Psychology 430H: Self-Deception

I knew that by universal conspiracy we agreed to deny the secret wickedness of every human being. – Hall, Donald (1996). From Willow Temple. The Atlantic Monthly, October, 85-102, p. 87.


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The very existence of self-deception remains subject to debate, despite its apparently “normative” nature, and the immense effort devoted towards its explication. The consequences of self-deception, assuming its existence, appear no less ill-specified: classical theories of morality and personality place it at the very core of the process that generates psychopathology, while the increasingly mainstream view of social psychology appears to be that self-deception – at least in “optimal” doses – makes people happier, empathic, creative and more productive.

When an issue remains contentious, despite diligent efforts to address it, it is very likely that it has been poorly conceptualized – very likely that the spoken and unspoken presuppositions that underlie its current formulation are ill-defined or simply wrong.

We will, in consequence, lay out these presuppositions, alter them where necessary, and reformulate the idea of self-deception, using information derived from cybernetic theory and modern neuropsychology, buttressed by knowledge of relevant narrative, mythological, and philosophical thinking.


Class NumberDateTitles
1Jan 05Introduction
2Jan 12Ellenberger, H. (1970). Freud’s work III (The theory of neuroses) – Freud’s work VIII (Philosophy of religion, culture and literature). In Author, The discovery of the unconscious (pp. 480-534). New York: Basic Books.

Westen, D. (1998). The scientific legacy of Sigmund Freud: Towards a psychodynamically informed psychological science. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 333-371.

Loftus, E. (1993). The reality of repressed memories. American Psychologist, 48, 518-537.

3Jan 19Freud, S. (1928/1991). The future of an illusion. In Author, Civilization, society and religion (pp. 181-241). New York: Penguin.

Becker, E. (1973). Human nature and the heroic; The terror of death; Human character as a vital lie. In The Denial of Death. (pp. 1-8; pp. 11-24; pp. 47-66). New York: Free Press.

4Jan 26Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.

Colvin, C. R., & Block, J. (1994). Do positive illusions foster mental health? An examination of the Taylor and Brown formulation. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 3-20.

Colvin, C. R., Block, J., & Funder, D. C. (1995). Overly positive self-evaluations and personality: Negative implications for mental health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 1152-1162.

5Feb 02Shedler, J., Mayman, M., & Manis, M. (1993). The illusion of mental health. American Psychologist, 48, 1117-1131.

Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1994). Positive illusions and well-being revisited: Separating fact from fiction. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 21-27.

Baumeister, R. F. (1989). The optimal margin of illusion. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8, 176-189.

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Larger but higher resolution version

6Feb 09FIRST ESSAY DUE: 15% (Note: Due Feb 08 by midnight)

Simon, H.A. (1955). A behavioral model of rational choice. Quarterly Journal of Economics, LXIX, 99-118 and Doyle, J. Bounded Rationality (pp. 92-93). In Wilson, R.A. & Keil, F. (Eds.), MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences. Cambridge: MIT Press

Miller, G.A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Medin, D.L. & Aguilar, C.M. (1999). Categorization (pp. 104-105). In Wilson, R.A. & Keil, F. (Eds.), MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Barsalou, L.W. (1983). Ad hoc categories. Memory & Cognition, 11, 211-227.

7Feb 16LeDoux, J.E. (1995). Chapter 3: Blood, sweat and tears; Chapter 6: A few degrees of separation. In Author, The emotional brain (pp. 42-72; pp. 138-178). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gray, J.A. (1995). A model of the limbic system and basal ganglia: applications to anxiety and schizophrenia. In Gazzaniga, M.S. The Cognitive Neurosciences (pp. 1165-1176). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1998). Chapter 2: Principles of feedback control; Chapter 3: Discrepancy-reducing feedback processes in behavior; Chapter 4: Discrepancy-enlarging loops, and three further issues; Chapter 5: Goals and behavior. In Authors, On the self-regulation of behavior (pp. 10-82). Selected Readings. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

8Mar 02Goldberg, E., Podell, K., and Lovell, M. (1994). Lateralization of frontal lobe functions and cognitive novelty. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 6, 371-378.

Ramachandran, V. S. (1996). The evolutionary biology of self-deception, laughter, dreaming and depression. Medical Hypotheses, 47, 347-362..

Tomarken, A. J., & Davidson, R. J. (1994). Frontal brain activation in repressors and nonrepressors. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 339-349.

Brown, L. L., Tomarken, A. J., Orth, D.N., Loosen, P.T., Kalin, N.H. & Davidson, R.J. (1996). Individual differences in repressive-defensiveness predict basal salivary cortisol levels. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 2, 362-371.

9Mar 09SECOND ESSAY DUE: 35% (Note: Due Mar 08 by midnight)

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-90.

Greenwald, A. G. (1980). The totalitarian ego: Fabrication and revision of personal history. American Psychologist, 7, 603-618.

McFarland,S.G., Ageyev, V.S. & Abalakina-Papp, M.A. (1992). Authoritarianism in the former Soviet Union. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 63, 1004-1010.

Goleman, D.J. (1989). What is negative about positive illusions? When benefits for the individual harm the collective. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 49, 273-280.

Solzhenitsyn, A. (1974). Part IV, Ch. 1-4: The soul and barbed wire. NOTE: TWO PARTS: Part ONE. Part TWO. In Author, The Gulag Archipelago II. (pp. 595-672.). New York: Harper and Row.

10Mar 16Swann, W. B., Wenzlaff, R. M., Krull, D. S., Pelham, B. W. (1992). Allure of negative feedback: Self-verification strivings among depressed persons. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101, 293-306.

Elliot, A. J & Devine, P. G. (1994). On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: Dissonance as psychological discomfort. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 67, 382-394.

Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J.,& Solomon, S., (1999). A dual process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts. Psychological Review, 106, 835-845.

11Mar 23Hare, R. D., Hart, S. D., & Harpur, T. J. (1991). Psychopathy and the DSM-IV criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100, 391-398.

Jaycox, L.H., Foa, E.B., Morral, A.R. (1998). Influence of emotional engagement and habituation on therapy for PTSD. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 185-192.

12Mar 30Petrie, K.J., Booth, R. J. & Pennebaker, J.W. (1998). The immunological effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 75, 1264-1272.

Mar, R. & Peterson, J.B. (unpublished summary). The benefits of writing: health and productivity.

13Apr 05FINAL ESSAY DUE: 50% (NOTE: Due Apr 04 by midnight)

Peterson, J.B. & Djikic, M. (in press). You can neither forget nor remember what you don’t understandReligion & Public Life, 33, XX-XX.

Lecture Topics:

See Readings, above.

Writing Assignments:

For this class, you must pick a topic that is deep enough and interesting enough, personally, so that working on it for a whole semester will be worthwhile. You will first write a four page draft. I will review and correct it. Then you can deepen and broaden your writing to six pages, which I will again review and correct, and then eight pages.

Most of the time, when people write for a serious purpose, the process involves multiple drafts (often far more than three) and multiple rounds of review and editing. So this is a more realistic process — one that will generalize outside the classroom.

I have developed a template to aid in such writing. Please use it. It will improve the quality of your essay dramatically. The template is a workbook, that will guide you through the writing process. You can download it here.

Due Dates & Grade Weighting:

NOTE: Papers are due midnight the day before class:

February 09: FIRST ESSAY DUE: 15%

March 09: SECOND ESSAY DUE: 35%

April 06: FINAL ESSAY DUE: 50%