Beware of the Self-deception and Lies of Today’s Narcissists

Skepticism is a critical attitude that treats every claim to truth as up for debate. A skeptical attitude is doubt as to the truth of something. It’s an approach that goes beyond just demanding evidence and, instead, questions the evidence itself. Lies are always coercive for the one being lied to: Lies seek to persuade not by appealing to our freedom to choose but by compelling us via deception to narrow our field of choice. As such, lies give power to the liar and take power away from the persons being lied to. In turn, this shift in power accumulates over the course of repeated lies. Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values. There is no difference between the fake news, misinformation, disinformation of today – such lies have been churned out for years, but today it is designed to support the plutocracy.

One of the most common types of self-deceptions are self-enhancement. Psychologists have traditionally argued we evolved to overestimate our good qualities because it makes us feel good. But even if individuals don’t bear specific responsibility for their being in that state, self-deception may nevertheless be morally objectionable, destructive and dangerous. Some argue that self-deception evolved to facilitate interpersonal deception by eliminating the cues and cognitive load that consciously lying produces and by mitigating retaliation should the deceit become evident. On this view, the real gains associated with ‘positive illusions’ and other self-deceptions are by-products that serve this greater evolutionary end by enhancing self-deceiver’s ability to deceive. Von Hippel and Trivers contend that “by deceiving themselves about their own positive qualities and the negative qualities of others, people are able to display greater confidence than they might otherwise feel, thereby enabling them to advance socially and materially.”

Jean Paul Sartre notes, when we attempt to achieve a false self-identity by disowning one or more aspect of ourselves, or by falsely identifying with just one aspect of our self, that we engage in self-deception. Such self-deception is a threat to ‘authenticity’ insofar as self-deceivers fail to take responsibility for themselves and their engagements past, present and future. By alienating us from our own principles, self-deception may also threaten moral integrity. Furthermore, self-deception also manifests certain weakness of character that dispose us to react to fear, anxiety, or the desire for pleasure in ways that bias our belief acquisition and retention in ways that serve these emotions and desires rather than accuracy. For Sartre, for any individual to claim “that’s just the way I am” would be a statement of self-deception. Whenever people tell themselves that their nature or views are unchangeable, or that their social position entirely determines their sense of self, they are deceiving themselves.

Individuals high in narcissism, like cult leaders, often inflate their own sense of importance and behave in ways that are destructive to others. Cunning manipulators of others, grandiose, envious, aggressive, exploiting, and controlling, these narcissists are users who can be charismatic, seductive, and intensely attentive. Yet they ultimately prove to be concerned only with their own needs, feelings, and desires. Similarities between narcissists and cult leaders include a tendency to lie and turn others against each other for their own ends, along with little tolerance for dissent. Although the similarities between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Rodrigo Duterte are often overstated, all these leaders are united by their cultivation of personality cults. Death threats, gerrymandering and voter suppression are being normalised by America’s right to keep Trumpism alive. Trump is very attentive to a Republican party no longer committed to democracy.

While some instances of self-deception seem morally innocuous and others may even be thought salutary in various ways (Rorty 1994), many have thought there to be something morally objectionable about self-deception or its consequences in many cases. Self-deception has been considered objectionable because it facilitates harm to others and to oneself, undermines autonomy, corrupts conscience. In addition, it manifests a vicious lack of courage and self-control that undermine the capacity for compassionate action or violates a general duty to form beliefs that “conform to the available evidence”. Linehan (1982) argues that we have an obligation to scrutinize the beliefs that guide our actions that is proportionate to the harm to others such actions might involve. When self-deceivers induce ignorance of moral obligations, of the particular circumstances, of likely consequences of actions, or of their own engagements, by means of their self-deceptive beliefs, they may be culpable.

Populism is above all a political style or strategy rather than an ideology. It consists in accusing elites of corruption while praising the moral virtues of the people. The former steal, lie, and cheat. The latter are honest, hardworking, and committed to their country. Herein, then, is the first sort of truth: elites are indeed, on the whole, distant and quite corrupt. This may sound offensive to many (especially those belonging to the elites!), but it is really rather obvious. Who can honestly argue against the claim that the political establishment in many countries has proven itself, over and over, to be dishonest, self-serving, and aligned primarily with special interests? Populists are good at exploiting our cognitive biases. The route of the appeal of a populist political like Trump – lies in their freedom to pit the simplicity we all crave, against a ‘political establishment’ entangled in the complexity of actually doing the job.

Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms pre-existing beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. Cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, doesn’t totally deny disconfirming evidence. It merely bends the evidence to feel more psychologically palatable: “I was never totally convinced the election was stolen, but I have no doubt that there was fraud.” “Trump was just using political language in telling his supporters to fight.” Such interpretations don’t deny that the election was lost or that the rioter’s behavior was unlawful, but they shield Trump loyalists from acknowledging that their beliefs could be wrong. Confirmation-bias draws us in to the one-sided outlets, and the cognitive dissonance pushes us away from conflicting ideas. Cognitive dissonance stops us from hearing other opinions that conflict.

Virtually all self-deception has a social component, being wittingly or unwittingly supported by one’s associates (Ruddick 1988). In the case of collective self-deception, however, the social dimension comes to the fore, since each member of the collective unwittingly helps to sustain the self-deceptive belief of the others in the group. The collective entrenches self-deceptive beliefs by providing positive reinforcement by others sharing the same false belief, as well as protection from evidence that would destabilize the target belief. There are, however, limits to how entrenched such beliefs can become and remain self-deceptive. The social support cannot be the sole or primary cause of the self-deceptive belief, for then the belief would simply be the result of unwitting interpersonal deception and not the deviant belief formation process that characterizes self-deception. If the environment becomes so epistemically contaminated as to make counter-evidence inaccessible to the agent, then we have a case of false belief, not self-deception.

Narcissistic individuals are marked by unrealistic and exaggerated beliefs about their abilities and achievements. It seems that narcissistic individuals also believe themselves to be better liars than the average person when asked. Such self-report measures of dishonesty and lying may be biased by various internal and external factors, as human perception is inherently biased. Narcissists tend to be shallow and unevolved, with a limited grasp of most topics. This results from their unwillingness to ask sincere questions and change their views in response to new sources of information. There is an old saying about education – “The greatest obstacle to learning is the fear of appearing stupid.” For a normal person, the discomfort of appearing stupid is more than made up for by the pleasure of learning something new. To a narcissist, mired in self-deception, there’s nothing they need to learn, they already know everything, so the discomfort issue doesn’t come up.

Studies by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell found that narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present. The problem with narcissistic traits is that they’re unrealistic; the belief in one’s own extraordinariness will sooner or later abut the world, and the result will be disillusionment in the best-case scenario or ever-greater fake grandeur in the worst. While most people tend to overestimate their abilities, narcissists tend to overestimate their abilities more than others, and report being far more competent than others at tasks. The goal of this self-deception is to be impervious to greatly feared external criticism and to their own rolling sea of doubts. In the most fundamental way, narcissists are parasites, and like successful parasites in nature, they locate victims who are unable to either identify them or defend against them. In this way, the individual narcissist acquires a malignant social form.

Social narcissism represents the dark side of intelligence and communication skills. As humans become more intelligent, as we improve our ability to communicate with others, our prospect for understanding reality increases, but our prospect for massive self-deception increases to the same degree. The game plans of social narcissists are trivial but effective. At the social level, narcissists tend to be skilled manipulators who trigger and exploit narcissistic impulses in the people around them. Narcissists tend to be ruthless and lacking in empathy, and their dialogue with the rest of the world consists of endless, persuasive rationalizations for their belief system. Based on this game plan and over time, narcissists like Donald Trump make their way into positions of conventional (political) authority. They prefer positions where they can impose simple, inflexible systems of rules on others, and they avoid circumstances where accomplishments matter more than claims.

The challenge: false news tends to be more novel than true news, which suggests that people are more likely to share novel information. Six “degrees of manipulation” – impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting, and trolling – are used to spread misinformation and disinformation, according to Sander van der Linden, PhD, a professor of social psychology in society at the University of Cambridge, who works on a psychological vaccine for fake news. For instance, a false news story may quote a fake expert, use emotional language, or propose a conspiracy theory in order to manipulate readers. Though research directly tying misinformation to behavior is still limited, exposure to fake news does have real-world consequences. In the political domain, it is correlated with declining trust in mainstream media organizations. This is countered by vaccination – warning people that a specific piece of information is false and explaining why a source might lie or be misinformed about it before they encounter the information organically.

Skepticism, in its best form, has opened up mind-boggling ways of thinking about ourselves and the world around us.  Technology has given people more ways to connect, but it has also given them more opportunities to lie. The term “fake news” has taken on its own life, referring not only to untrue reports but being increasingly used to dismiss reports that the user does not wish to agree with. The cure for the present epidemic of narcissism and lies is for us to stop lying to ourselves about what we think we know. Stop retweeting posts before you know whether they are true. Nietzsche claimed there are no facts only interpretations. In his view there was no objective fact about what has value in itself – culture consists of beliefs developed to perpetuate a particular power structure. Truth, much like knowledge, is bound to power and similarly operates amidst the individuals and institutions that generate and sustain it.

Disinformation can be dangerous on social media because, the sheer amount of information there and the length of readers’ attention spans can allow it to go unchecked. Social media platform algorithms are designed for optimized user retention and engagement, and are not looking for misinformation or disinformation. Skepticism and critical thinking is not a panacea, but can help to understand the world better. When you develop a healthy skepticism, you train your mind to doubt other people’s claims by using logic and intuition. This not only makes you a better thinker, but it also helps you learn to rely on logic as well as intuition at the same time instead of employing one over the other. To counter the lies of narcissists, do not trust one source for social media information – review multiple sources for the same information. On a personal level making it a habit to question evidence that you believe supports your opinions is a direct way to counter confirmation bias.

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