Honestly Deceptive: The Art and Science of Self-deception

BlindThis post first appeared on The Good Men Project.

What we see in other people is seldom as it appears, but what we see in ourselves may not be true either.

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I frequently start my speeches with an experience I had on a radio show nearly 25 years ago. I’d been invited, as a minister and staff member of a notorious conversion therapy ministry, to talk about my experience of going from gay to straight. The concept was met with cynicism from the show’s host, and contempt from the lesbian guests he included in our interview. He never told me they would be there.

As the show progressed, the lesbian guests were clearly perturbed with my seemingly aloof answers and word puzzle responses. Finally, one of them said, “Let me ask you this question. What will you do 20 years from now when you find out this [being ex-gay] didn’t work?”

As I say in my speeches, to not be straight was a concept so far beyond my thinking at the time, that it never entered my conscious mind. I had to be straight and live a straight life. Every fiber of my being, inside and out, told me that God had delivered me from homosexuality. I was straight. I would never be gay. The Bible was clear on the issue. As a Christian, there was no turning back, or accepting sexuality other than the one I firmly believed was the absolute truth about me. I was a heterosexual man who simply struggled with same sex attraction.

Six years after my wife left me, and almost 15 years after I left the ex-gay ministry, the fortress of self-deception began to crack. I was nearly 40 years old, still tightly holding to the belief that I was a straight man. I had become mentally and physically ill telling myself I was straight. Ultimately, I was dragged into reality against my will, as I detail in my book Going Gay, and I spent the next several years coming to grips with the fact that I was indeed gay. I had always been gay and nothing – marriage to a woman, two children and church membership – was going to change that fact.

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While my self-deception might seem extreme, it is certainly not uncommon. We lie to ourselves every day, whether it’s the amount of alcohol we consume, the money we spend, what we think we look like (better or worse), or why it’s OK to take a pad of sticky notes from the office. And self-deception is easier than we’d think.

H. L. Mencken said, “The truth that survives is simply the lie that is pleasantest to believe.” When we are born, we are handed a set of morals, values, truths, and acceptable behaviors. As we grow, we internalize our beliefs, particularly about ourselves, and build a cognitive schema, or pattern of thinking about the world around us and how we relate to it. We create what neurologist and author, Robert Burton, would call a storyline.

Our storyline, or narrative, creates an illusion of who we are and what we believe about ourselves. Those beliefs help us decide whom we will marry, where we will work, our politics, religious beliefs, where we will live and how we will spend our money. When asked to describe ourselves, the narrative is what we tell people around us, even if it is not necessarily true. Usually, we say it and mean it with all sincerity and no one can tell us differently.

To defend our positions, we point to the things around us that verify, at least in our own minds, how it is true. In my case, I was married to a woman and we had two children. I was also a conservative Christian with strong beliefs about acceptable morality and sexual orientation. While my feelings and sexual desires belied the outward appearances, the narrative I told myself is the one I truly believed.

Dr. Michael Shermer, author of several books on belief, says that humans look for patterns, which confirm what we strongly feel to be true. He calls this “association learning patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. The tendency to find patterns go up, Shermer says, when we feel a lack of control.

But how can someone remain so self-deceptive for so long against so much evidence? The simple answer is dopamine. It’s the brain chemical that makes us feel good and is released in our brains whenever we reward ourselves mentally, or physically. Sex, food and drug use are examples of when dopamine is released in large doses. It’s part of the reason we over indulge in those types of behaviors.

But dopamine is also released when we create stories, right or wrong, about other people and ourselves. We don’t like to live in uncertainty. As part of our evolutionary biology, we need to know what’s lying under the rock, or who the people are that we’re sleeping with. When we can fill in the blanks, whether we are right or not, our brain releases dopamine and rewards us for completing the story. At the same time, the release of dopamine also causes us to see more patterns, which we interpret in favorable ways confirming that what we believe is true about ourselves and other people.

Additionally, our stories are driven by emotion in the immediate need to self-protect, according to sociologist, Brene Brown and author of Rising Strong. Making up stories, or the narrative about us is part of our basic wiring and making meaning helps us self-protect. As Brown says, “We don’t need to be accurate, we just need to be certain.”

Neurologist Robert Burton notes that the “ah ha” moments that many of us have, can shut down uncertainty and vulnerability so that our brains can experience dopamine, which can also keep us from getting to the truth. Brene Brown adds that we get a shot of dopamine even if we only create half a story and that story is wrong because our brains are simply wired to make meaning, not correct meaning.

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In many ways, self-deception is how we have evolved to deal with the inconsistencies of life. It’s how we face threats and opposing points of view, which don’t fit our world view, or cognitive schema. It’s also a convenient way to keep from facing the realities of life that we don’t like about ourselves, or having to face the harsh truth that there are things about us that we need to face and come to terms with.

As Brene Brown points out, our bodies long for truth. They tell us when we’re not being honest by reacting with physical signs of stress. Our biology seeks to live authentically and true. We can only ignore the signs for so long before the façade begins to crack and we have to face reality. In my case, coming to terms with my sexual orientation released me to become the person I was meant to be all along. The overarching effect was that the people I love were able to do the same.

Photo – Getty Images

Tim

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