“To take control of their lives, people tell themselves stories about the person they want to be.” – Jonathan Franzen
Intelligent people have a remarkable ability to rationalize irrational past actions, to re-interpret history to fit their preferred narrative. I’ve noticed this happens most when the actions in question contradict a person’s internal vision of who they want to be: when the action represents a contradiction to a long-standing identity conception, and this contradiction represents an unacceptable burden of guilt or confusion (“If I’m not being the person I always say I am, then who am I?“), so they deny or rationalize it to make to compatible.
The man who has long considered himself an ethical person will find a way to contort an unethical misstep into the realm of moral acceptability. The woman who has long considered herself emotionally mature will find a way to contort an act of emotional immaturity into that identity.
For lying to yourself about specific actions is easier than re-defining the bounds of your imagined identity so that it’s newly inclusive of the contradictory actions. When I see once-ethical men devolve into moral grey, they still identify as upstanding even though their behavior (which they have denied or rationalized) has eclipsed the label.
Who’s susceptible to doing this? Not folks on the extremes of the rationality spectrum. At one end, the most meta-rational are so damn grounded in reality that they will not allow themselves self-delusion and cannot bear an incongruity between the story they tell themselves about who they are and the story an objective outsider would tell based on their actions. For this rare breed their identity and actions are mostly consistent. On the other side of the scale, the truly stupid are not capable of performing the kind of mental jujitsu that facilitate a self-serving re-remembering of events.
It’s the rest of us, who are smart but by no means have arrived at rationality nirvana, who I think are most proficient at lying to ourselves about our actions to shoehorn them into a preconceived identity. (Note the phrasing “lying to ourselves” – it’s the internal conversation I’m referring to.)
“Speak the truth, even if your voice trembles,” says Eliezer Yudkowky. We could add: Confront the reality of your actions, even if it means your identity will have to evolve to accommodate them.
Bottom Line: Very smart, rational people still do not often let the truth get in the way of their current and aspirational identity. It’s much easier to rationalize or deny behavior at odds with your self-identification than to confront your own self-delusion.