Harro Drexler, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Harro 2 March 2011AFor many years I have had an interest in researching behaviours that create workplace stress in others. Recently I have looked closer at the concept of self-deception and have reflected on the extent to which self-deception could be at work in Quaker decision making processes. My understanding of this subject matter comes from my workplace experiences, the references at the end of this article and from my observations of participating in Quaker Meetings for Worship for Business and Quaker committees.

Ordinary deception involves two people, one of whom intentionally deceives the other. Self-deception is said to involve one part of the self intentionally deceiving another part of the self. It may be considered as the action or practice of allowing yourself to believe that a false or unvalidated belief, idea, or situation is true. It may even be not knowing – and resisting the possibility of knowing – that you have a problem.

The Quaker way of decision making is subject to the human frailties and biases that all humans are subject to. Self-deception is just one of these. The Quaker discernment is a wonderful process and carries with it the seeds of mis-judgment as long as we are human beings and have human biases and weaknesses.

We all deceive ourselves to some degree. It is when self-deception results in negative effects on others that it becomes a problem. The negative effect can manifest itself psychologically, physically, economically. It may be generated between individuals such as partners, or between an individual and a group such a politician and the population or within an organisation such as a Quaker Meeting or committee.

Self-interest and self-protection are key drivers to self-deception. We reduce anxiety by not recognising evidence and facts that would otherwise increase self-doubt or undermine our stated position. For instance we may not only block uncomfortable information, but also search for information to consolidate or advance our own position.

A healthy self-interest is essential if we are to get the most out of ourselves and out of our life. However, we should be very careful lest we become obsessive about ourselves and thereby hurt others by any self-deception we may become subject to.

We make self-deceptive decisions believing the problems do not need special knowledge, preparation or research to reach a conclusion.

Quoting J Kruger and D Dunning, Department of Psychology, Cornell University: “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. This overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

An enigma is that people behaving in this way don’t believe that they are behaving this way. Although the decisions or actions of self-deceiving individuals are often stressful and unpleasant for those around them, the individuals behaving in this way do not know they are doing it and are often well-meaning. Hence their apparent intention has no correlation with the degree of negative impact on others.

Evidence or facts are the primary guards against our self-deception. It is during the process of assessment that our human frailties and biases surface. The process of self-deception occurs with an event requiring a decision to be made. Arriving at a decision passes through four identifiable filters built into our make-up. These are:

Our way of being: This is essentially anything that characterises us such as being empathetic, confident, spiritual, dogmatic, intolerant, being a procrastinator, being wealthy or poor and so on. These characteristics are aligned to our personality.

Our world-view: This is the overall perspective from which we see and interpret our world. It is a collection of beliefs and values about our life and the universe held by us or a group to which we belong, and is assimilated over time. Examples are having conservative rather than liberal views relative to the society we live in with all the values that this may entail. Our world view also incorporates the experiences and knowledge we have acquired.

Built-in systemic bias in our thinking process: This bias leads to distortions in our perceptions, reasoning and decision making. It does not come from emotions; it is built into our mental processes.

Emotional drivers: These are key motivators that determine the criteria for action. These drivers can be any of our normal motivators, including belief, ideology, envy, power, fear of the unknown, need for love, achievement, approval compliance amongst many more.

We deceive ourselves when any of the above filters individually or collectively have a greater impact on a decision or an action than the facts or evidence.

Quakers pride themselves on openness, seeking truth, decision-making by discernment, facing up to challenges, listening, being unselfish, humble and egalitarian, standing up for our values and plain speaking. We can describe these values as the world view of Quakers. We believe that our decision making processes revolve around these values.

We hope and trust that we are sufficiently self-aware to articulate and honour our world view while setting aside personal self-deception dynamics in our thinking and discernment processes.

However, I am sure we can all think of the following situations.

A difficult or divisive proposal has come onto the agenda of a Meeting for Worship for Business. The convener or clerk with the best intention, steers the Meeting through a variety of countervailing discussions, opinions and discernments and concludes that the sense/unity of the Meeting indicates a certain decision and this decision is supported by the Meeting. However, the reality is that several members disagree with the decision for a number of reasons and much time is spent after the Meeting analysing what happened. What went wrong, which ways of being, systemic bias or emotional drivers were at work?

Could the decision have been influenced by?

  • The convener/clerk not “reading” the meeting correctly?
  • Members fearing to raise an objection because that objection might hurt or upset another member?
  • Some members’ dissent was not listened to, nor was their dissent noted in the minutes.
  • The members agreeing with the proposal had not really assessed or even understood the facts and evidence dealing with the proposal.  Some members may have had emotional as opposed to rational reasons to support or oppose the proposal.

Sometimes an idea is pushed by a minority group who feel committed to the idea while others may not be. However, for various reasons, they do not say so. The meeting acquiesces and a decision that may be detrimental to the Society of Friends as a whole is taken. When members subsequently criticise the decision, more time is spent justifying it than listening to the voice of the dissenting members and reversing the decision.

Dealing with conflict often results in meetings without decisions being made. We deceive ourselves that we are open, truthful, independent and we can deal with challenges. Yet when the occasion arises to address a serious issue, we tend to avoid it by letting our emotions take over. We also avoid being transparent when writing minutes of meetings by word-smithing them in an effort to avoid the perception of disagreement.

Another example of Friends’ self-deception is that we take on more and more tasks and causes in spite of fewer and fewer resources both financial and human. This is similar to economic growth in a finite world. We deceive ourselves that we can do ever more despite fewer resources.

To overcome these problems we must become more self-aware, understand our own and group self-deception and cognitive biases. At times we need to acknowledge the limitation of our understanding of issues even when we have the evidence and have researched a subject. It is also important not to shy away from the facts and evidence presented to us. Sometimes we need to be assertive. It may be worthwhile asking “what would George Fox have done?”

Most of all, know yourself! Have we decided that the wellbeing of the Meeting, committee or project is more important than our own understanding of the facts? Do we hold on to our own opinion of the facts in spite of evidence against them? It may be not knowing – and resisting the possibility of knowing – that self-deception is at work in our decision making. How can we know we are deceiving ourselves? Are we truly accepting or tolerant? Are we truly open? Do we truly listen? Do we forgive others? Are we truthful to ourselves and others?

Doubt your thoughts, dig deeper and be guided by Advice and Queries 17: “Think it possible that you may be mistaken”.

Further Reading:

Kahneman, Daniel 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. ISBN 978-0-374-27563-1

Goleman, Daniel 1985. Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. Simon & Schuster, New York. ISBN 0-684-83107-4

The Arbinger Institute 2010. Leadership and Self Deception. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco. ISBN 978-1-57675-977-6


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