Self-deception – a major obstacle to thinking clearly

I am reading through a book that outlines ways our thinking processes will sometimes lead us to decisions that are actually wrong.

While pondering those ideas, I realized there is another severe flaw in the way we humans think that is described in the Bible.

The book is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  My posts on the book applying it to the audit context start here.

The problem is worse than just incorrectly thinking fast

There are lots of biases in our human brains and lots of mental shortcuts we take. Thinking, Fast and Slow outlines a number of them.

What’s worse than anything Mr. Kahneman describes?

That we try to deceive ourselves. Go out of our way to do so.

In Jeremiah 17:9, the bible says

“the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”  

Our human ability for self-deception is astounding. CPAs, bloggers, newspaper reporters, politicians, federal regulators, and corporate CFOs are not exempt.

I see that in other people.  A lot of people.  A lot of the time.

Situations that don’t make sense on the surface – putting the pieces together

Remembering that bible verse explains much of the destructive behavior I see in situations. Frequently that is the best explanation for irrational, hurtful, self-destructive behavior.

Sometimes I look at a situation in my work world or personal life that I’m close to but not emotionally involved in.  In a few of those situations I know enough that I can pull together a lot of information about the mess.  Sometimes the whole situation just doesn’t fit together.  Occasionally the best explanation to make all the pieces fit into a coherent whole is a deceitful heart.

I would really like to give highly sanitized examples I’ve observed over the years but I don’t think it is wise to do so.

I’ve had enough situations in my life that I can analyze objectively up close to realize that frequently the only way to fit all the pieces of a conflict together into a coherent picture is to go back to that verse from Jeremiah.  Interpreting those messy, confusing situations through the idea that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” brings it all together.

For reasons that are beyond understanding, the deceitful heart kicks in to generate self-deception.  Our ability to deceive ourselves in turn generates rationalizations and distorts our interpretation of others. 

The bigger concern

Once you recognize the behavior, it isn’t that difficult to discern when a deceitful heart is in play in someone else.  It sometimes becomes quite obvious that self-deception is a major issue in the life of another person that needs to be addressed for their own health.  When self-deception is in play, it’s a big deal.

My bigger concern is how often that self-deception is happening inside me.

That should be your concern as well. (Wait, not your concern for my self-deception, but your concern about your self-deception.)

We all need to be on guard for that.

Here are a few questions I need to ask myself.

  • Where am I deceiving myself?
  • What am I intentionally misunderstanding about someone else?
  • Where am I going out of my way to take offense from someone else’s innocent comment because I want to be even more offended because I’m already mad at them?
  • When am I rationalizing my position?
  • Where is my profession rationalizing a position that other people find silly? (Ouch – that’s gonna’ hurt.  Sometime soon I should write a post on a few rationalizations in my profession that I find handy to lean on.)

By the way, you need to ask those questions of yourself.

When applied to other people, those questions are so very easy to answer.

The challenge is to ask those questions of ourselves and be brave enough to search for an answer.

(I’ve mentioned this before here.)

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