Self-Deception is a fascinating phenomenon. If you repeat a lie to yourself again and again, you start to believe it. You would think that the ability to deceive yourself would be constrained by data. If there is obviously available evidence that your story is false, you might stop believing it. Then, self-deception can only flourish when there is an identification problem. Once data falsifies competing theories, the individual is forced to face facts.
Reality is much more complex. Take the perhaps extreme case of John Edwards. The National Enquirer published a story reporting that Rielle Hunter was pregnant with John Edwards’s child. Edwards simply denied the facts. The Enquirer employed a psychologist to profile Edwards. S/he concluded:
“Edwards looks at himself as above the law. He has a compromised conscience — meaning he will cover up his immoral behavior at whatever cost to keep his reputation intact. He believes he is who his reputation says he is, rather than the immoral side, the truth. He separates himself from the immoral side because that person wouldn’t be the next president of the United States. He overcompensated for his insecurities with sex to feed his ego which feeds his narcissism.”
The most important part was the absolute certainty of the mental health professional that Edwards would continue to deny the scandal — almost at all costs.
“He will keep denying the scandal to America because he is denying the reality of it to himself. He sees himself only as the image he has created.”
How do you deal with a pathological deceiver/self-deceiver? The Editor collected photos and evidence of Hunter-Edwards liasons. He describes his strategy:
We told the press that there were photographs and video from that night. Other journalists asked us to release the images but I refused. Edwards needed to imagine the worst-case scenario becoming public. TheEnquirer would give him no clues about what it did and did not have…..
Behind the scenes we exerted pressure on Edwards, sending word though mutual contacts that we had photographed him throughout the night. We provided a few details about his movements to prove this was no bluff.
For 18 days we played this game, and as the standoff continued the Enquirer published a photograph of Edwards with the baby inside a room at the Beverly Hilton hotel.
Journalists asked if we had a hidden camera in the room. We never said yes or no. (We still haven’t). We sent word to Edwards privately that there were more photos.
He cracked. Not knowing what else the Enquirer possessed and faced with his world crumbling, Edwards, as the profiler predicted, came forward to partially confess. He knew no one could prove paternity so he admitted the affair but denied being the father of Hunter’s baby, once again taking control of the situation.
This strategy is inconsistent with the logic of extreme self-deception. Such an individual must be overconfident, thinking he can get away with bald-faced lies. Facing ambiguous evidence, he might conclude that the Enquirer had nothing beyond the odd photo it released. The Enquirer strategy instead relies on the individual believing the worst not the best. The two pathologies self-deception and extreme pessimism should cancel out…..there is some interssting inconsistency here.
One thing is clear: One way to eliminate self-deception is for a third-party to step in and make the decision. This is what Omar Suleiman, Barack Obama and the Egyptian army are doing to help Hosni Mubarak deal with his self-deception.