We might not like the idea that we lie to ourselves every day. But our penchant for self-deception may have hidden benefits.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Last December, PolitiFact called coronavirus denial the “lie of the year.” Arguably, it’s a lie many people told themselves—out of fear, convenience, ideology, economic interest or group loyalty. Such self-deception has cost many lives. And it sets a contrastive backdrop for “Useful Delusions,” a lively and digestible book from Shankar Vedantam, host of NPR’s “The Hidden Brain,” and science writer Bill Mesler on the benefits of lying to yourself.

Conventional wisdom has accepted the ubiquity of self-deception at least since Freud popularized the notion of repression. Cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely have probed the phenomenon in bestselling books. Some scholars believe our biases and delusions are mere side effects of helpful heuristics, nuisance fines for mental expediency. But what if they have value in themselves?

In a single sentence tucked away in the foreword to Richard Dawkins’s 1976 book “The Selfish Gene,” the evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers offered a powerful idea: We’ve evolved to fool ourselves the better to keep “the subtle signs of self knowledge” from undermining our tall tales with tells. Messrs. Vedantam and Mesler mention the idea but don’t dwell on evolutionary mechanisms (while insisting that they’re there), focusing instead on effects.

Self-deception presents itself benignly in our casual interactions. We lie several times per day, or hour, depending on who’s counting. Little lies, about how interested we are in what you just said about your knitting. Do recipients question them? No, they let that oil drip into the fearsome gears of conversation. We gladly take politeness at face value, for our own good. One study found that receiving rude remarks decreased participants’ creativity and generosity. The book cites Barack Obama’s “Anger Translator,” played by the comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who frankly articulated Mr. Obama’s subtext. It’s not that we can’t handle the truth. We’d just rather not.

Overconfidence, an evasion of reality distributed unequally among us, can lead to hubristic mistakes, but it can also do good. In one study, AIDS patients with unmoored optimism about their prognoses survived longer. Spells that supposedly imbue bulletproof protection have helped scrappy battalions stand up to larger armies.

Our willingness to participate in fictions makes storytelling a particularly powerful force. Messrs. Vedantam and Mesler suggest novels require a bit of belief to keep us enthralled, and advertising turns on our buying into brand narratives. Golfers performed better when told they had Nike clubs. More important, group cohesion flows from investment in origin stories, a belief that something unseen ties us together. Ceremonies and other rituals can make these tales visceral, and groups from college fraternities to nations—motley populations otherwise defined by little more than lines on a map—rely on fake-it-till-you-make-it solidarity to do things like land on the moon. Religions trade in the power of stories too: Evidence suggests fear of angry gods bootstrapped altruism toward strangers until we could put the modern state in place. Such suspensions of skepticism, the authors write, “are responsible for creating some of the crowning glories of human civilization.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG was reminded of some unreliable narrators.

From Reedsy Blog:

In literature, an unreliable narrator is a character who tells a story with a lack of credibility. There are different types of unreliable narrators (more on that later), and the presence of one can be revealed to readers in varying ways — sometimes immediately, sometimes gradually, and sometimes later in the story when a plot twist leaves us wondering if we’ve maybe been a little too trusting.

While the term “unreliable narrator” was first coined by literary critic Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, it’s a literary device that writers have been putting to good use for much longer than the past 80 years. For example, “The Tell-Tale Heart” published by Edgar Allan Poe in 1843 utilizes this storytelling tool, as does Wuthering Heights, published in 1847.

But wait, is any narrator really reliable?

This discussion can lead us down a proverbial rabbit hole. In a sense, no, there aren’t any 100% completely reliable narrators. The “Rashomon Effect” tells us that our subjective perceptions prohibit us from ever having a totally clear memory of past events. If each person subjectively remembers something that happened, how do we know who is right? “Indeed, many writers have used the Rashomon Effect to tell stories from multiple first-person perspectives — leaving readers to determine whose record is most believable.” (Check out As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner for an example).

. . . .

Literary function of an unreliable narrator

Fiction that makes us question our own perceptions can be powerful. An unreliable narrator can create a lot of grey areas and blur the lines of reality, allowing us to come to our own conclusions.

Fallible storytellers can also create tension by keeping readers on their toes — wondering if there’s more under the surface, and reading between the lines to decipher what that is. Unreliable narrators can make for intriguing, complex characters: depending on the narrator’s motivation for clouding the truth, readers may also feel more compelled to keep reading to figure out why the narrator is hiding things.

Finally, all unreliable narrators are first-person: they live in the world of the story and will have an inherent bias or perhaps even an agenda. While you may find an unreliable narrator who’s written in the second-person or third-person point of view, this is generally rare.

. . . .

Types of unreliable narrators

Just like trying to classify every type of character would be an endless pursuit, so is trying to list every type of unreliable narrator. That said, we’ve divided these questionable raconteurs into three general types to better understand how they work as a literary device.

1) Deliberately Unreliable: Narrators who are aware of their deception

This type of narrator is intentionally lying to the reader because, well, they can. They have your attention, the point of view is theirs, and they’ll choose what to do with it, regardless of any “responsibility” they might have to the reader.

A quick note about this kind of narrator: people want to read about characters they can connect with or relate to. This is one of the tricky parts of writing this kind of narrator: the character has to be compelling enough that we’ll keep connecting with them even if we suspect we’re being misled. We don’t have to necessarily like them, but we need to understand them. For instance, even Alex from A Clockwork Orange has an underlying humanity: his desire for individual freedom above all. His flagrant lies are therefore an exercise of his freedom.

2) Evasively Unreliable: Narrators who unconsciously alter the truth

The motivations for this kind of narrator are often quite muddy — sometimes it’s simple self-preservation, other times it’s slightly more manipulative. Sometimes the narrator isn’t even aware they are twisting the truth until later in the book. Their unreliability often stems from the need to tell the story in a way that justifies something, and their stories are often embellished or watered down.

These kinds of contradictory characters whose mindsets aren’t clear can keep readers anxiously waiting for the narrator’s moment of clarity — drawing their own conclusions all the while.

3) Naively Unreliable: Narrators who are honest but lack all the information

Unlike the previous two types, this type of narrator is not unreliable on purpose — they simply lack a traditional, “greater understanding.” This kind of unreliability can allow the reader to view your story with fresh eyes. The narrator’s “unorthodox” interpretations might only provide us with partial explanations of what’s going on, forcing us to dig a little deeper and connect the dots. These naive narrators can also encourage readers to take more significant notice of things we might’ve taken for granted.

Craft tip: Don’t cheat the reader. Great novels inspire readers to come back and find new meaning and elements they hadn’t yet discovered the first time. This can be especially true of stories told by unreliable narrators. If you employ this literary device gradually throughout the novel, ensure you leave clues for your readers along the way. Drop hints that make us question the validity of our source and have us eagerly reading to find the next clue that will act as another part of the story-puzzle. If you suddenly reveal out of nowhere that the narrator hasn’t been giving us all the facts in an abrupt twist, readers will feel they have been cheated.

Link to the rest at Reedsy Blog

6 thoughts on “We might not like the idea that we lie to ourselves every day. But our penchant for self-deception may have hidden benefits.”

  1. Last December, PolitiFact called coronavirus denial the “lie of the year.”

    Did they actually find someone who denied the virus existed and was infecting people? Who? Anyone know who holds such an idea?

    So, what is a Corona Virus Denier? What qualifies for the title?

  2. This subject comes up a lot. Fiction is functionally different from lies.

    Fictions are shared narratives that tell a perceived truth, which isn’t an absolute truth, but truth in and or for a situation in the fictional narrative.

    Fictions also make the reader a stakeholder in the story.

    Lies are deceptions by one or more people to convince one or more people that what they believe didn’t happen, or what they want isn’t worth happening, or that an event by the perpetrator was not in fact committed by said perpetrator.

    Lies divert people from seeing the truth.

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