Self-Deception: The Heart of Propaganda

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Filed under: Propaganda and Disinformation

Media Lens Media Alert:

Intellectual Cleansing, Part 3:
Self-Deceits Held In Common – Groupthink
October 15, 2008

We have seen how the propaganda system is filtered by a range of carrot and stick pressures: professional training, selection for obedience, promotions and demotions, sackings, legal pressures, and the rest. The final piece of the jigsaw is much more elusive and mysterious.

In his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception psychologist Daniel Goleman examined the human capacity for self-deception. According to Goleman, we build our version of reality around key frameworks of understanding, or “schemas”, which we then protect from conflicting facts and ideas. The more important a schema is for our sense of identity and security, the less likely we are to accept evidence contradicting it. Goleman wrote:

Foremost among these shared, yet unspoken, schemas are those that designate what is worthy of attention, how it is to be attended to – and what we choose to ignore or deny… People in groups also learn together how not to see – how aspects of shared experience can be veiled by self-deceits held in common. (Goleman, Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Bloomsbury 1997, p.158)

Goleman concluded:

The ease with which we deny and dissemble – and deny and dissemble to ourselves that we have denied or dissembled – is remarkable.

Psychologist Donald Spence noted the sophistication of this process:

We are tempted to conclude that the avoidance is not random but highly efficient – the person knows just where not to look. (Ibid, p.107)

This tendency to self-deception appears to be greatly increased when we join as part of a group. Groups create a sense of belonging, a “we-feeling”, which can provide even greater incentives to reject painful truths. As psychologist Irving Janis reports, the ‘we-feeling’ lends

a sense of belonging to a powerful, protective group that in some vague way opens up new potentials for each of them. (Ibid, p.186)

Members are thus reluctant to say or do anything that might lessen these feelings of security and empowerment. In this situation, even pointing out the risks surrounding a group decision may seem to represent an unforgivable attack on the group itself. This is ‘groupthink’. Individual self-deception, combined with groupthink, helps explain why journalists are able to ignore even the most obvious facts.

Related link:

  • Manipulation 101: Gaslighting