This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst then not be false to any man.
These words still resonate today but it is interesting to note that the context of that first line has changed since Shakespeare’s day. When Polonius advised his son to remain frank with himself, it was not because he saw self-deception as inherently wrong but rather because if you bullshit yourself it is difficult not to wind up bullshitting other people. Thus, honesty with one-self was simply a means to the end of greater honesty with other people. However, since Shakespeare’s day, self-deception has moved from tactical error to absolute moral failing. Some even say that the hardest thing in the world is to remain honest with oneself, but what drives the morality of this injunction? Why should we remain honest with ourselves at all times?
Setting aside the somewhat nebulous and melodramatic idea that some truths are simply too hard to bear, self-deception has value in so far as it makes it less likely that people will catch us in a lie. Indeed, if we are trying to convince someone of something we know to be false then our capacity to mislead them is largely a question of skill; we need to be able to minimalise physical tells, keep stories straight in our heads and know when to play down certain elements of the story lest our interlocutor realise that we are trying too hard to convince them. However, if we internalise the fiction then our skill at lying simply ceases to factor into the equation. There are no physical tells to detect because we ourselves believe the story that we are pushing. Based on this analysis, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Trivers has argued that a capacity for self-deception can be a real evolutionary advantage.
The problem with Trivers analysis is that, like many evolutionary psychologists, he not only reduces human nature to a series of tactical cost-benefit analyses, he also assumes that these cost-benefit analyses are made in good faith and with reasonable access to the facts. In other words, when explaining how self-deception works, Trivers assumes that there is such a thing as the self and that the boundary between honesty and deception is both clear and distinct. However, when you remove self-deception from the idealised realm of Homo Economicus and place it in the context of an actual human life, the boundaries around both the self and the truth become a good deal more fluid. D.R. Hood’s first film Wreckers suggests that truth counts for very little when weighed against the many other things that make up a life and that self-deception is really just another term for living a tolerable life.