Vital Lies: Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception
Simon & Schuster, 1996
Attorney John Dean’s memory of Watergate-related conversations was remarkably long and detailed. It was also remarkably inaccurate in reporting specifics. Mostly Dean’s account, compared with the tapes, shows “wishful memory,” skewing specifics to make himself look more important. “Dean’s testimony really describes not the meeting itself but his fantasy of it: the meeting as it should have been.” [Examples follow] “The stitching that holds together such pseudo-memories is…wishful thinking.” It reveals what Dean yearned for, what he craved. “Memory is attention in the past tense…(it) is in double jeopardy, for apart from an initial skew in what is noticed, there can be later biases in what is recalled.” Our memories are partly staged, usually self-centered. John Dean’s ambition reorganized his recollections. He may have believed his own story and misled himself.
Consider the John Darsee case. Darsee was caught falsifying his data in his research at Harvard Medical School. “When…several young researchers watched in astonishment as Dr. Darsee forged data for an experiment” [he] blithely admitted that fabrication while denying any others. “After a thorough investigation showed that virtually all his data had been faked for several years, Darsee wrote a letter to federal investigators in which he stated that he acknowledged that the inquiry had established both the falsification and his personal role in it. Darsee’s letter, if it is to be believed, displays the mind’s power to stonewall even what it accepts as fact: it seems to have happened, I seem to have done it, but I disavow it—I don’t remember doing so.” The human capacity for self-deception is fathomless.
We repress what’s painful. Goleman quotes Dostoevsky: Notes From Underground: “Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.” Repression and denial lessen psychic pain.
We “suavely ignore great bodies of experience . . .The dance-away lover seems doomed to an endless cycle of romances with starry-eyed beginnings and tearful endings. The abrasive manager somehow keeps rubbing up against recalcitrant employees. The compulsive workaholic just can’t seem to get his wife to understand the pressing need to bring work home at night. Our defenses insulate us from the vital lie at the heart of our misery.”