Deep Down, We Can’t Fool Even Ourselves

Abraham Lincoln famously said that you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. But a recent New York Times article describing psychological research on moral hypocrisy suggests that there’s at least one person we can never really fool: ourselves. While on the surface we live by double standards, telling ourselves that our selfish actions are justified while condemning the same actions in others, deep down we know better. Underneath our rationalizations, we know what we’re doing is wrong, and judge ourselves by the same standards we apply to everyone else. I believe this research provides a revealing window into the workings of the ego as depicted in A Course in Miracles.

The research, conducted by psychologists Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno, examined the well-known phenomenon of people believing that their actions are kind and just and fair, even though they condemn others for doing the exact same thing—moral hypocrisy, or what is sometimes called the “self-halo” effect. To examine this phenomenon, Valdesolo and DeSteno set up an experiment based on the following scenario: Two people (one of whom who arrives later) each have to perform one of two different tasks on a computer. One of the tasks is fairly easy, the other much more difficult, and whichever person does one task, the other person has to do the other. In this scenario, the first person is given the responsibility of deciding how to assign the two tasks: either randomly by computer, or by making the assignments herself. The second person doesn’t know that the first person was the one who decided how to make the assignments.

The question is: What is the fairest way to make the assignments? A group of people who weren’t actually participating in this scenario all agreed that it would be unfair to give yourself the easy task and make the second person do the hard one. But when another group of people were actually placed in this scenario, three quarters of the task pickers took the easy task, yet claimed (when questioned about it afterward) that they had acted fairly. To Valdesolo and DeSteno, this was a classic example of moral hypocrisy: The task pickers viewed their actions as fair even though those actions were violations of a widely held standard of fairness, actions they would almost certainly condemn if others had done the same thing. This same double standard applied when people were divided into teams. Members of both teams watched as a member of one team or the other was placed in this situation and chose the easy task for himself. On average, they regarded it as fair when their team member took the easy task, but unfair when a member of the other team did so.

The researchers then considered the question: Whatever our surface rationalizations for selfish behavior, deep down are we instinctively fair or selfish? To test this, they brought another group in and put them in the same scenario. The ones assigning the tasks predictably gave themselves the easy task most of the time. But this time, when they were questioned about the fairness of their actions afterward, some of the participants were also given the difficult mental exercise of memorizing a set of numbers and retaining the memorized numbers as they were questioned. The startling result: Those who had to do the memorizing lost their moral hypocrisy. They judged their own selfish actions as unfair, just as unfair as if someone else did them. Valdesolo and DeSteno concluded that the extra mental exertion kept their brains so busy that they couldn’t come up with rationalizations for their selfish actions. Thus all they were left with was their intuitive sense of fairness, which they had violated.

The implication is chilling: We’re constantly engaging in self-serving behaviors, and then finding all sorts of flimsy rationalizations for regarding our behaviors as fair and good. On the surface, we may be able to fool others and ourselves with these rationalizations. But deep down, we have an innate standard of fairness—as Valdesolo says, “Our gut seems to be equally sensitive to our own and others’ transgressions.” And in this place below the surface, we know exactly what we’ve done. In the words of the article, “Your mind can justify double standards, it seems, but in your heart you know you’re wrong.” Or in the words of the article’s title, “Deep down, we can’t fool even ourselves.”

A Course in Miracles presents a detailed, multilayered model of the human mind, and it includes both levels revealed in these experiments. The surface moral hypocrite level is what the Course calls the “face of innocence” (T-31.V.2:6), which “believes it is good within an evil world” (T-31.V.2:9). This, the Course tells us, is the façade that literally everyone in the world wears, and when we are wearing it we live by double standards. While others’ attacks are unfair assaults on us, our attacks are justified as self-defense. Even when we admit we are mistaken, we tell ourselves that our mistakes were understandable, not like those inexcusably horrible things other people do: “[Your errors] are mistakes, but his are sins and not the same as yours. His merit punishment, while yours, in fairness, should be overlooked” (T-27.II.13:5-6).

But underneath this façade, the Course tells us, our attacks are not justified self-defense, but unprovoked assaults rooted in pure selfishness. The halo we wear is nothing but a ruse to fool others and ourselves into believing that our actions are fair and good and justified. But deep down, we are not fooled. We carry that intuitive sense of fairness Valdesolo and DeSteno refer to, and we realize that our attacks are no more justified than anyone else’s. At this level, the double standards are gone; we judge ourselves by the same harsh standard that we judge everyone else. Therefore, the Course tells us, underneath our protestations of innocence, we feel horribly guilty about our selfish attacks on other people. We think we have “become the home of evil, darkness, and sin” (W-pI.93.1:1). The Course goes so far as to claim that this is the actual cause of all the suffering in our lives: We feel so guilty that we dream punishment into our experience, and suffer accordingly.

In Valdesolo’s view, the fact that our moral hypocrisy can be thwarted by something as simple as memorizing numbers shows that “Hypocrisy is driven by mental processes over which we have volitional control….we just need to find ways to better translate our moral feelings into moral actions.” The Course certainly agrees that we have the power to change our ways and choose a “better way.” That way starts with getting honest about our face of innocence, realizing just how self-serving and vicious our rationalized attacks really are: “It is so crucial that you look upon your hatred and realize its full extent” (T-13.III.1:1).

But that is only the beginning: Once we get in touch with all the “evil, darkness and sin” in ourselves, with the Holy Spirit’s help we need to take our honesty further and realize that this too is a façade covering up a wonderful truth. Underneath both the face of innocence and the sinful attacker it conceals is who we really are: truly innocent Sons of God who are only dreaming that we became sinful attackers; holy beings in whom “light and joy and peace abide” (W-pI.93.Heading). We need to hear the Holy Spirit proclaim the liberating message that “You are as God created you, not what you made of yourself” (W-pI.93.7:1). No one has anything to feel truly guilty about; in fairness, everyone’s errors should be overlooked. This overlooking is forgiveness.

The Times article ends by saying that underneath our moral hypocrisy, we have a “basic…human instinct to do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—the Golden Rule. The Course transforms this from a moral injunction into an immutable universal law: What you do unto others, you do do unto you. Learning this law and applying it in a positive way is the key to liberation from the human condition:

All that I do I do unto myself. If I attack, I suffer. But if I forgive, salvation will be given me. (W-pI.216.1:2-4)

The way to salvation, then, is not through trying to fool ourselves into thinking that we can purchase innocence by applying double standards that put a halo on our selfish acts and put horns on everyone else’s. Rather, salvation comes through realizing that deep down we can’t fool ourselves: Whatever standard we apply to others we automatically apply equally to ourselves. This is the way things work. If, then, we forgive our brothers and see the truly innocent Son of God in them, we will inevitably see that same innocent Son of God in ourselves, and we will awaken at last to our heavenly Home.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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