exposure to ethical dilemmas that one thinks requires them to self-deceive may have a resultant mental numbing effect. From a strategic leadership perspective, being able to achieve self-awareness gets pushed further from one’s grasp because they lose the ability to take responsibility for their actions.[9]


If someone does something over and over again long enough, the benefits or detriments of the deed may lessen. When they fail to feel the sting of the act or the joy of its return, they develop a psychological numbness to it. As a result, when a leader is faced with a constant barrage of high-stakes scenarios, they may be less likely to see the ethical dilemmas present in the decisions they have to make.[10] If a leader continuously chooses to deceive themselves by preventing any bits of information, significant or minuscule, into their decision-making calculus, they will not see all of the possible implications of their actions. Since leaders today are constantly presented with moral challenges and over-stimulated with information, any bit of psychological numbing may seem a comfort.


The leader ultimately suffers from self-deceptive behavior, as do their direct reports and the organization they serve. A leader who is not self-aware nor cognizant of the damages their ineffective leadership inflicts on others tends to be more unjust than do those that are self-aware. They must keep themselves numb to their dysfunctional behavior because this sort of behavior will continue to percolate.[11]


The only real benefit of deceiving oneself seems to be to limit the negative stimuli that fight positive stimuli for one’s attention. In the short term, fewer negative thoughts would equate to a healthier psyche. But this practice can become addictive, and the practitioner numbs themselves to the harshness of reality. Leaders ignore bad news at their own peril.


Observations

  • self-deception may have emerged in humans to protect them mentally from overwhelming stimulation

  • routinized self-deception, over a long term, may result in a psychological numbness to the practice

[1] Kuntz and Dehlin (2019) [2] Trivers (2006) [3] Trivers (2006) [4] Williams et al. (2009) [5] Bok (1989) [6] Paulhas (1991) [7] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [8] Kelman and Hamilton (1989) [9] Bandura (1999) [10] Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) [11] Williams et al. (2009)

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