Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Vagueness Facilitates Self-Deception

Probably no surprise there. This is likely one of several reasons why the majority of the faithful avoid discussion of their beliefs and texts that (for many religions) despite that - and this should seem strange - they consider those beliefs and texts universally and objectively true and beneficial. Coming from evangelical religions, this is strange indeed. If you think your beliefs are true and good, you should absolutely want to discuss the nuts and bolts of them with all comers! But in the case of the religious, pinning down religious statements not only doesn't do them any favors in terms of convincing others, it interferes with the faithful's ability to continue tricking themselves. This is why it's important to stop giving a pass to people making religious statements, and as inclusively and non-vindictively as possible (I know it's tough) ask questions about what those statements mean, and what the speaker's individual understanding of them is. (A common one is "The Bible has made true predictions about the future!" "That's interesting - give me an example." It's amazing how often the answer is a furrowed brow and "Well, I guess I can't think of one.")

Summary of the findings in the study: "Self-deception occurred in our dot-tracking task in the form of speeding up by people who were told that those who go faster are more intelligent...Self-deception only occurred however when feedback on each trial was vague, when it was presented in qualitative terms that afforded a self-serving construal."

Note that the experiments were designed in terms of eliciting self-described motivations from subjects about their actions. This goes right to the heart of questions about the secular basis of morality, which is being separately investigated (to great effect). But, fellow skeptics and atheists, it bears keeping in mind that we're certainly not immune to these kinds of effects. All human beings are constantly self-deceiving, all the time. But rather than making me pessimistic that our work is never done, we can view this as an ongoing opportunity to improve ourselves.

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