O,What A Tangled Web: The Psychology of Self-Deception

“O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” SIR WALTER SCOTT, Marmion

The psychological web of self-deception is perhaps the most tangled web of all. Self-deception, the act of denying or rationalizing behavior, is a complex psychological operation that all human beings engage in from time-to-time. But, some people are quite expert in their ability to convince themselves of a truth, or lack of truth, about their intentions and behaviors so that they do not have to reveal any self-knowledge of the deception, especially to themselves.

What gets me on this topic today? At the close of 2011, I read that Dr. Conrad Murray was going to appeal his guilty sentence with regard to the involuntary manslaughter charge in the death of pop star Michael Jackson. The aftermath of the trial against him left him with a guilty verdict and also, by his report, bankrupt (Today.MSNBC.msn.com).

I couldn’t believe that Dr. Murray was still refusing to accept responsibility for his actions with regard to administering a lethal-dose of medication to the pop star. He’s not a stupid man, right? He could have saved the costs of an expensive criminal trial and pleaded no contest. He most likely would not have received more than a four-year sentence. And, Murray still could have denied any liability in a civil proceeding against him.

But, what does reason have to do with the decision-making process? Reason rarely operates freely of our desires and personality biases and defenses. In fact, we often find reasonable that which agrees with the beliefs, values, biases and emotional strivings that guide our intentions and behaviors. Thus, the explanations that we give to our intentions and behavior are intimately linked to the way we see ourselves. This is the “truth” as we see it.

Moreover, the more your actions suggest desires and needs that contradict the way you normally think about yourself, the more energy you need to maintain your defenses around your “truth”.  You have to dance as fast as you can, to keep up self-deception. Even the death of a pop star and a guilty verdict didn’t sway Dr. Conrad Murray from the truth as he sees it. Just a few days following the close of his trial, Murray said with regard to his role in Jackson’s death: “I don’t feel guilty, because I didn’t do anything wrong.” According to Murray, Jackson entrapped him into administering the hypnotic drug propofol (Dr. Conrad Murray). To Murray, whatever deceptions he engaged in was the fault of Michael Jackson. It doesn’t matter that he went to out-of-state pharmacies to buy the hypnotic drug and lied to them about why he needed it in such large quantities.  Dr. Murray’s “truth” is that he is a person who helps people and upholds the standards of care for his profession. Of course, he sees himself as entrapped, in this one-sided version of himself.

Certainly, there are examples in Dr. Murray’s life that support his altruistic self-description. But, there are also indications that he is power hungry, selfish, and greedy. If Murray could have acknowledged these features of his personality, perhaps he would have anticipated more clearly the tragic outcome of the relationship that had formed between Michael Jackson and him.

Murray entrapped himself by denying his more base instincts. If he would have seen himself more clearly, perhaps when he was shopping around for the hypnotic propofol in large quantities, he could have seen that he was acting like a drug-dealer, lying and scheming to get his hands on narcotics. The devil of repressed desires inside of Dr. Murray, rather than Michael Jackson, got him into this relationship that had a tragic end for both of them.

We are all capable of behavior that contradicts who we say we are. Hopefully, we are present to these contradictions and find ways to understand them and integrate them into our personalities. Unfortunately, many choose instead to rationalize away aspects of their personalities that they wish to deny. For example, take the mistress of a married man. She doesn’t see herself as a selfish person or a home wrecker. If confronted as such, she will come up with many rationalizations as to why she is simply a good person who has fallen in love. Or, consider some business people, for example. They are upstanding members of the community, good family members and friends, and regularly attend church. But, when it comes to doing business, they have no problem cheating people. It’s just business, they’ll say. To them, this behavior has little to do with who they really are.

How do personality theorists understand self-deception? Sigmund Freud views self-deception as adaptive to human functioning. We have to lie about and defend against our selfish natures. We all want status, power, and money and anything else that gives us an edge over fellow beings. But, emotional development requires us to balance out our selfish desires with social interest, morality, and ethics. Thus, the healthy personality is a balanced expression of social interest and selfish concerns.

Then, there’s the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre’s notion of self-deception that he called bad faith. Rather than lying to oneself about one’s repressed, more selfish desires and needs, bad faith is a lie to oneself about the extent of one’s freedom over circumstances of living. In contrast to Freud, you can escape self-deception by exercising your freedom to choose possibilities over the givens of your life.

Dr. Conrad Murray is a good example of how denied wishes and needs can take us over and turn our lives upside down. It just takes the right circumstance or temptation, to unleash them. I believe Dr. Murray is guilty, but I’m not convinced he’s an outright liar. I noted his facial expressions, whenever I watched the trial. The sadness, despair and look of confusion in his eyes spoke volumes to me. Dr. Murray seemed to be a man who was very confused as to how this all happened to him. I can only hope that he spends his sentence reflecting upon the parts of himself that led him down the path of which he finds himself today. He still has a chance to exercise good faith over his situation, by discerning what is possible despite the givens of his circumstance. It’s time to rest and reflect now Dr.Murray, rather than appeal. The most meaningful exercise of freedom in our lives comes from using what happens to us to grow in self-awareness and to evolve as human beings.

If you like my post today, please say so by selecting the Like icon that immediately follows. I welcome your comments and thoughts on the topic. Warm regards, Deborah.

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4 Responses to “O,What A Tangled Web: The Psychology of Self-Deception”

  1. avatar Deana says:

    “The healthy personality is a balanced expression of social interest and selfish concerns.”

    “….you can escape self-deception by exercising your freedom to choose possibilities over the givens of your life.”

    These sentences are structured to convey the full meaning of Freud’s and Sartre’s ideas, and they do so powerfully. Too often, both ideas are discussed in a way that emphasizes the immanent meaning and glosses over the transcendent. In contrast, your description captures both and is, therefore, unique. I think there is probably evidence of “good faith” in the biographical data of persons most revered through history. Question for you: Can you not only escape self-deception but also transform guilt by exercising your freedom to choose possibilities over the givens of your life? Thanks for the wisdom!

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Deana, thank you for your kind comments. I agree that we need to focus more on transcending the dilemmas that we face internally and in our everyday lives. As you accurately anticipated, we can transcend or minimize the guilt of attitudes or behaviors that keep us stuck in outworn, self-defeating experiences. When we see that we are free to do something different this time, to choose better, then we lift ourselves above the limitations or challenges that life has handed us or that we created for ourselves. Yes, we minimize any guilt that we may have had, toward ourselves in the past, for acting as if we were not free to choose or to do better. I love your question Deana. To me, the one true freedom that we have in life is the ability to forge possibility from the things in our lives that we cannot change. Hope you drop by again. Warmly, Deborah.

  2. avatar Christina says:

    Speaking as a mental health provider and as someone who followed the trial of Conrad Murray very closely I would like to congratulate you on your excellent article. It is without question one of the most unbiased and considered articles I have read on the case – and I have read many since the tragic and pointless passing of Michael Jackson.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Christina, thank you very much for your kind words. As you know, our inner world is complex and it is rare when there are easy answers to our or other people’s problems. Thank you for what you do and for reading this article. Warm regards, Deborah.


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