[in Philosophical Psychology
15.2 (2002): 203-6]
Princeton University Press, 2001,
xi + 148 pp.
Mele has been as persistent as anyone in his pursuit of self-deception. He has
taken it on in a series of papers over the past twenty years (notably Mele 1997)
and at various places in previous books. The present book brings together his
main ideas on the subject, and readers unfamiliar with its puzzles or Mele's
approach to it will learn a lot. The cognoscenti will not only have their
memories refreshed but will be treated to much that is new, including recent
experimental work that Mele marshals in support of his deflationary account of
"straight" self-deception. There is also a chapter devoted to the neglected
case of "twisted" self-deception, in which the self-deceiver believes
something he wishes not to be the case.
Self-deception, as its name suggests, is often thought of as lying to
oneself. This "agency view," built on the model of other-deception, gives
rise to two puzzles, paradoxes even. It suggests that the self-deceiver comes to
believe something contrary to what he already believes and somehow manages to
bring this about intentionally. The "static" puzzle, as Mele calls it, is to
explain how one can believe two contrary propositions simultaneously, and the
"dynamic" puzzle is to explain how one can form a coherent plan to pull this
off. Like many others who have written on the subject, this reviewer included
(see, e.g., Johnston 1988, McLaughlin 1988, and Bach 1981), Mele rejects the
agency view. His execution of the deflationary approach is distinguished by his
heavy reliance on experimental work, regarding both motivated and unmotivated or
"cold" cognition. His main theme is that the route to error in
self-deception is continuous with other routes to cognitive error.
As he did in previous work, Mele cites four processes that lead to
motivated biasing: negative misinterpretation (downplaying counter-evidence),
positive misinterpretation (treating evidence as more favorable than it is),
selective focusing/attending, and selective evidence-gathering (pp. 26-27). No
doubt these can all contribute to self-deception, as they can to more clearly
cognitive phenomena, such as intellectual obstinance and resistance to new
ideas, but the possibility of these processes is really part of the puzzle of
self-deception itself, not part of its solution. If self-deception is puzzling,
then so, for example, is selective evidence-gathering, which combines
"hypersensitivity to evidence (and sources of evidence) for the desired state
of affairs and blindness ... to contrary evidence (and sources thereof)" (p.
27). Mele goes on to highlight a new cognitive model, due to Friedrich (1993)
and Trope & Lieberman (1996), which proposes that in testing hypotheses
people adopt different "confidence thresholds" for accepting and for
rejecting a given hypothesis. People do this because they differentially assess
the cost of wrongly believing something and of wrongly disbelieving it, for
example, that one's idea for a new product is brilliant. Costs and confidence
thresholds affect both how hypotheses are evaluated and how far one is willing
to go in testing them before making up one's mind.
It seems to me that Mele relies too heavily on this model. For one thing,
it does not (at least as he presents it) take subjective probability into
account. The cost of being wrong about something, say that one's brakes will
fail, may be very high, but if one takes this to be highly improbable,
ordinarily one does not lower one's threshold enough to expect that they will
fail. Also, he does not consider the type of case in which it is not necessary
to make up one's mind, where withholding belief one way or the other is a
feasible option. More fundamentally, the phenomenon posited by this model needs
explanation in its own right, since having different confidence thresholds for
accepting and for rejecting an hypothesis is itself an essential ingredient of
self-deception. That is, part of what self-deception involves is lowering
one's acceptance threshold for one proposition and raising it for another. So,
in relying on this model Mele has not really shed light on self-deception so
much as subsumed it under an empirically studied model. And neither he nor that
model fully explains why threshold adjustment occurs on some occasions and not
on others and to a greater degree on some matters than on others. Nor does he or
the model explain why people don't see through their self-deception,
especially when their noses are rubbed in it.
Mele proposes a set of four elements as jointly comprising sufficient
conditions for entering self-deception in acquiring a belief that p (he does not
focus on what is involved in remaining self-deceived): the belief that p is
false, data possessed by the person favor not-p over p, the person treats
genuinely or apparently relevant data in a motivationally biased way, and this
causes (in a nondeviant way) the belief that p. Note that satisfaction of the
first two conditions is not necessary for the psychological process involved in
self-deception: if it turns out that p is true or that the data objectively
favor p over not-p but the person has little reason to believe this, that would
not count as self-deception and yet the process would be the same. At any rate,
Mele acknowledges that his four conditions are not necessary for self-deception.
This is reasonable, given that his aim is merely to undermine the agency model.
Unfortunately, Mele makes no attempt to show that there are no cases of
beliefs that satisfy his conditions but do not count as cases of self-deception.
Instead, he proceeds to argue against claims that certain other conditions are
necessary for it. Even if he were right about that, this would not go to show
that his account is superior, since he has not defended the necessity of his own
conditions. Maybe there are other sets of sufficient conditions that are just as
good as his (perhaps the notion of self-deception is too imprecise for there to
be a set of singly necessary and jointly sufficient conditions).
Mele specifically argues against a family of views according to which
self-deception involves reducing tension or anxiety or keeping unpleasant
thoughts out of mind. He grants that self-deception often involves such things
but denies that it must. Yet meeting merely his conditions does not distinguish
self-deception from other sorts of motivated belief. For example, it is not
clear that someone who anxiously broods over a remote possibility or clings to a
false hope is guilty of self-deception, even though their false belief that a
certain possibility is realistic seems to satisfy Mele's conditions. Also, it
might be argued that his conditions are satisfied by beliefs that are not
generally regarded as self-deceptive, such as those involved in popular
superstitions, religious and otherwise, and in other sorts of common nonsense.
For example, many people evidently believe that unrepentant sinners will
literally go to hell. Clearly this is not their own idea but, as they might
acknowledge, what they were "brought up" to believe. They belong to a
community of people who have long shared it, and they might realize that there
are other communities with different beliefs also held not on the basis of
evidence but because of upbringing. Does this belief still count as
self-deception? Perhaps Mele would insist that it does.
Mele does not confront the fact that self-deception is a process that
involves not just the formation of a certain belief but ongoing resistance to
the emergence of the truth. After all, self-deception is about matters that
matter, about issues that keep coming to mind. Self-deception is not the
one-shot affair that Mele's account allows--the self-deceiver must keep at
it. In downplaying the importance of reducing tension or anxiety and of keeping
conflicting thoughts at bay (pp. 52-56), Mele supposes that coming to believe a
certain thing in a certain way suffices for self-deception. In seems to me,
however, that self-deception is distinguished from mere motivated believing,
such as that involved in tension-free dogmatism or bigotry, by the fact that it
involves repeated resistance to the truth. Insofar as one of the roles of
believing a given proposition p is to dispose one to think that p
whenever the thought of p occurs, there is more to self-deception than
believing that p in a motivationally biased way: one has to resist the ongoing
rational tendency, whenever the thought of p occurs, to think that not-p. On
Mele's account self-deception is too easy.
A related point is that in focusing on what it is to be self-deceived in
believing some particular proposition, Mele neglects the fact that this commonly
involves self-deception or at least some degree of irrationality about other
propositions. Self-deception weaves a web of distorted belief strengthened by a
fabric of biased evidence gathering and assessment and of selective attention
and inattention. For example, if you already believe self-deceptively that
nobody likes you, you might take a nice gesture by someone as an attempt to get
something from you. Instead of regarding their good deed as an expression of
good feeling, you take it as evidence of an ulterior motive. So it is
unfortunate that Mele focuses on entering self-deception and neglects what is
involved in remaining self-deceived. For that is where the dynamics of
self-deception really come into play. Becoming self-deceived about something
would not be all that significant if people did not tend to stay self-deceived
about it. Mele's attention to attention mainly concerns its role in initially
becoming self-deceived, specifically in regard to evidence, and neglects the
role of keeping counter-evidence out of mind in sustaining self-deception and
that of flooding one's mind, in the face of residual doubts, with thoughts
about favorable evidence.
Mele eliminates one plausible necessary condition on self-deception.
Contrary to common opinion, it is not necessary that what the self-deceiver
believes be something that he wants to be the case: people are sometimes
self-deceived about something they wish not to be the case. This is what Mele
calls "twisted" self-deception, as illustrated by the jealous husband who
believes on flimsy grounds that his wife is having an affair. If, like
"straight" self-deception, the twisted version involves motivated belief and
handling of evidence, it poses a special puzzle, since its motivation is hard to
understand. That is, why would anyone deceive himself into believing something
that he would rather not be so? Mele considers the sorts of emotion--fear,
anxiety, insecurity, as well as jealousy--that might provide the requisite
motivation, but unfortunately his discussion gets side-tracked on the issue of
whether the emotions in question involve desire, either constitutively or as an
effect. For some reason he supposes that emotion cannot itself be motivational,
as when he considers whether "emotion, and not motivation, can play a biasing
role" (p. 115). But it seems that certain emotions are inherently
motivational, e.g. fear, anger, and love. And, as suggested above, he downplays
the role of attention and its control. In his example, it seems that the jealous
husband would not fear that his wife is carrying on unless he couldn't keep
from thinking about this possibility. Also, there is a general question about
motivation, applying both to straight and twisted self-deception, that Mele does
not take up: under what conditions is one motivated to engage in self-deception?
Mele is mainly concerned with what self-deception involves when it occurs, but
not with why it occurs when it does. After all, people who are self-deceived
about one thing are not deceived about all sorts of other things that they could
be equally well-motivated to deceive themselves about.
For anyone unfamiliar with the literature on self-deception, including
Mele's own contributions to it, his debunking of the agency view is clear and
compelling. By the time he disposes of it, viewing self-deception on the model
of intentionally deceiving someone else will seem about as plausible as
understanding self-help on the model of helping someone else. But nowadays few
philosophers suppose that deceiving oneself is like intentionally deceiving
someone else. Even so, thanks to its stress on the cognitive side and its
treatment of the case of twisted self-deception, there is much that is of
interest in this book, even to those well-read on self-deception and disabused
of its paradoxes.
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