DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V033-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

2. Departing from interpersonal models and related issues

Another approach to defending the possibility of self-deception is to motivate a departure from strict interpersonal models of the phenomenon. The assumption that deceiving is, by definition, an intentional activity drives many familiar puzzles about self-deception; and it is false. Using deceived in the passive voice, we properly say such things as ‘Unless I am deceived, I left my keys in my car’. Here ‘deceived’ means ‘mistaken’. In a corresponding use of ‘deceive’ in the active voice, to deceive is ‘to cause to believe what is false’; and not all instances of this are intentional. Your father accidentally misreads an encyclopedia article, taking it to report that p. He then tells you that p, intending to report something true but actually uttering something false. If you believe him, he has caused you to believe a falsehood: he has deceived you, in one legitimate sense of the word, but not intentionally.

This point has been exploited. When we know that people accidentally caused themselves to believe a falsehood (by innocently misreading an encyclopedia article, for example), we do not charge them with self-deception. However, when motivation enters the causal story in certain ways, a charge of self-deception seems warranted. Ordinarily, people who allegedly deceive themselves into believing that p want p to be true. For example, people who deceive themselves into believing that their spouses are not having extramarital affairs normally want it to be true that they are not so engaged, and parents who deceive themselves into believing that their children were erroneously convicted of a crime normally want it to be true that they are innocent. Owing significantly to the influence of relevant desires, Edna falsely believes that her husband, Ed, is not having an affair, in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. Is it likely that Edna first comes to believe that Ed is having an affair and then forms the intention to get herself to believe that he is not so engaged – which intention, perhaps after a bit of means/end reasoning, she successfully executes? Or is it more likely that, owing partly to her desire that Ed not be having an affair, Edna acquires or retains a false belief that he is innocent of infidelity without having come to believe that he is guilty and without intending to deceive herself?

A proper understanding of the dynamics of self-deception requires an appreciation of the ways in which motivation may bias reasoning and the formation, perseverance, and revision of beliefs. How might it happen that Edna believes that Ed is innocent of infidelity even though an impartial person, presented with the same evidence, reasonably concludes that he is guilty? Owing to her desire for Ed’s innocence, Edna may misinterpret data, reasoning, for instance, that if Ed were having an affair he would hide it and that his seemingly intimate meetings with his apparent lover in local taverns and cinemas consequently indicate that he is not sexually involved with her. Edna may even recruit Ed (in effect) in her motivated interpretive activities, by asking him for an explanation of the data, or by suggesting for his approval some acceptable hypothesis about his conduct. Further, again owing to her desire, Edna’s attention may be selectively attracted by evidence of Ed’s innocence. There is considerable empirical evidence that what we believe tends to be affected by the salience of our data; and Edna’s desire for Ed’s innocence may render corresponding data more salient than they would otherwise be. Edna may even set out to conduct an impartial investigation, but, owing to her desire, locate and focus on less accessible support for Ed’s innocence while overlooking more readily attainable support for his guilt.

All this can happen without Edna’s intending to deceive herself. Still, given the motivated way in which Edna’s pertinent belief is produced or sustained, even in the face of stronger evidence to the contrary, Edna is plausibly regarded as self-deceived. She is deceived as a consequence of her motivationally biased cognitive conduct.

The alleged requirement that self-deception be intentional is separable from another putative requirement – namely, that the person who is self-deceived in believing that p also knows or believes, at some level, that ∼p. Some allege that self-deceived individuals characteristically behave in ways that clash with their sincere assertions and that this is explained by their knowing the truth at some level, which knowledge manifests itself in their overt behaviour. This is disputable. Edna, for instance, arguably is self-deceived even if she does not know or believe, at any level, that Ed is having an affair – even if her self-deception consists, in part, in a motivated failure to acquire the true belief that Ed is guilty of infidelity. Further, if Edna’s behaviour towards Ed has become cool, and if she has begun to enquire regularly of his whereabouts, this may be explained on the less demanding hypothesis that she suspects that Ed may be having an affair. Edna may believe that Ed is faithful while also believing that there is a significant chance that she is wrong about this: ‘I believe that p, but I may be mistaken’ is utterly intelligible. In a thoroughly self-deceived person, beliefs of the latter sort presumably are absent. A self-deceived person – like a person deceived by someone else into believing that p – may be fully confident that p.

In garden-variety instances of self-deception, on this view, we do not deceive ourselves with the intention of so doing, or with the intention of causing ourselves to believe (or to cease believing) something. The absence of such an intention does not, however, preclude personal responsibility for garden-variety self-deception. Often, we are properly held responsible for unintended deceiving: for example, when we should have taken more care to get the facts straight, or to express them clearly. Sometimes, when we should have been more vigilant, we are justifiably held accountable for being deceived. This is so even when the deceiving and deceived persons are one and the same.

A thorough understanding of self-deception would clarify such related issues as the nature of belief, the influence of motivation on belief, and the structure of human minds. Certain controversial views about self-deception contravene the popular idea that belief is essentially exclusive, in the sense that a person’s believing that p is incompatible with the person’s simultaneously believing that ∼p. Various discussions of the dynamics of self-deception illuminate the influence of motivation on belief. The literature also features a lively debate about the extent to which the human mind is unified and about the range of entities (sub-agents, for example) to which such mental items as beliefs, desires and intentions are plausibly attributed.

Citing this article:
Mele, Alfred R.. Departing from interpersonal models and related issues. Self-deception, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V033-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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