Opinionista Mandy De Waal 17 December 2012

Zuma and the science of self-deception

It was a tough year for the president, filled with the Nkandla-gate scandal , the Marikana massacre, and intense scrutiny on the financial interests of Zuma’s family and benefactors. But when he took to the stage at Mangaung, what people saw was Msholozi the Assured. Could it be that our president is master of the art of self-deception?

Despite reports of last-minute, back-room deals to secure his leadership, brutal ANC infighting, and a flurry of court action aimed at unhinging the ANC’s 53rd elective conference, Jacob Zuma was as confident as he had ever been when he addressed thousands of ruling party delegates and members of the media at Mangaung.

Problems with the economy were laid at the feet of the recession. Ratings agencies were misguided. Where there was uncertainty, Zuma said there was now a strategy (the National Development Plan) to create certainty. SA’s education crisis would be fixed and Marikana was a ‘misreading’. Yes there were problems, but for the most part, the president said, the country was doing fine. “We want to dismiss the perceptions that the country is falling apart,” Zuma said.

Listening to Zuma’s statement on the influence of money on politics is a startling experience – particularly after compiling Daily Maverick’s soon-to-be-published detailed list of SA’s political elite which includes the business interests of the Zuma family, together with the clan’s benefactors. “We should not allow the situation where those who have money turn ANC members into commodities,” he said.

Did Zuma experience significant cognitive dissonance when he uttered that line? If so he never revealed this for a moment, and gave a solid JZ performance, plodding from one tenet to the next.

It’s unlikely that Zuma was troubled by the irony, given that he and a number of ANC leaders must be suffering from some degree of delusion or self-deception. They’d be in good company because this is a malady that’s suffered by everyone from university professors to medical doctors.

In his book How We Know What Isn’t So, Thomas Gilovich reveals that 94% of university professors think they are better at their jobs than their colleagues. He shows that 85% of medical students think it is improper for politicians to accept gifts from lobbyists, yet in another study by Dr Ashley Wazana in the Journal of the American Medical Association, only 46% of medical students think it’s inappropriate for physicians to accept gifts from drug companies.

This is because the human brain has evolved to become a ‘great deceiver’, as author and sceptic Robert Todd Carroll puts it. He says that most people believe that others who agree with them on issues that they consider important are high-minded, diligent, keen observers of the human condition. Those who disagree are considered biased, sloppy thinkers who are acting on selfish motives, and who have little regard for the truth.

“Those who consider themselves immune to cognitive biases, while supposing all their opponents are biased and ill-motivated, are not likely to be corrected of any errors they maintain,” says Carroll in a Skeptically podcast. “Those who think they are immune to effects of bribes while their colleagues are not, are most likely to deceive themselves into thinking they are acting properly, when in fact their behaviour crosses the line into immorality.”

The reason for this is the nature of the brain which takes on the role of the ‘great deceiver’. Common evidence for this is seen in the way humans perceive patterns in random or completely unrelated circumstances. A good example of this is the myth that ‘bad things happen in threes’, where superstitious people will look for three unrelated maladies, and then combine them into a pattern of meaning in some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. “We like to fit our perceptions into a running narrative that fits our world view,” explains Carroll.

What enables some people to perceive their weaknesses, and allows other to readily ignore their failings? “People tend to hold overly favourable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains,” wrote Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University, authors of Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. “This overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

The science of self-deception shows the most people think that they are actually smarter, more charismatic, and less susceptible to bias or improper corrupt than everyone else around them. That they are right, that they are true, when sadly they are not and they unfortunately don’t have the meta-capabilities to realise the self-deluding cycle they are in.

In the game of politics in a country like South Africa, self-deception is often a mainstay because selfish-interest and self-interest so readily buoy this delusion, which is underscored by bias-perpetuating ‘logic’ and ideology. This comes together with the sycophancy that surrounds people in power makes it difficult (if not impossible) for the practice of rational self-assessment, or for the introduction of impartial feedback loops. It is too easy and rewarding to fool one’s self, rather than to face difficult truths that would require drastic, uncomfortable action. DM

Read more:

Robert Todd Carroll’s blog

Deceit and Self-Deception by Robert Trivers on the Guardian 

Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception on the Guardian


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