Lying, Cheating, and Carrying On Developmental, Clinical, and Sociocultural Aspects of Dishonesty and Deceit (Book Review)
Is lying ubiquitous in human relations or an aberration, a behavior observed only in those devoid of conscience? However much Freud noticed the importance of our attachments, he harbored no illusions about our selfishness and capacity for inhumanity. He famously claimed that "man is a wolf to his fellow man"(1930/1975, p.111) to underscore the other's role as a source of temptation, someone to be deceived, coerced, humiliated, tortured, even killed. Desire is rapacious and insatiable; whether animated by love or hate, it is a force that can be appeased, but never sated.
Akhtar and Parens's new book, Lying, Cheating, and Carrying On, pursues the implications of Freud's thinking. It offers a broad psychoanalytic perspective on deception as an unconscious compromise in which self-interests prevail. Too little restraint leads to recklessness; too much to frustration and resentment. Neither permits conflict to be comfortably entertained. When moral implications are readily discounted, treated as if they are not really real, deception and transgression are likely consequences.
With the exception of the introduction, conclusion, and two discussion pieces, the chapters of Lying, Cheating, and Carrying On were originally presented at the 39th Annual Margaret S. Mahler Symposium of Child Development in 2008. With the exception of these two discussion pieces, each paper is followed by original essays that elaborate and expand on its themes. The result is a comprehensive examination of deception, one that addresses its developmental, psychological, and cultural implications. I shall take up three broad themes that the papers raise collectively.
Deception as a General Problem
Akhtar aptly distills the central thesis of this book: "lying invariably involves a self-object scenario" (Akhtar & Parens, 2009, p.3). He regards it as taking place always within an interpersonal context and motivated by self-interests, however much they may be concealed. More broadly, deception reflects the quality of one's relationships with others, whether fantasized or real, and especially the need to enhance cohesion and self-esteem. It is in this sense that narcissism may be said to mediate the liar's relationship to the truth.
Aristotle was one of the earliest philosophers to think systematically and nontheologically about this relationship, identifying two types of individuals whose actions have very different sources. Both the akrates and the akolastos fail to act in accordance with prevailing norms, the former because he is pusillanimous, the latter because he is self-indulgent. The akrates deviation resides in the object of his desire rather than in his pleasure per se. He is self-deceived rather than purely narcissistic; he does not brazenly and with full awareness do wrong, nor is his goal simply to gratify his wishes. Crucially, he retains the capacity to empathize with norms and the ordering of values within his culture. His acts are misguided, such that he takes pleasure in activities inconsistent with the values he holds. Contrary to the akolastos, who is indifferent to the truth and to moral obligations, he is distracted from good and proper purposes by the pleasure of his hidden projects. Pleasure temporarily causes him to not know what he knows.
Aristotle was the first classical thinker to grapple with the problem that transgression cannot be attributed to ignorance. Although not credited for its discovery, he noticed the dissociative consciousness that undergirds lying and deception, motivated by the pursuit of self-interest. Liars need not be indifferent to the truth; sometimes they deceive because their appreciation of moral standards has been sequestered temporarily and rendered inaccessible. This point is beautifully illustrated by Watson (Chapter 7) who aligns the motives for lying with different personality organizations. For example, the borderline personality avoids abandonment by inauthentically resurrecting the relationships he habitually damages; the obsessive-compulsive personality deceives to protect himself from external control; the narcissist deceives to deny any hint of imperfection; and the psychopath takes apparent delight in exploiting others. Although lying and deception are motivated by the pleasure of gratifying forbidden wishes, the terms of that gratification and the relation to the forbidden vary with personality structure.
Unlike their Greek predecessors, psychoanalysts recognize that deception occurs in multiple forms and with varying degrees of self-awareness. Except for those overtly anti-social individuals, self-awareness complicates matters because it typically inspires conflict. In the absence of anticipatory guilt, one's efforts to manage potential conflicts frequently run afoul of the truth. Fearful and helpless in a world over which one has little control, driven by needs that cannot be avowed, one takes refuge in illusions that transform others into what one needs them to be, a circumstance that sets the stage for deception and diminishes the experience of guilt. Excellent papers by Fischer and Edelsohn each underscore the point that successful deception rests on a host of cognitive and developmental achievements. Specifically, it requires relatively well-developed capacities for mentalization, such that one effectively induces false beliefs and deactivates suspicions likely to expose one's ruse.
In Chapter 6, Stone offers a window on deception at its pathological extreme. Here we find borderline individuals whose antisociality varies from the minor to the malignant. Even in antisocial personality disorder, Stone distinguishes between the "glibness and superficial charm, grandiosity, deceitfulness/lying, manipulativeness/ exploitativeness, callousness, absence of remorse, shallow affect, and inability to take responsibility for one's actions" (Akhtar& Parens, 2009, p.80) that is typically observed in antisocial personalities and violent psychopathy, where hedonism, impulsivity, and affective dysregulation present real danger. Theseindividuals blatantly disregard the truth and readily exploit the goodwill of others to further their own interests. Importantly, neither guilt nor shame effectively regulates their behavior. They never fully accept responsibility for their actions, nor do they sincerely believe they are accountable to others or to the community with which they have an essentially parasitic relationship.
It is a mistake to limit one's concerns to the role of narcissism, without attending to the overarching perspective in which it is embedded. What we think is always contextualized within a particular cultural and/ or subjective perspective and, hence, requires continual reflection and reassessment. If one takes this thesis seriously, lying is not accurately summarized in terms of the conscious misleading of others. It no longer is reducible to the act of inducing false beliefs in others, because the question of what is true has been problematized, the truth according to whom? Both Freeman (Chapter 8) and Moore (Chapter 9) offer nontrivial cross-cultural examples of lying that demonstrate it to be at once nonpathological, culturally sanctioned, and socially adaptive. For example, some forms of deception not only are acceptable in Japanese culture, but in fact are obligatory. Individuals face a great deal of pressure to conform to norms and traditions that they may or may not privately endorse. More importantly, "deviant" thoughts and feelings must (and should) be suppressed and hidden from view in order to forestall a shame experience, as well as scapegoating and exclusion. As a result, Freeman believes that Japanese culture promotes false self-development; one's true feelings are not only disconnected from one's public personae, but from one's intimate relationships.
In taking this position, Freeman interestingly does not conclude that this stance is pathological. Why? Because, following Moore, he notices that compliance does not necessarily demand that one disavow inner experience. Both investigators claim that one's "true" feelings remain consciously accessible. Whereas Freeman believes they are not expressed in order to avoid shame, Moore interprets their suppression as part of a culturally supported stance adopted out of respect for others. Public conformity promotes inner harmony and social cohesion, bringing about circumstances in which deception is desirable rather than blameworthy.
Deception as a Distinctively Psychoanalytic Problem
If Rieff (1959) is correct in viewing psychoanalytic therapy as unified by an "ethic of honesty," it is because he believed that Freud regarded candor as the key to lessening the strictures of modern life that produce neurotic suffering (p.315). According to Thompson (2004), this fundamental rule requires patients to be authentically themselves, and especially to recognize their obligation to attend precisely to the inner experience they are disinclined to speak about. Although impossible to fulfill, the analytic situation nevertheless imposes this imperative and, hence, involves the patient in "a pledge to be honest with another person" (Thompson, 2004, p.8). This is the distinctively ethical dimension in which analytic work unfolds. Optimally, one experiences conflict when inclined to conceal, whether or not the content that one wishes conceal is actually wrong or forbidden. For Freud, therapeutic success hinges on this commitment.
Thompson's thesis highlights the thereption is antithetical to the fundamental goals of any form of therapy, but it sometimes poses insuperable problems for analytic work. Whether or not one agrees with Thompson about the centrality of the fundamental rule, his view of psychoanalytic treatment as an inherently ethical quest is persuasive. One is tempted to say that this concept contextualizes all of the papers in this volume, focusing on the treatment of individuals who cannot commit themselves fully to the truth.
LaFarge offers a particularly insightful discussion of the problem of deception in treatment by focusing on its transference manifestations. Deception represents an effort to control the perception of reality (Akhtar & Parens, 2009, p.45) and, for this reason, always entails what she evocatively describes as "fantasies of the imaginer and the imagined" (p.44). LaFarge believes these fantasies are normative and present in everyone. However, in narcissistic and overtly antisocial individuals, their content is split, such that the other may be perceived alternately as loving and persecutory, mirroring love or utter rejection. Most often, deception advances desirable self-images, controlling the other's perception in order to conceal the truth. When successful, one imagines one is seen in precisely the way one wishes. Sometimes the battle for control is limited to authentication, which need not be deceptive but is nevertheless crucially important to self-continuity. More often, it devolves into imposture or malicious deception, which, as these terms imply, involve pathological splitting and, sometimes, transgression. In the end, pathological splitting and dissociation become major impediments to treatment.
The panel participants are somewhat mixed in their assessment of Stone's proposal that the patient's readiness to confess sometimes provides a window into the degree of psychopathology present and, hence, the patient's treatability. They caution that readiness alone is at best a weak indicator; at worst, it merely creates opportunities to further antisocial aims.
When confronted with antisocial behavior, one reflexively questions whether the perpetrator understands his actions. We find it difficult to imagine people doing wrong when they have a clear vision of what is right, fair, and just. This is the intuition that animates Aristotelian thinking, however much we have come to accept the reality of moral disengagement. No longer wedded to the notion of human rationality, we recognize human behavior as dynamic, complex, unconsciously motivated, a tapestry woven from the multiple strands of reason and irrationality. It also encompasses transgression and wanton exploitation. Psychoanalysis has much to offer in its understanding of these troubling outcomes, offering profound insight into how and why individuals transgress. Lying, Cheating, and Carrying On adds substantially to these insights, bringing to light a variety of unconscious motives that cause otherwise moral individuals to engage in acts of deception. But it also describes individuals who do so blatantly, without concern for the feelings of others, committed only to their own pleasure. The achievement of this book is its attempt to unify these individuals within one general framework, one that is at once sensitive to unconscious motivation, cognitive and developmental capacities, and sociocultural influences.
Akhtar, S. and Parens, H. (Eds.). (2009). Lying, cheating, and carrying on. Latham, MD: Aronson.
Aristotle. (1984). Nichomachean Ethics. In J. Barnes (Ed.), The complete works of Aristotle (Vol. 1). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Freud, S. (1975). Civilization and its Discontents. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 21) (pp.59, 148. London, UK: Hogarth (Original work published 1930).
Rieff, P. (1950). Freud: The mind of the moralist. New York, NY: Viking.
Thompson, M. G. (2004). The ethic of honesty: The fundamental rule of psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Rodopi.
Ronald C. Naso, PhD is in independent practice in Stamford, CT. He is a consultant and supervisor in the Internship and Postdoctoral Fellowship training programs at the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut. The author of numerous papers on psychoanalytic theory and practice, his book, entitled Hypocrisy Unmasked: Dissociation, Shame, and the Ethics of Inauthenticity, was published by Aronson in 2010. He is a contributing editor of DIVISION/Review.
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