How We Deceive Ourselves

How We Deceive Ourselves?

a man holding a megaphone

How We Deceive Ourselves?

We are constantly ingesting stimuli through our senses, that we analyze to understand the world. All animals function in this way, but we have achieved an extremely refined level through which our species achieves technical, artistic, and scientific feats. We are capable of identifying relevant information amidst the noise of stimuli in our environment. Consider the cocktail party effect: in the midst of an informally loud environment, we have the ability to isolate verbal information and extract its meaning from the surrounding noise. At the same time, a part of our attention remains available for external stimuli. For example, we perceive if our name is pronounced, or if a familiar voice is approaching. This ability to recognize patterns is the foundation of the framework our brain uses to represent the world.

Excessive Zeal

We are so skilled at a task that we sometimes fall into the trap of excessive zeal. For instance, one can read the list of strange coincidences that some have unearthed between the lives of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy (Coincidences between Lincoln and Kennedy). Both their names have seven letters; the names of their assassins have fifteen letters. Both were shot on a Friday in the back of the head. Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre, while Kennedy was killed in a Lincoln car made by Ford. Their successors, both named Johnson, died ten years after them. The week before his death, Lincoln was in Monroe, Maryland, while Kennedy was with Marilyn Monroe, and so on. The compilation of these facts seems to reveal an underlying pattern, and our first reaction is to search for its meaning. However, this meaning is meaningless when it comes to these two presidents, as it is easy to create an impressive list of coincidences between any two individuals by arbitrarily selecting some data among countless information.

Everything is connected!

abstract arachnid atmosphere atmospheric

Everything is connected!

In fact, we feel an inner satisfaction every time we manage to give a meaning to an ambiguous or complex signal; we love to understand. We love it so much that we often exaggerate, we understand too much because we over-interpret. And so we read the future in the entrails of birds or in coffee grounds, or in the positions of stars, or by drawing some tarot cards. The person who wants to believe in the accuracy of these interpretations experiences satisfaction in glimpsing a hidden meaning. It gives them the feeling of having a little more control over their existence. Some see this as synchronicity.

The error of seeing something that is not there is called apophenia. It is the ability to identify a shape, to extract meaning from what is actually statistical noise.

A natural origin

To understand where this surprisingly widespread ability comes from, let us go back hundreds of thousands, millions of generations in our family tree. Let us go back 100 million years into the past. At that time, our evolutionary lineage was present in the form of an animal that is also the future ancestor of rodents, rabbits, and flying squirrels, and it must have looked like the 12 cm long, 25g Eomaia. It is a small animal in a world populated by dinosaurs.

Yet it already has a mammalian brain. Moreover, unlike most species around it, it will pass on this brain to descendants who will still use it 100 million years later. And there is a reason for this evolutionary success, because evolution is not governed by chance but by the will of God, which is the opposite of chance. Our little ancestor has characteristics that give it a decisive advantage for survival. And its brain is in tune with this, as it is an organ of survival before it is a tool for philosophy.

Now, imagine that you are a distant ancestor. A noise attracts your attention in a bush. There are two possibilities: either it is a danger or it is not. It could be a predator about to jump, or it could just be the wind. These two possibilities do not have the same consequences for you. If a predator is indeed there, your life is at stake, and you need to react quickly. You are alive because your parents, before you, were able to recognize danger and did not get devoured unexpectedly. They passed on this ability to you.

The small animal that you are faces a hypothesis test. It must answer the question: Is the danger that I perceive real? If you make a first type error, that is, a false positive, you make the mistake of identifying danger where there is none. As a result, you adopt a flight behavior, experience relatively high stress, and that’s it. The cost of this error is not likely to weigh on you for very long. False alarm!

The second type error is the diametrically opposite situation: the false negative. You failed to recognize the danger that was there. And that’s simple: you will never have the opportunity to make this type of mistake again. Your death eliminates your genes in favor of the genes of those who do not make this type of error.

Over generations, and for millions of years, nature has eliminated individuals who tended to make second type errors. And we are the result of this long work of nature and logic on living matter. This extremely simple mechanism has profound consequences on the abilities to perceive and identify forms in the environment in evolutionary lineages.

Apophenia is therefore a flaw in our brain only if we look at the brain for what it is not. It is not made to think rationally, to perform statistics, or to practice scientific skepticism. The brain pilots our body with behaviors that have proven their usefulness in the past through the survival of individuals. That’s it. Our abusive recognition of forms in the environment is not a flaw, it is indeed an asset, historically… except that the current world tends to offer new, more insidious and perilous traps that our brain falls into with pleasure, even willingly.

Expectation horizon

None of us expect to encounter a giraffe in a hallway or a cruise ship in a parking lot. And in fact, you have certainly never misperceived your environment so much that you believed you had observed these things. However, it is likely that you have frequently made less surprising confusions. For example, a leaf falling from a tree behind you makes you jump because you think you feel a spider crawling on you with its eight legs (which are not there). We have all had a day when we thought we recognized a friend on the street, or heard the voice of a loved one before realizing our mistake.

This happens because we are used to encountering a certain range of stimuli, while others are completely foreign to us. Our brain is therefore prepared in advance, conditioned to respond much more quickly to familiar situations. This is called the exposure effect. When we have been exposed to certain stimuli (objects, voices, situations, themes), this increases the probability that we will perceive these stimuli even when they are not there. Our past experiences shape an expectation horizon, a grid of pre-established patterns that work on a binary mode: the right stimulus will immediately activate one of our patterns in order to trigger an adapted behavior. Sometimes a vaguely resembling stimulus will mistakenly activate one of these patterns, and for a second, we believe we have perceived something.

Incomplete forms

We have said that the brain uses a range of concepts that light up according to stimuli. Therefore, when we believe we are aware of the objects around us, we are actually aware of the concepts of the objects around us. Of course, the objects are there, outside, independently of what we think we see, but we sometimes confuse a paper clip with a safety pin. And during the moment of our confusion, our error feels as real to us as any correct perception.

The range of concepts stored in the working memory of our mind is dynamic; it is updated as we gain experiences. Nevertheless, there are constants. One of the most common is that the objects we encounter are complete. As we never come across half a dog, when we perceive a shape that reminds us of a dog’s head under reduced visibility conditions, our brain tells us that it believes it has seen a whole dog.

The image below contains only incomplete black disks and a few lines.

Their alignment instantly produces on us the illusion of a white triangle. But this phenomenon is even more surprising than it might seem at first glance. In fact, look at the image a little more carefully. Look at the color of this white triangle. Compare it to the white all around it. Doesn’t the white triangle (that is not there) appear to be whiter than the white background of the image, and particularly whiter than the triangle formed by the lines? It is as if your mind needs to signal the existence of this triangle, to objectify it, to make it stand out from the scenery. You are hallucinating a white that is whiter than white.

Therefore, we are capable of seeing the invisible shapes that are not really there and have not truly touched our senses but that respond to the activation of a concept in our mind, here the concept of a white triangle. But there is something even more invisible than that.

Invisible everywhere

girl in pink shirt and black pants walking on gray concrete pathway

Invisible everywhere

We see the invisible every day. First, because evolution has produced animals whose pattern recognition module is hypersensitive. Then because the mental representation of the world in which we live is centered around the most frequently stimulated concepts, which makes us more likely to “see” them. And also because every time we interact with another animal, we act in response to abstract concepts such as intentions, needs, and representations of others.

The basic functioning of our brain is sufficient to prompt us to perceive signals in random data sets, and to acquire unfounded certainties about the existence of phenomena resulting from a misinterpretation of reality. All the ingredients are present: apophenia, exposure effect, and theory of mind, to generate the powerful illusion of agency involved in most supernatural beliefs and conspiracy theories.

It is therefore not surprising that there are so many truly incredible accounts of mysterious or mystical phenomena. Given our brain’s survival equipment, their absence would be a miracle. Not to say that a few can not really be mysterious…

This panorama of some examples of deceptions, distortions of reality, and others would not be complete without mentioning the self-deceptions we perpetrate upon ourselves, often unknowingly. The phenomenon has been studied for over two centuries only, but it has existed since the origins of humankind.

First and foremost, it affects pharmaceutical companies. In November 2008, a new type of genetic treatment for Parkinson’s disease was halted during its phase 2 experimentation at the Michael J. Fox Foundation in the United States. Like all new treatments, it had undergone the double-blind protocol. This protocol involves administering the actual product to certain patients known only to the researchers while giving others a placebo, a simple pill made of starch, lactose, or glucose. The results are measured to evaluate the effects of the real product and distinguish them from those caused by autosuggestion. However, in this case, the results obtained by the placebo were significantly superior to those of the actual product.

In March 2009, trials of a new medication for Crohn’s disease, an intestinal condition, were suspended for the same reason. The actions of the producing company, Osiris Therapeutics, plummeted on the New York Stock Exchange. Two days later, Eli Lilly suspended tests on a medication for schizophrenia as it produced only half the effects of the placebo.

These events reminded some of old memories from World War II. In a military field hospital in southern Italy, after the arrival of the GIs, surgeons performed emergency operations amidst nearby raging battles. They ran out of morphine. An anesthesiologist’s assistant informed one of the wounded soldiers that she was about to administer a highly potent anesthetic. Yet the nurse’s syringe contained only a saline solution, what we call physiological serum. The soldier felt relieved.

Self-deception is indeed very persuasive: Placebo

The term “placebo” appeared in 1811 and means “I shall please” in Latin. The placebo effect has no known physiological basis, and it is unpredictable. However, its percentage has been measured in therapeutic trials for various conditions. It appears to be weakest among Parkinson’s patients (6 to 18%) and strongest in arthritis (80%). Certain constants have been observed. For example, yellow placebo pills are the most effective, red ones are the most powerful, and white ones are the most calming. Green pills are the most effective at reducing anxiety. The number of pills administered also matters: four placebos per day create the illusion of intensive treatment. Overall effectiveness increases when the pills appear to bear a brand label.

Notably, contrary side effects such as nausea, headaches, palpitations, and others may occur in a certain category of patients. This is known as the nocebo effect.

It would also seem that the actual effect of certain medications diminishes over the years, such as with Prozac, without being able to define the proportion of the placebo effect versus other factors. It is possible that the effect decreases because we are already familiar with the product and have less belief in its efficacy. This would be a variation of the nocebo effect.

Already evident in these observations, the psychological factor can be complicated by cultural factors. For example, the relative proportions of a medication’s real effects and its placebo effects can vary depending on geographical regions. In the 1990s, it was noticed that the real effects of Valium for anxiety were significantly higher than the placebo effect in France and Belgium, but this was not the case in the United States. However, the phenomenon was reversed with Prozac. Additionally, the calming placebo effects of blue pills were stronger worldwide, except in Italy.

A rational explanation lies in the fact that the brain produces its own opioids, which alleviate pain. It appears that the activation of a specific brain center by a symbol, such as a pill, is sufficient to trigger the production of these substances. However, this explanation does not fully illuminate placebo effects that do not directly involve pain, such as blood pressure (50% effectiveness), cough (36-41%), or hay fever (22%).

For years, the largest global pharmaceutical companies have been striving to analyze the placebo phenomenon in order to derive useful insights. However, this will not change the organism’s capacity for self-deception.

Is the same mechanism at play in self-deception? No, but a similar mechanism. Just as the brain protects the organism against pain that compromises its balance, it protects the individual by activating behavior patterns aimed at increasing well-being or guarding against dangers. This is what psychology refers to as the encoding of experiences and memories. Throughout life and within cultures, these patterns will transform into archetypes. For example, a child who was a victim of abuse by a red-haired classmate may perceive red-haired individuals as potential threats. This pattern will continue during their further development, equipped with a whole array of concepts classified as positive or negative. And just as Pavlov’s dog salivated at the sound of a bell, individuals will adopt mental attitudes characterized by whether certain concepts evoke promises of well-being or dangers, leading to favorable or hostile attitudes. This is, in fact, how animals are trained. Then, these attitudes become habits and eventually, in human beings, mythologies.

There is no person who does not depend on a culture, that is, a mythology. And thus, even superior minds can be influenced in their interpretation of the world and, unless they are deceivers, deceive their fellow beings with perfect sincerity.

The truth is that we cannot rely on our senses, or even feelings, to give us objectivity. Beyond all materialistic explanations around their mechanisms, we saw that the information we get from them are non-objective. To navigate our life, we need guidance, at all levels. Our Creator sums it up: “to whom Allah gives no light, he has no light” (Quran 24:40). And this light can only be received if we turn to Him.

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