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On Self-Deception in the Individual, in Groups, and in Society as a Whole

By David Bohm


A deep structure of self-deception is shown to be pervasive in individuals, in groups, and in society as a whole. This structure cannot be basically changed through will, desire, choice, or decision because these are controlled by the very drives that are responsible for self-deception. Serious and sustained attention to this “root paradox” is needed if self-deception is to end. This attention can lead to insight into the deep structure of self-deception. In this regard, a preliminary discussion shows the need for insight into values, and especially for a recognition of the role of the supreme value of perfection, which is a major factor of the deep structure of self-deception.

Self-deception is commonly found in groups as well as in individuals. Groups frequently tend to influence their individual members in ways that reinforce group goals, even when such goals are based on all sorts of deceptions. Indeed, group goals based on individual and total group deception may often, at least for a time, reinforce the cohesion and stability of the group even more than those that are deception-free. Such attempts to achieve overall cohesion and stability through self-deception tend to propagate indefinitely, bringing about a persistent and pervasive structure of self-deception in individuals, in groups, and ultimately in society as a whole.

This structure of self-deception gives rise to a vast range of problems of every kind, social, political, economic, personal, psychological, etc. Most of these problems not only seem to be insoluble, but the very attempts made to solve them generally give rise to further problems. These tend to go on proliferating indefinitely, eventually leading to disorders of world-wide scope, such as pollution, overpopulation, destruction of the planetary balance of nature, and, of course, the danger of destruction of civilization in a nuclear war. People tend to avoid facing these problems seriously, even in the very attitudes in which they say and believe they are trying to find solutions. This point shall be further developed throughout this chapter.1 In essence what is going wrong is that people are getting caught in the structure of self-deception described above, often in ways that are highly subtle and very difficult to be aware of. For example, an important form of self-deception may be based on man’s attempt to assert a permanent identity that denies the ever-changing nature of himself and of reality as a whole. The result is that he deceives himself by resisting the need for his thought to change freely to meet the unceasing changes that are actually taking place (Bohm, 1957, 1977).

On contemplating the mass of insoluble problems and crises cited above, one may well have a sense of being confronted by difficulties beyond the possibility of resolution by human intelligence and cooperative endeavor. However, the fact that self-deception is a common denominator to be found in all of this contradiction and confusion suggests that it may be of value to engage in a serious inquiry into the deep structure of self-deception. In this chapter, I should like to indicate, at least in a preliminary way, some general lines along which such an inquiry may be initiated.

Self-Deception in Individuals

Let us begin with a discussion of self-deception in individuals. A very good example of such self-deception arises in personal relationships. Consider, for example, a man who is susceptible to flattery. The origin of the desire and indeed the apparent need to be flattered is often a deep sense of inadequacy, which is so painful that awareness of its very existence is largely suppressed, except for certain moments in which criticism or other indications of a similar nature call attention to this very unpleasant feeling. As soon as someone comes along and tells such a person that, after all, he is good, wise, beautiful, capable, etc., then the deadening sense of suppressed pain disappears, to be replaced by a buoyant feeling of pleasure and well-being. Along with this goes a tendency to trust the one who tells him such “nice things” and to believe that it is all true; for otherwise, of course, there could be no such release. In order to “defend” himself from the “danger” of discovering that it is not true, he is ready to accept all that he is told by the other person, and as is well known, he opens himself to the possibility of being taken advantage of in countless ways.

Such self-deception constitutes a trap that is very difficult to get out of. Suppose, for example, that this person suddenly became aware, not only that he was being flattered in this particular case, but also that he is generally susceptible to flattery. He might then well make an effort of will to overcome this susceptibility, and to stop deceiving himself. The validity of this procedure is evidently questionable. Thus, as psychoanalysts point out, even if he tries hard and makes such an effort to overcome his tendency to self-deception, this very effort will be infected with the wish for a pleasurable release from pain that is at the origin of the whole tendency in the first place (Freud, 1914; Fenichel, 1945). Thus he will almost certainly deceive himself about the question of whether he has overcome self-deception or not.

Self-Deception in Large Groups

The trap of self-deception operates in a basically similar way broadly throughout the whole of society, in all sorts of groups and relationships. Thus, consider the prevailing tendency toward nationalism. People in each nation apparently understand the need for common human feeling and truthfulness in communication. Yet, when they feel that the nation is in danger, so strong is the reaction of fear and aggression that everyone is immediately ready to cease treating the enemy as human. Each side is ready to use bombs, killing children on the other side, when individually they would be horrified at the notion of child murder. And at home they accept censorship and propaganda, which implies that they agree to take what is false as true, because they believe this to be necessary for the survival of the nation. Such self-deception is clearly not different in essence from that which is to be seen in simple flattery. And evidently an effort of will to overcome the self-deception in nationalism would have no meaning, because such an effort is entangled in the very same self-deception process in which the nation’s interests are identified with what is false and illusory.

It is clear that a similar situation tends to prevail in the family. People feel compelled to project illusory images of relationship, to avoid what they regard as the unbearable disturbance that might result if they did not thus deceive themselves. Indeed, the new treatment modality of family therapy has arisen to deal with this very way of thinking (Ackerman, 1970; Haley, 1971; Howells, 1975). Likewise, as indicated earlier, larger-scale institutions generally tend eventually to depend on self-deception for their continuation and cohesion. Thus, when people think that such an institution is in danger, they often find this notion so frightening that a pressure is generated to accept false ideas as true, in order to avoid “upsetting the applecart.” Going further, it can be seen that there is hardly any phase of human activity that does not tend to become involved in self-deceptive traps of one kind or another. This extends, for example, even to scientific research, in which objective, factual, and rational considerations often have to give way to requirements such as those of personal advantage, and of what are thought to be the interests of society, which may be so identified with certain theories that new ideas may either be ignored or rejected for a very long time.

Of course, it has been common knowledge over the ages that mankind has this sort of tendency toward self-deception. But what is not commonly realized is not just the pervasive nature of this tendency, but much more, the extraordinarily great difficulty of getting free of the kind of trap described above. Thus, in the case of the man who is susceptible to flattery, the trouble is that he may apparently know and understand the absolute need to be honest with himself and yet he may feel an even stronger “need” to deceive himself. This “need” can be so strong that all sense of what is actually happening is blotted out, and replaced by a kind of “fantasy show” of inward rightness and well-being, which helps cover up consciousness of the process of self-deception itself, along with that of his unbearable sense of inadequacy.

The Need for Serious and Sustained Attention

What is called for to break through self-deceptions is not an effort of will, choice, or decision. Rather it is to pause and to give attention to the fact that one’s thinking, feeling, desire, and will are dominated, through and through, by a set of self-contradictory demands or “needs,” so that as long as such content prevails, there is no way to put things right. Every attempt to work from this basis constitutes an evasion of the real source of the difficulty. It takes a great deal of energy and seriousness to “stay with” an awareness of this fact, rather than to “escape” by allowing the mind to dart into some other subject, or otherwise lose awareness of the actual state of affairs. Such serious and sustained attention, going immensely beyond what is merely verbal or intellectual, can actually bring the trap into awareness, and the trap dissolves when its ultimate nullity and absurdity are clearly seen, felt, and understood, Krishnamurti (1972) has been pointing this out for many years and develops this approach in The Impossible Question.

It has to be emphasized again, however, that as long as one makes an effort of will to get out of such a trap, it can never be dissolved. On the contrary, it can only grow and proliferate in ever-increasing confusion. Of course, in ordinary problems, the will to do something about them is generally both necessary and appropriate. Thus, if a person were confronted by a genuine problem, such as the need to obtain food, and did not develop a will or intention to solve it, the result could be disastrous. On the other hand, if there is a will to “do something” about self-deception, then the mind is forever caught in the paradox that the content of this will is permeated by the very self-deception that he wants to “do something” about. Each apparent solution will be found to be inadequate, and will only lead on to more questions of a yet more muddled nature. Thus a trap of self-deception which has been formed early in life, such as that arising out of a situation in which a child is made to feel a sense of inadequacy, may continue for the whole of a person’s life, always changing in detail, growing ever more confused, but remaining the same in essence. And when the person starts to be conscious of the disorder in his mind, and tries to correct it by an effort of will, then this very step is irrelevant to the actual difficulty, because self-deception originates in an unconscious commitment, giving rise to a compulsive drive to sustain and extend the disorder, along with a false conviction that one can meaningfully attempt to remove it in this way.

As indicated earlier, what is needed instead is simply to give serious and sustained attention to the actual nature and activity of self-deception that tends pervasively to distort and confuse our thinking and feeling. Such attention will show that the traps in which we are caught when we are involved in self-deception derive from a certain “root” which is common to all of them. To help bring out what this is, let us first consider the fact that ordinarily, thought has some external object or state of affairs for its content. For example, one may think of a chair, a house, a tree, a storm, the Earth in its orbit, etc. All of these have in common that they are essentially independent of the process of thought which goes on in our minds, while at the same time this process of thought is independent of the content (i.e., our thoughts are free to take this content or to leave it, and instead may range over some other content which observation may indicate to be relevant).

Evidently, such relative independence of the mode of thought from its content is both possible and appropriate, when one is engaged in thinking about practical and technical subjects. However, when one begins to think about himself, and especially about his own thoughts and feelings, he will find that there is a very strong tendency to get caught in a certain paradox. In essence, this paradox is that whereas one is treating his own thinking and feeling as something essentially separate from and independent of the thought that is thinking about them, it is evident that in general there is, and can be, no such independence.

As an example, let us consider once again the case of the man who is susceptible to flattery, because of a suppressed memory of a painful feeling of inadequacy. This memory itself is a result of his past thinking, and vice versa, all of his subsequent thinking is conditioned by the memory, in such a way that it is totally committed to the drive to relieve the remembered sense of pain. And so it is ready to accept what is false as being true, if this will bring about even a momentary feeling of relief. Indeed, the entire system of personality defenses has developed to manage this problem (Freud, 1946). The thinking process is thus irresistibly “driven” by the very drives that it seeks to understand and control. Therefore, when such a person makes an effort of will to control or overcome his tendency to deceive himself, he is caught in the “root paradox” that the thought process is not actually independent of what it is thinking about.

A similar behavior arises in groups. When people in a group begin to notice that they have been “fooling themselves” about a leader who has proved to be dishonest, for example, they may resolve “never to allow themselves to be fooled again.” But in fact, they are generally unable to face the inner sense of inadequacy and helplessness that made them so ready to believe the promises of the leader in the first place, and to ignore all the clues pointing to his dishonesty, that would have been evident to one who was not caught in self-deception. Any attempt to control or overcome such a sense of inadequacy would inevitably involve the same “root paradox” that arises in the case of self-deception in flattery.

The Paradox in Society

For ages men have generally realized that thinking and feeling are commonly infected with greed, violence, fear, aggressiveness, and other kinds of reaction that lead to self-deception, with its attendant corruption and confusion. As indicated earlier, however, men have for the most part sought in countless ways to overcome or control such disorders in their own drives and desires. For example, all societies and most groups within societies have instituted sets of punishments aimed at frightening people into correct behavior, along with sets of rewards aimed at enticing them toward the same end. Because this has proved to be inadequate men have further set up systems of moral and ethical obligations, along with various religious injunctions, with the hope that these would enable people of their own accord to control their “wrong,” “evil,” or “antisocial” thoughts and feelings. But this, too, has not actually produced the desired result. And indeed, since the disorder in thought and feeling is the outcome of the “root paradox” of self-deception in which, from the beginning, thought is committed to the very drives that it is trying to control, no attempt to treat it by exhortations or by compulsive demands can bring it to an end. On the contrary, such attempts will generally add to the confusion and thus, in the long run, they will tend to produce more harm than good. Thus in the interests of the health of the individual and of the cohesiveness of society it seems clear that what is needed here is further insight into the nature and structure of the overall process of self-deception, as it arises in the root paradox, in which the tendency of thought about oneself to be controlled by what it seems to be trying to control is not properly seen or understood. This is of course a vast question and will only be briefly outlined with a few key points.

Understanding Self-Deception

An important clue to what makes it so hard for anyone to see through the root paradox can be obtained by inquiring deeply into the question of values. According to the dictionary, the value of a thing or an idea is its strength or virtue. It is this which makes it desirable or useful for us, and which can give rise to an urgent demand or drive for us to have it or realize it. We have little care for or interest in something that we regard as having no great value. People can love only what is dear to them (i.e., of very high value). And only what is felt to be of high value can give rise to great passion.

Clearly, then, our values permeate the whole of our existence and are a major factor in determining what sort of human beings we are and how we will behave. For, as has been pointed out, our values can arouse desire and, in addition, they can incite the will toward certain ends (i.e., those that are felt to be of high value). Thus, when something is valued as “very good” then, as is only natural, there will be a strong drive to have it or to realize it, while if it is felt to be “very bad,” there will be a corresponding urge to resist it, or to get rid of it. As attention shows, we are powerfully committed to such urges and drives, so that they often “carry us away” as if we had entrusted ourselves to a flood tide. It is therefore difficult to reflect on them rationally and objectively, because they tend to dominate this very process of reflection, in such a way as to bring about self-deception. For example, if one gives a very high value to a certain relationship because one has come to depend on it for his sense of security and well-being, he will find it very hard to sustain awareness of false or contradictory features of this relationship, and will be inclined to cover up these features with fantasies indicating that “everything is all right.” Or else he may admit these false features, but deceive himself by saying “I love that person anyway,” because he wants to escape the great insecurity of “being left alone.”

If the notion of the good implies a high value, which gives rise to a strong urge to have it, the notion of perfection implies supreme value, which must give rise to an absolute and irresistible drive toward its realization. So once the mind entertains and holds to the notion of perfection, it will be committed to drives and desires which are so strong that they tend to sweep away rationality and objectivity, making it almost impossible not to be caught in self-deception. But, as observation shows, people do in fact generally hold to one form or another of the notion of perfection. Thus, one can easily see from people’s behavior that there is an extremely common tendency to act as if they believed that the self or ego is essentially perfect, or at least that it should be so, even if it is not. This implies that the self is of supreme value and that is why people are often so disturbed when others do not confirm such a valuation. Such a notion also applies to membership in a group (e.g., one may regard this group—whether it be a family, a team, a nation, etc.—as essentially perfect, so that he will resist anything implying that it is not). Indeed, as has already been pointed out, so strong is the commitment to the drive to attribute the value of essential perfection to the self or the self-representative group that the words of flattery and praise that do this may be immediately accepted as truth, in a process that initiates endless self-deception.

The drive implicit in the very notion of perfection, to realize itself, evidently extends far beyond the ego. Thus, a person may imagine a past state of general perfection involving family, friends, nation, and even society as a whole, or else project a corresponding state of future perfection. This may give rise to a commitment to the drive toward realization, one so powerful that rational and factual evidence against such a goal is swept aside. Alternatively, one may suppose that perfection (i.e., supremely high value) inheres in “his own kind” of people, whether that be determined by class, race, family, profession, or something else, and will be prejudiced against those of other kinds. Prejudice is thus a prejudgment of low value for such people. Or else one may project the goal of perfection as an overall order, to be achieved by supreme dominance by one’s own group (and even, in the case of megalomaniacs, by oneself alone). The assumption of the perfection of one’s own group evidently tends to favor its cohesiveness for a time, at least until such self-deception eventually leads to disastrous consequences, which make the falsity of the claim of group perfection glaringly obvious and then tends to lead to group disintegration.

The notion of perfection involves time in an essential way, in the sense that what is perfect must be so forever. Indeed, any flaw that we anticipate as possible in the future is felt to be an imperfection right now. So once one entertains and holds to the notion of perfection of oneself, one’s group, one’s kind, etc., there will inevitably arise a demand for complete security in this perfection. This includes not only physical security, but even more so, psychological security, in the sense that one wants to be absolutely certain of a state of mind that is orderly, harmonious, enjoyable, and generally “right,” now and forever. This drive toward absolute certainty prevents us from properly facing the inevitable uncertainty in which we are generally involved, in life as a whole (which is implied by the ever-changing nature of reality, to which I have alluded earlier). When we become conscious of such uncertainties the commitment to the drive to absolute certainty tends to make us fearful and anxious, perhaps even panic-stricken, and this brings out an inadequate response in almost all that we do.

It is clear then that the notion of perfection leads to general confusion in our entire set of values, because this very notion implies the supreme value of what is regarded as perfect, and such a supreme value overrides all other values, including honesty, compassion, and regard for what is rational and factual. Self-deception arising in this way means that, as indicated at the beginning of this chapter, people will not generally be capable of facing their actual problems. And thus the individual will tend to get caught in neurotic disorders.

Self-Deception and Group Cohesion

As indicated earlier, groups may, for a time, be made more cohesive through such self-deception, but in the long run, they will tend to disintegrate from within while they will become entangled outwardly in meaningless and chaotic conflict with other groups.

We have already pointed out how mere identification as a member of a group tends to engender self-deception arising out of an overpowering sense of fear, whenever there seems to be danger of “upsetting the applecart.” But what is happening is actually a great deal more complex than this. Thus each individual has his own status in the group. If the group is at all important to him, he wants to feel perfectly secure in this status, for otherwise he may sense a danger of internal (psychological) disorder and even disintegration of all that makes life of value to him. Besides, his sense of his own perfection may demand that he, or someone with whom he identifies, must dominate the group, and that his own ideas as to what is right must always prevail. Or, alternatively, he may value security so greatly that he is continually looking for someone who speaks with such an impressive authority and certainty that all his doubts are put to rest, so that he can feel at peace within himself by believing all that he is told. Through these ways of seeking absolute certainty, as well as in countless other ways, groups may achieve short-term cohesiveness, but in the long run, they will, as indicated earlier, fall into divisive internal conflicts, as well as into external conflicts with other groups. What most essentially characterizes these conflicts is that they arise out of differences in fundamental and, indeed, supreme values, both individual and collective, and these of course take precedence over all other values. As explained earlier, this means that self-deception will tend to dominate even in efforts to overcome such differences, so that it will be almost impossible to resolve these conflicts satisfactorily.

What is to be done about all this? It should be clear from what has been said thus far that an effort based on will, desire, choice, or decision will be pervaded by the general confusion around the question of values that has given rise to the disorder in the first place. As indicated earlier, what is needed is that we stand back for a while, to reflect, to ponder, and above all, to give assiduous attention to the actual nature of the process of our thinking and feeling, particularly where the supreme value of perfection is involved. What especially requires close attention is how the attempt to observe our supreme values tends to be twisted and confused by our commitment to the very values that we wish to look at. Out of such attention may arise further insight into the whole process of what is going wrong in consciousness, and through such insight, we may be able to perceive and to act differently, in a more orderly and harmonious way. Such action may not only bring order and harmony to life of the individual, but it may make possible a genuine and lasting cohesiveness in groups and in society as a whole, a cohesiveness based on a true perception of what is, and not on meaningless values such as those of perfection which permeate the deep structure of self-deception.


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  1. Editor’s footnote: This article was originally published as a chapter in Group Cohesion: Theoretical and Clinical Perspectives edited by Henry Kellerman. ↩︎

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