Pretend play as the incipient form of self-deception
Pretend play in human infants is a behavior that starts around 18 months of age and ends with death. Without being too philosophical about it, we might claim that everything we do in life is a play, with degrees of pretending. Professions, careers, hierarchy levels, wars or politics are all social roles that we play. Most of the times, we pretend (to) play. We pretend to be good at something we are not, we pretend to be happy when we are down, and actually very few of us live systematically authentic, and emotionally and physically congruent.
Trivers claims that believing we are more talented or intelligent than we really are can help us influence and win over others. An executive who talks himself into believing he is a great public speaker may not only feel better as he performs, but increase how much he fools people, by having a confident style that persuades them that he s good.
Sometimes it is not evolutionary beneficial and profitable to be authentic and not pretend play. Therefore, self-deception and deception of others is a trait that deserves much attention from our brains and must be rehearsed from early childhood. And what better way to rehearse self-deception than pretend play?
Some authors insinuate that pretend play is the foundation of imagination. And it might as well be so, as one needs imagination to pretend a shampoo bottle is a telephone.
Tamar Szabo makes however the difference between performative pretense, whichinvolves representing things as being a certain way to another and imaginative pretense, which involves representing things as being a certain way to oneself.
Radu J. Bogdan also believes that while pretend play is primarily about rehearsing through understanding, mastering, and reproducing the means intended by the adults who are imitated or impersonated, imagination is about metamentally and often playfully rehearsing offline means to some end. (p 128).
According to most authors, children start pretend playing a bit before 2 years of age and take an intentional stance as early as 12 months old (Gergely, 1995) although some insist that pretense play is a universal phenomenon that first appears in children s play patterns between 3 and 4 years of age (Haight, Wang, Fung, Williams, and Mintz, 1999 apud Janes, 2002).
By the time they are 3, children have positivity bias - a tendency to see themselves as smart regardless of their abilities, and to exaggerate positive traits in others. By adolescence, one-fourth of college students rate themselves in the top 1% in their ability to get along with others. The truth? Obviously not this one. So, how do we start with pretend- play (that we are something which we are not, like an adult that gives orders to a baby) and we end up self-deceiving we are in top 1%? Well, simply put, pretend play is the rehearsal of self-deception.
There are three stages that a child reaches when playing: decontextualization, decentration, and integration. Decontextualization happens when a child is able to rely on objects for play that do not identically represent real-life counterparts. Decentration occurs when a child stops focusing on his or herself and starts including other people in pretend scenarios. And integration comes into play when a child is able to put aside solitary actions and fabricate more complex stories.
There is however a clarification I wish to make, and that is of terms pretend and play. Playing implies pretending, and all childhood games pretend that a person is another person or an action is another action or circumstance. During infantpretending, the children transform toys into props, take on character roles, and loosely follow a dramatic story theme.
Although there is a delimitation between imitation and pretending in terms of playing, children who imitate also pretend (they are adults, doctors, etc.). I am also inclined to attribute to the word pre-tend its semantic Latin root of fore - tending. Viewed from this perspective, pretend play denotes an activity that we (pre=before) tended, we were inclined to have anyway, marking it somehow under the auspices of innativism. Therefore, it is, in my opinion, a bit of a semantic redundancy when using the concept pretend play.
Self- deception is something that all adults do. As defined, self-deception is a process where we tend to deny or rationalize the relevance of opposing evidence. The evidence a child even as young as 18 months decontextualizes while pretending is that he knows the shampoo bottle is a shampoo bottle and it is used to wash the hair. Yet, the child takes the bottle and places it on the ear as if it were a phone and says hello. The child knows what the reality is and yet he pretends- by denying the opposing evidence- an object has a different usage than the one he knows it has. It is not imitation-as the mother never used the shampoo bottle as a phone and it is not creative imagination. This goal switching action is the basic of what later in life might become self-deception, an adaptive mechanism that helps us cope with vagaries of adulthood, and totally different from interpersonal deception. We can therefore say that self-deception is a half belief or a partial belief.
Even if some authors claim that rationalization can obscure the intent of self- deception, I claim that self-deception implies rationalization. With no intention of being of psychoanalytical inclination, I agree with the view on rationalization as being a defense mechanism which involves explaining an unacceptable behavior or feeling in a rational or logical manner, avoiding the true reasons for the behavior. The benefits of rationalization are multiple, but one of paramount importance is that it prevents anxiety, while protecting self-esteem. When confronted by success or failure, people tend to attribute achievement to their own qualities and skills (self-deceiving) while failures are blamed on other people or outside forces. And this is a natural thingto do and a cognitive shortcut. It takes a long while and a personal developmental effort to update and augment ourselves and assume responsibility.
The natural and handy thing that evolution designed for us is blaming the out-group while defending the in-group. For example, when getting to know others, people seem to ask questions which seem biased towards confirming their assumptions about the person or the idea they might pose (one reason I sometimes refrain from asking questions unless I believe they are really genuine and not to confirm something I believe I already know). However, this confirmation bias is a social skill and it is a good manner to establish a connection with the other person. Race bias is another bias that shortcuts our efforts in avoiding what it could have been - millions of years ago- dangerous for us in terms of enemies. This is however, the explanation the Malcolm Gladwell offers in his book Blink, when he discovered that although he is half black (his mother is Jamaican) him too, along with most of us, was biased to believe that white man are more reliable and trustworthy and less dangerous than black men.
Coming back to our rationalization/obscuring issue, this is why I believe that Brian McLaughlin s opinion of the rationalization obscuring the self-deception might not be entirely accurate. McLaughlin pointed that when a person, who disbelieves p, intentionally tries to make himself believe or continue believing p by engaging in such activities, and, as a result unintentionally misleads himself into believing or continuing to believe p via biased thinking, he deceives himself in a way appropriate for self-deception.
While I agree with the author that a person who does that is engaging in self- deception, his action of intentionally not believing (rationalization) does not however obscure the rationalization, and our thinking cannot but be biased.
I will explain why self deception is another type of cognitive bias. Cognitive biases are systematic deviations from a standard of rationality and by extension forms of self-deception. Confirmation bias is such a cognitive bias which leads most of the times at poor decision making, due to overconfidence, for instance. Biased search, interpretation and memory, belief perseverance, the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlationare all confirmation biases and self-deceiving mechanisms, that we all equally apply in our lives.
If I (very briefly) and somehow established that self-deception is, in my opinion, the tree that grows out of pretend play, it is now time to underline its evolutionary and innateness traits. Although some authors (Steffen Borge apud Szabo) have argued that not everyone has capacities for self-deception, and what it has been known as self- deception is rather a failure to understand, or lack of awareness of, one s emotional life and its influence on us, pretty much like pretending playing, we, as human race seem to be universally good at self-deception, in spite of racial of cultural differences.
Even if some philosophers like Albert Mele consider that self-deceiving is absurd,
( the suggestion that self-deceivers typically successfully execute their self-deceptive strategies without knowing what they are up to may seem absurd) I would like to notice that self-deceivers successfully perform self-deceiving activities with the help of cognitive dissonance, which is another bias which strays us from rationality and leads us into self-deception, but without which we would be in profound distress and mental discomfort. As cognitive dissonancers we tend to do things which don t fit with what we know (smoking kills), so we adjust our value system to reduce the mental discomfort (my grandfather smoked and he lived 90 years). Many people deceive themselves to avoid making difficult changes.
Don t smokers know that smoking kills? Of course they do. Then? How can we comfortably live with ourselves while performing a life threatening action and against the natural and healthy desire to live? Via self-deception, which was very early learnt during pretend play, in infancy. Very much the same, the child might wish to use a real phone or intends to communicate (which is vital at that age) but might not have access to a real phone or knows very little of how to convey his message. Therefore, the only gesture that looks like communication (it is communication) but it does not fulfill all the requirements of a communication (absence of the interlocutor, for instance) is pretend play. And via such pretend play, the infant self-deceives that he is communicating something to someone, while he is aware he is alone and the phone is a shampoo bottle. When asked what the object of pretense is, the child, 19 months: replied: a shampoo bottle. Why he then pretended it was a phone? As I claimed in the beginning, some of our traits are innate, some acquired. Self-deception is such an innate mechanism of regulating mental distress, and this is why I believe that self-deception is more than an unconscious defense mechanism, it is a vital constructive and adaptive coping mechanism, usually triggered by the appearance of a stressor. In young children s case, the stressor could be the need to communicate or the continuous learning of novel things. Similar pretend play where self-deception is at work is more visible in adults, when in times of stress, adults talk to themselves and create a whole scenario or imagine what they would say in a situation where they actually did differently (usually worse).
The mental shortcuts called heuristics are such biases, for instance. And once we learned how to mentally shortcut (and rehearse), we will never take the longer road, although we know that the longer road could be the right one. One good reason for taking the cognitive short-cuts is the economy or saving mental and cognitive resources. This is why we are all prone to the Semelweiss reflex, which threw a life saving skepticism on the causality of things (death of young mothers, for instance). Our brains are wired to take shortcuts and to naturally oppose any new element that adds up to an old schemata and complicates it. And this is what imitation in children does. Pretend play is another shortcut that prepares us for the real action later in life.
As Tamar Szabo wrote the self-deceiver imaginatively pretends that a certain proposition is true, and that her imaginative pretense plays a certain role in her mental economy and in the governance of her actions, then we can successfully account for the central features of the phenomenon we are examining.
Evolutionary psychologists say self-deception is a way of fooling others to our own advantage, in an effort to block negative information about ourselves. This sums up that as humans we are all good pretend players that grow into great self-deceivers.