The human capacity for self-deception

As a psychologist with 26 years experience ( I figure at this point I have accrued somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 hours of clinical experience), I frequently wonder how I have been shaped by my experience, first as a therapist, and later as a forensic clinician, working in both criminal and primarily Family Court arenas. I just finished D. Halberstam’s The Coldest War about the Truman Administration and the Korean War, and half way through, The Best and the Brightest, about the Kennedy administration and the Vietnam war (then we had the Bush administration and the Iraq war, and now the Obama administration and  the Afghanistan war–tomorrow I will go and hear Daniel Ellsberg whose release of the Pentagon papers exposed the lies of the US government about the Vietnam war).  What I have been most impressed with is the human capacity for self-deception. I am not talking about how humans fail to understand the deep and the hidden, but rather what is “hidden in plain sight.” (S. Kubrick’s brilliant film “Eyes Wide Shut” plays off the same theme). In fact, often the deep and hidden often is obviously apparent in plain sight! My daily practice and reading about human folly reinforces my observations. So I try to make sense of my experience. The concept of “bounded rationality,” developed by H. Simon, is very helpful in understanding the limitations of human decision-making and the failure of rational choice as a descriptive model of human behavior. Humans not only fail act rationally but also to perceive accurately! This takes us into deep waters, about whether humans are rational beings. This territory was visited and charted by S. Freud. Much of my daily work and reflection as a psychologist has to do with the fundamental irrationality of human beings and their capacity for self-deception (including my own).

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