We are experts at deceiving ourselves. But who’s deceiving who? I’ve got a wild theory, but I know we always need to be on our guard.
My friend Brad cheated on his wife.
It came as a shock to everyone. Brad and Bron were the perfect couple and Brad was a poster husband. They seemed throw-up-in-your-hat happy. No one saw it coming.
Least of all Brad.
When I caught up with him he was a bit shell-shocked – kind of staggered by his own stupidity.
It wasn’t a premeditated or ongoing thing. Just a single night of passion. And he’d come clean once he could see things in the ugly light of day.
But still. It was far and away the most stupid thing Brad had ever done.
For starters, the timing couldn’t be worse. It was a week shy of Bron’s 40th birthday, and she was just getting to the pointy end of a huge project at work. What’s more, her mother was about to come for the weekend and visit the grandkids!
There’s never a good time to cheat on your wife, but it’s hard to imagine one that’s worse.
“What got into you, man?” I said.
“I just don’t know. I mean, I really have no idea. It was really liked I just stopped thinking.”
“There were no thoughts going through my mind at all. I could blame the booze, but I wasn’t even that drunk.
“And the truth of it is that it actually felt like a really clear space. Like I had a moment of clarity. I even wondered if I was having some sort of spiritual awakening or something.
“It really just felt like the right thing to do. I even had a thought at one point that Bron would be happy for me.
“And now I look back and I just don’t know what I was thinking. It was me, but it wasn’t me, know what I mean.
“It’s like I’m not even sure who I am anymore.”
I could understand. The more I watch people the more I see how excellent we can be at deceiving ourselves.
And if we’re walking a path of commitment to anything, then we have to be constantly on the watch for the little lies and deceits we tell ourselves.
After dragons, we’re our own worst enemies.
Some people might say that Brad had the devil a-whisperin’ in his ear hole. But I think temptation always comes from within.
Lately I’ve been really interested in this idea that we actually have three brains. As we evolved, we never remodelled the architecture of our brains completely. We just added on extra rooms.
And so you can kind of think about our brain as having a reptilian core, with a mammalian brain overlayed over the top. Then when have the neo-cortex tacked on the front and that seems to manage the uniquely human functions we have.
In a way, it’s kind of efficient. Fight or flight is located in the reptilian brain, and you want that to be as close to the action as possible. You want it to be instinctive.
But managing social relationships is located in the neo-cortex, because it’s something that’s too complex to deal with on instinct. You need to think about it.
Anyway, if that’s true (and hey, who knows?) then maybe Brad got tripped up by his reptilian brain. His commitment to Bron, and to being the best husband and father he could be, lived in his neo-cortex. It was part of his ‘managing relationships’ function.
But his reptilian brain had never signed up to that. It doesn’t care about such things. All it cares about is making more little Brad’s and mating is the only way to do that.
It creates a constant tension in Brad’s life.
Generally though, Brad had it sorted. The neo-cortex rules the others, and being a successful human means learning how to manage our ‘lower’ urges.
Like, I know it will be socially awkward if I just relieve myself wherever I want, and so I find discrete places to go to the toilet. I’m a successful human.
But the snake is never sleeping.
And on that night, Brad’s neo-cortex was overthrown in a bloodless coup. It’s like it was disabled completely. The serpent took over.
And the scary thing for Brad is that it felt amazing to give it the reins, and slip out of the Commander’s chair.
Honesty and integrity is always an act of will. And will takes energy. Constant energy. Letting go of the reins feels like a release.
And the more disciplined you are, the more powerful the potential release will be.
It’s also kind of a case of build a better mousetrap and they’ll build a better mouse. Brad is an attractive guy and has had to deal with temptation in the past. It’s never been a problem.
He thought he had it sorted.
But the serpent had its will, and it just needed to find a way. Brad let his guard down for a moment, and the serpent struck. And the narratives that played out in his mind were things of evil genius.
It can happen to the best of us.
And it’s habit for the worst of us.
This may all be more metaphor than science, but I think it’s true that we are all possible of deep self-deception.
And it will test us in moments of crisis, but it also drives us during the day. What stories do you tell yourself to give yourself another ten minutes in bed, another cookie at morning tea time, another glass of wine?
Another glass of red please. I feel low in anti-oxidants.
And exactly why are you putting off doing your taxes, getting your finances in order, researching properties, reading back-issues of my blog?
Most of these stories slip under our radar.
But who’s really calling the shots?
I’m not winning any awards for research, but how does this stack up as a theory of self-deception?
What tricks do you have to stay honest with yourself?