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Self-deception

Posted By Russ Roberts On December 23, 2010 @ 4:19 pm In Adam Smith,Hubris and humility,Self-deception | Comments Disabled

I just finished taping an interview with Robin Hanson for EconTalk. If all goes well, it should be released on January 3. We spoke about the technological singularity, the idea that technological change is coming that will make the industrial revolution look like the hunter-gatherer era.  If you follow Robin, you know he has a lot to say on the subject.

After the conversation was over, we meandered into the question of self-deception and motives and why it’s so hard to accept ourselves as we are. Why do we tell ourselves stories that aren’t true of why we do what we do? Why do we find it hard to believe (often against the facts) that so-and-so is simply following his self-interest? Why is it so hard to see this in ourselves? Why do we lie to ourselves about why we do what we do? Robin believes that this is a central question to be answered if not the central question.

I don’t know the answer, but I think Adam Smith had part of the answer when he said in The Theory of Moral Sentiments [1]:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blame-worthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.

We value authenticity. We want to be loved but that is not enough. We want to be loved for what we truly are, not what someone imagines us to be. We want love and respect to be earned. We value it so much that we imagine the love of others to be earned even when we don’t deserve it. The idea that we do not deserve the love and praise we receive is so unbearable that we would rather delude ourselves than accept it as true.

These thoughts are related to this post [2] on how people in power behave. We like the idea that people are principled. It is hard to accept that people are just responding to incentives. We like to believe that the Fed is trying to stabilize the economy. The fact that they act as if they’re trying to make Wall Street rich is very unpleasant. Maybe it would force us to look into our own hearts about our own motives.

UPDATE: Robin comments [3].

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[1] The Theory of Moral Sentiments: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smMS3.html#III.I.8

[2] this post: http://cafehayek.com/2010/12/simpler-story.html

[3] Robin comments: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/12/the-most-important-topic.html

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