I recently read Stumbling on Happiness, which explored self-deception with a very narrow focus. While a pretty good book in itself, I wanted something more broader. I’m more than happy to say that Goleman’s book completely fulfilled my expectations. I remember reading some study results that showed that human life is filled with all kind of lies, deceptions and so on, on a daily basis.
The idealistic, and not very realistic depiction of humans as truthsayers most of the time, with a few of us telling big lies as rare events is pretty much not how it works. But every smartass who assumes that we have to merely be a little more truthful misses the point of why we lie in the first place, why we deceive and in the end deceive ourselves.
Goleman explores self-deception within a broader framework of the human mind and of how consciousness works. While the subtitle of the book is the psychology of self deception, Goleman integrates research from a far wider area, paramount among them biology and its many sub-categories.
What I really like about the book is the absence of any normative and didactic elements. There’s none of the non-sense about how to be a better human being by avoiding lying or self-deception, or why lying and self-deception is a bad thing from a moral viewpoint (there is from a merely practical viewpoint, but that’s different).
Goleman primary sees self-deception as a means that evolved to cope with anxiety. This goes a long way to explain the why (we do it), the how (it works) and finally the reason why normative and didactic approaches completely miss the point. We won’t change our behavior because self-deception is an essential element of how we function.
Goleman does mention the pitfalls (extensively even), since self-deception is such a crude mechanism that can lead to many negative outcomes. But one simple truth is, we won’t stop deceiving ourselves because it’s the right thing. Deeply ingrained, learned pattern of self-deception can’t be erased by just doing the right thing. That takes a little more work.