2011-01-22T17:05:06+01:00

Vital Lies, Simple Truths

I just finished reading a book titled "Vital Lies, Simple Truths - The Psychology of Self-Deception" by Daniel Goleman. The book tries to reveal the truth about why do we lie to our self and to the others. The modern type of pain - anxiety - has a modern type of defense - the lies and self-deception - in case of a long lasting anxiety that can not be changed.

  • p51 "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

The main topics of the book are awareness, blind-spots, lacunas, schemas and frames:

  • p22 My thesis, in sum, revolves around these premises: The mind can protect itself against anxiety by dimming awareness. This mechanism creates a blind spot: a zone of blocked attention and self-deception. Such blind spots occur at each major level of behavior from the psychological to the social.
  • p107 Lacunas are psychological analogues of the opioids and their antiattention effects. Lacunas are black holes of the mind, diverting attention from select bits of subjective reality - specifically, certain anxiety-evoking information. They operate on attention like a magician misdirecting his audience to look over there, while over here a key prop slips out of sign.
  • p77 The notion of schemas is itself a schema. As such, it is the most promising account we have to explain to ourselves. Schemas are the organizing dynamic of knowledge. To realize how they operate is to understand understanding.
  • p80 Schemas not only determine what we will notice: they also determine what we do not notice.
  • p197 A frame, for example, is the understanding that we are at play, or that "this is a sales call," or that "we are dating". Each of those definitions of social events determines what is appropriate to the moment and what is not; what is to be considered and what ignored; what, in short, the going reality involves.
  • p209 Culture is a basket of frames. To the degree that frames differ from culture to culture, contacts between people from different lands can be sticky. For example, bribery is a normal part of doing business in much of the world, a fact that makes Americans indignant.

It is an interesting parallel to the book of Awareness from Anthony De Mello. While the book of Awareness was a spiritual book this one is based on scientific facts from the psychological research about how our mind operates with loads of citations. The basic concept is:

  • p241 Consciousness, we have seen, runs along parallel, interlinked tracks, most of them outside awareness; awareness is the last stop - and not always an essential one - in the flow of information through the mind. Crucial decisions as to what should and should not enter awareness are made in the unconscious mind. Thus that essentially human ability, self-awareness, brings with it the capacity for self-deception.

Here is the list of ways how we lie or change the reality to our selves:

  • p120 (Repression: Forgetting and forgetting one has forgotten) What's more, once repressed, the fact that information has been repressed is forgotten, and so there is no impetus to try to remember it.
  • p120 (Denial and reversal: What is so is not the case; the opposite is the case) Reversal carries denial one step further. The fact is denied, then transformed into its opposite: "I hate you" becomes "I love you"; "I am sad" changes to "I am happy". Reversal (sometimes called "reaction formation") is a handy way to sanitize unruly impulses. The urge to be messy is transformed into excessive cleanliness; anger surfaces as smothering nurturance.
  • p120 (Projection: What is inside is cast outside) If one's feelings are too much to bear, the mind can handle them at a distance. One way to distance feeling is to act as if it were not one's own. The formula for projection of one's feelings onto someone else includes two parts: denial and displacement.
  • p121 (Isolation: Events without feelings) Isolation is a partial blanking out of experience, a semi-denial. An unpleasant event is not repressed, but the feelings it evokes are.
  • p121 (Rationalization: I give myself a cover story) Rationalizations are lies so slick we can get away with telling them not only to ourselves, but even to others, without flinching. "It's for your own good" and "This hurts me more than it hurts you" signal rationalization at work, a favored defense among intellectuals, whose psychological talents include inventing convincing excuses and alibis.
  • p121 (Sublimation: Replace the threatening with the safe) Sublimation allows instincts to be channeled rather than repressed, as they are in the more neurotic defenses. Urges are acknowledged, albeit in a modified form. The impulse to steal is reincarnated as a career in banking; the scream masquerades as song; the urge to rape dons the courtship; the compulsion to maim resurfaces as the surgeon's artistry. Sublimation, Freud argued, is the great civilizer, the force which keeps mankind manageable and makes human progress possible.
  • p122 (Selective inattention: I don't see what I don't like) The utter simplicity of selective inattention - and its ubiquity in everyday life - qualifies it as a generic defense, perhaps the most common.
  • p122 (Automatism: I don't notice what I do) Certain of these automatized activities cover up elements of experience that might make us uncomfortable if we fully realized our motives or objectives. Automatism allows entire sequences of such behavior to go on without our having to notice either that they happened or the troubling urges they might signify.

I realized what is and why is the psychoanalysis and psychotherapy important:

  • p127 The essence of analysis, then, is restoring awareness of what we fail to notice - and fail to notice that we fail to notice.
  • p116 According to Freud, the penalty for repression is repetition. Painful experiences not dealt with are, unconsciously, repeated. We do not quite realize that we are repeating ourselves, because the very diversionary schemas we are repeating keep the fact of their repetition from awareness. On the one hand, we forget we have done this before and, on the other, do not quite realize what we are doing again. The self-deception is complete.

I found the book really mind stretching and would recommend it to anyone who is curious enough about why our today world operate like it does. While understanding is the first step, the book offers just a few hints what to do with self-deception and most important with groupthink.

The rest are just my notes of more interesting thoughts from the book:

  • p13 Self-deception operates both at the level of individual mind, and in the collective awareness of the group. To belong to a group of any sort, the tacit price of membership is to agree not to notice one's own feelings of uneasiness and misgiving, and certainly not to question anything that challenges the group's way of doing things.
  • p14 It is a paradox of our time that those with power are too comfortable to notice the pain of those who suffer, and those who suffer have no power.
  • p17 Or, as the now fully grown child of an alcoholic put it, "In our family there were two very clear rules: the first was that there is nothing wrong her, and the second was, don't tell anyone."
  • p21 "Indeed," suggests the neuroscientist Monte Buchsbaum, "filtering or coping with the tremendous information overload that the human eye, ear, and other sense organs can dump upon the central nervous system may be one of the major functions of the cerebral cortex."
  • p24 The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.
  • p25 My aim is to ponder our collective predicament: if we so easily full ourselves into subtle sleep, how can we awaken? The first step in that, it seems to me, is to notice how it is that we are asleep.
  • p35 ACTH heightens attention and sensitizes the nervous system to pain, while endorphins do just the reverse. ... The interaction between ACTH and endorphins is orchestrated, in part, by timing. ... The first response to an alarm alerts us to the danger; the second stroke allows n obliviousness to pain.
  • p51 Technically speaking, "coping" is the term for a range of cognitive maneuvers that relieve stress arousal by changing one's own reaction rather than altering the stressful situation itself.
  • p53 For many serious sources of stress in life, there's little or nothing that can be done to change things. If so, you're better off if you do nothing except take care of your feelings ... healthy people use palliatives all the time, with no ill effect. Having a drink or taking tranquilizers are palliatives. So is denial, intellectualizing, and avoiding negative thoughts. When they don't prevent adaptive action, they help greatly.
  • p68 But contemporary researchers have adopted a rather radical premise: that much or most consequential activity in the mind goes on outside awareness.
  • p80 There is always more to see than anyone sees, no more to know than anyone knows. Why don't we see it, why don't we bother to know it?
  • p96 If this is true it should be forgotten, and if it is forgotten, it will probably not be true.
  • p103 The child's history of praise or censure comes to define his experience of himself. Three sorts of experience are key to identity. Sullivan writes, "With rewards, with the anxiety there comes an initial personification of three phases of what presently will be me." He calls these three personifications "good-me", "bad-me", and "not-me".
  • p105 "Even before the end of infancy," says Sullivan, "it is observable that these unattainable objects come to be treated as if they did not exist." If I can't have it, says the infant in effect, I will deny it.
  • p105 That framework and data show, in modern terms, how the self-system protects us against anxiety by skewing attention.
  • p109 We all do that. There may be some painful experiences in your life which, when you start to think about, you simply decide at some level not to pursue. You're not going to be aware of that painful event. So you avoid using your usual recall strategies. You could probably get pretty skilled at it - at not remembering what's painful.
  • p112 Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but 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.
  • p124 What can't be seen is hard to change. ... The dance-away lover seems doomed to an endless cycle of romances with stary-eyed beginnings and tearful endings. The abrasive manager somehow keeps rubbing up against recalcitrant employees. The compulsive workaholic just can't seems to get his wife to understand his pressing need to bring work home at nigh. Our defenses insulate us from the vital lie at the heart of our misery.
  • p126 This mental operation Miss Freud refers to as "defense by means of ridicule and scorn".
  • p131 What may have been at first a serendipitous discovery in the battle against anxiety comes to define our mode or perception and response to the world. Becoming adept at such strategies means that we favor some parts of experience while blocking off others. We set bounds on the range of our thoughts and feelings, limit our freedom of perception and action, in order to feel at peace.
  • p133 You artificially inflate a small area of the world, give it a higher value in the horizon of your perception and action. And you do this because it represents an area that you can firmly hold on to, that you can skillfully manipulate, that you can use easily to justify yourself - your actions, your sense of self, your option in the world.
  • p138 The weakness of The Detective's attentional style is related to its strengths. His search is driven; it is for something. Its goal is to confirm a preconceived idea. And here falls prey to the danger Sherlock Holmes warned against: "One begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts."
  • p139 Shapiro goes on to observe that attention rigidly focused on selective evidence can impose its own conclusions virtually anywhere. Thus, "the suspicious person can be at the same time absolutely right in his perception and absolutely wrong in his judgment".
  • p143 The Detective's favored intrapsychic posture, then, is a combination of three maneuvers: denial of his own weakness and ill will, the projection of these aspects of himself onto others, and the ongoing effort to confirm the truth of those projections by searching for telltale clues. ... The lives of such people are frequently haunted by a long string of resentful lovers, unfair bosses, or callous landlords.
  • p148 The mastery of defensive maneuvers as protection against the pains of life is a universal aspect of growing up. Every child learns a variety of attentional tactics; healthy children are flexible about which is used when.
  • p148 The rule of thumb in coping, remember, is that when one can't do anything to change the situation, the other recourse is to change how one perceives it.
  • p152 The anger does not evaporate, but it can be made to seem to, or to have other causes and objects. It if won't go away entirely, then a disguise will help. One possibility is to turn it against oneself: that way lies a lifelong conviction of worthlessness.
  • p155 From here on we will consider how it is that such self-deceptions can come to be shared. To make this transition requires only that we allow the possibility that people can somehow synchronize their schemas to some degree - that is, come to share a common understanding of how to construe events.
  • p155 When we talk, I'm slowly adjusting your mental model of me, and you're adjusting my model of you. When you ask a question, there's a chance to correct some subtle miscommunications. By asking, you implicitly review your understanding of all kinds of things. That gives me a chance to diagnose the cause of your misunderstanding and fix it. Communication is basically a repair process.
  • p156 Thus when both partners in the relationship sense the same touchy areas, they can handle the danger by silently agreeing to veer attention away from these trouble spots.
  • p157 "This is well-adjusted marriages," he notes "we expect that each partner may keep from the other secrets having to do with financial matters, past experiences, current flirtations, indulgences in 'bad' or expensive habits, personal aspirations and worries, actions of children, true opinions held about relatives or mutual friends, etc."
  • p157 Each partner in a working couple ignores areas of shared experience that would threaten the partners' shared sense of a secure, comfortable relationship. She doesn't comment on the looks he gives younger women at the beach; he never mentions his suspicion that she fakes orgasms. Over time, these discretions can become converted into lacunas: they do not notice, and do not notice that they do not notice.
  • p158 My belief is that people in groups by and large come to share a vast number of schemas, most of which are communicated without being spoken of directly.
  • p161 Madness, said Nietzsche, is the exception in individuals, but the rule in groups.
  • p161 A group is extraordinarily credulous and open to influence, it has no critical faculty, and the improbable does not exist for it. It thinks in images, which call one another up by association... and whose agreement with reality is never checked by any reasonable agency. The feelings of a group are always very simple and very exaggerated, so that a group knows neither doubt nor uncertainty.
  • p162 The group mind, then, is the leader's writ large. In the group mind "the individual gives up his ego ideal and substitutes for it the group ideals embodied in the leader."
  • p172 Sometimes family ritual can serve to hide a fear, a part of the family schema that is shared by all but is too threatening to be dealt with openly.
  • p173 In sum, the family is a group mind of sorts, with many properties of the individual mind. The experience of growing up in a particular family leaves its imprint on the attentional habits of the child, at times with unfortunate consequences, as we saw with the paranoid style. But that pattern marks an extreme of a process that we all go through as our families socialize us unto their world of reality.
  • p174 "I have never come across a family," writes R. D. Laing "that does not draw a line somewhere as to what may be put into words, and what words it may be put into." That is, each family has its signature pattern of what aspects of shared experience can be open, what must be closed and denied. When experience is openly shared, the family also has sanctioned language for what may be said about it.
  • p175 The ultimate familial lacuna is what Laing calls "The Game of Happy Family," a prototype of how groups collude to keep members feeling comfortable.
  • p176 So we are a happy family and we have no secrets from one another. If we are unhappy we have to keep it a secret and we are unhappy that we have to keep it a secret and unhappy that we have to keep secret the fact that we have to keep it a secret and that we are keeping all that secret. But since we are a happy family you can see this difficulty does not arise.
  • p176 Michael Weissberg, a psychiatrist, advises that one symptom of an incestuous family can be that it seems too happy.
  • p179 The implications of this parallel for understanding group life are great, for, as Freud saw, the family stands as a prototype for the psychology of all groups.
  • p180 Consider the sad story of Pitcher, Oklahoma. In 1950 a local mining engineer warned the people of this small mining town to flee. An accident had virtually undermined the town; it might cave in any minute. The next day at the Lion's Club meeting, the town leaders joked about the warning. When one arrived wearing a parachute, they laughed and laughed. The message "it can't happen here" implicit in their hilarity was sadly contradicted within a few days: some of the same men and their families were killed in the cave-in.
  • p186 Once the group adopts a belief or decision, individual members are likely to feel it must be right. After all, the members are such great people - how could they be wrong?
  • p192 There is some evidence that strong business leaders inadvertently encourage groupthink.
  • p204 The new demands of speed and regularity could not tolerate the uneconomic rhythms of peasant life. ... The employer was now defined as the owner of the workers' time and attention during the hours of the workday: he decided the content and rhythm of their activities. The frame of the workday was taking modern shape, and it was the manager who constructed it.
  • p205 By the late eighteenth century, the frame of work was bounded by minute hands: the market for clocks and watches boomed as the demand for a synchronized work force grew. With the purchase of workers' time, employers also set to managing attention. The desired state was nothing less than diligent, silent attention to the work at hand - an absolute about-face from the casual routines workers were used to. ... The great innovator of the workplace, Henry Ford, used the assembly line to up the ante of control over his workers' pace. ... This new frame of work met with a new wave of resistance. Even though Ford paid the best wages around, the attrition t his factory was so great that, in 1913, for every 100 additional workers the company wanted, they had to hire 963. The frame of work in this century has gone through two striking shifts: more discipline in the ordering of the sequence and timing of tasks, and a more fragmented and inflexible work schedule. By now we take that frame for granted.
  • p208 ... if we allowed ourselves to see what we're doing every day, we might find it just too nauseating. I mean, the way we treat other people.
  • p210 But Americans have a style of frank openness that Mexicans may regard as weakness or treachery, that Japanese may see as boorish and crude. In many Asian countries, "no" is used little; "yes" can mean yes, no, or perhaps. (A book for English-speaking managers to help them in their dealing with Japanese is called 'Never Take "Yes" for an Answer.')
  • p212 What we think of as "good manners" are, in this perspective, frames for smooth relations in public. When people interact who do not share the same schemas for how to act properly in a situation, the result is embarrassment, social friction, or outright anxiety.
  • p213 The robustness of a frame depends entirely on its potency in recruiting new users and in getting those who know it to activate it at the appropriate time. The slow evolution of social custom and proprieties is the history of rise and fall of frames.
  • p215 The invasion of the rail car by the Skinheads in an assault; while they did no physical harm, they effectively smashed the other passengers' frames. Their attack exemplifies attentional vampirism. By intruding on the scene in a manner that can't be ignored, the Skinheads force themselves into everyone else's frame. This same imposition is accomplished by obnoxious children, rowdy drunks, manics, and certain sorts of psychotics. All violate the tacit attentional rules that create order in public places.
  • p218 When stepping out of frame might bring us face-to-face with information we'd rather not notice, then the frames offers itself as a refuge from painful confrontations. Take as an example white lies.
  • p220 When Rosenthal and his co-researcher Bella DePaulo began to study lies and their detection, they were in for a surprise. A decade of research - much of it done by Rosenthal - had shown overwhelmingly that women are far superior to men at reading nonverbal messages: when asked to say what feeling a tone of voice or gesture reflected, women were found to be right much more often than men. But women's accuracy seemed to lag when they were asked to decode leaks, that category of nonverbal clues which unintentionally expose hidden feelings. The more leaky a tone of voice, or the more incongruent a message, the less well women did in interpreting it. Men showed just the opposite pattern: as hidden feelings were revealed by more clues, their accuracy improved. ... Rosenthal and DePaulo interpreted this effect as fitting with women's great social civility. In their view, paying attention to a person's slips and leaks is tantamount to rudeness; indeed, noticing leaks is a form of eavesdropping.
  • p221 Perhaps women in our culture have learned that there may be social hazards to knowing too much about other people's feelings. This relative avoidance of eavesdropping by women is consistent with standards of politeness and social smoothingover that are part of the traditional sex role ascribed to women in our culture, a sex role that is only now beginning to change.
  • p221 To operate smoothly in the adult world, children must learn when it is socially beneficial to be both a good liar and a poor lie-detector.
  • p223 The unhappiness of those who pay an inordinate amount of attention to leaks, then, may be the the social cost they pay for betraying a basic social contact. That seems to account for the paradox that those who see - and say - most clearly what people actually feel can pay a price for their clarity. But such paradox is not unusual within the realm of social deception. There, DePaulo points out, "The rules and regulations and reward systems that usually govern our verbal and nonverbal worlds get turned inside out and upside down. Sources of information such as the face, which are ordinarily extremely informative, can instead be downright misleading, and the kind of skills that we usually get rewarded for - like the ability to understand what other people are really feeling - can instead function like liability. The person who knows when deception is occurring and who knows what other people are really feeling has a more accurate grasp of what the interpersonal world is really like. But in some ways, under some circumstances, maybe being good at understanding social and interpersonal cues is just not good at all."
  • p223 White lies are an innocent, even well-intended, form of social deceit. They are a way of protecting the frames that guide a harmonious social life. But the same dynamic can operate to hide facts that are not so innocent. What begins as a white lie, an innocent agreement to keep touchy facts out of frame, can shade over into less innocent social uses.
  • p224 Frames create social reality by directing attention toward the business at hand and away from the irrelevant; what is out of frame does not exist, for the moment. For the most part, this selective attention is useful, but the capacity to keep information out of frame can fall prey to a collusion that buys social coziness at the expense of important truths. These collusions create lacunas, warping social reality to suppress unpleasant information.
  • p230 The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie.
  • p238 What the therapist does for the patient, a lone voice can do for the group - if he is willing to break the hold of the group's blind spots. In his suggestions for countering groupthink, Irving Janis suggests that a group designate one member as a deviant - that is, as a critical evaluator of what goes on, raising objections and doubts. The devil's advocate can save the group from itself, making sure it faces uncomfortable facts and considers unpopular views, any of which could be crucial for a sound decision.
  • p245 Should all truth be told? Probably not.
  • p246 The young person in adolescent needs tangible models to follow into adulthood. The adolescent does not really want to demolish her parents; her self-esteem is linked to theirs. By destroying that ideal, the teenager does herself damage.
  • p246 While if may well be true, as Franz Boas said, that "all that man can do for humanity is to further the truth, whether it be sweet or bitter," delivering that truth artfully is a delicate matter. When truth is likely to draw open the veils that keep out painful information, the dangers can be great.
  • p249 Once upon a time there was a man who had no illusions about anything. ... As young man he realized that the most generous act is self-serving, the most disinterested inquiry servers interest, that lies are told by printed words. Of all those people who lose illusions he lost more than anyone else, taboo and prescription alike; and as everything became permitted nothing was left worthwhile.
  • p251 Somewhere between the two poles - living a life of vital lies and speaking simple truths - there lies a skillful mean, a path to sanity and survival.

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