Friday, April 12, 2013

Bad Faith, Self-Deception, and Unconscious Motivation: Restrictions in Effective Choice

A person's power and disposition to make effective choices reflects their appraisal of the relevant circumstances.  Beyond choices that are objectively unavailable, people engage in the world with the additional blinders of what they are reluctant to examine and what they find intolerable or unthinkable to know. As a psychoanalyst, part of my job is to help make the unconscious conscious. Sometimes I accomplish this, but more often what I actually attempt is to make it safe enough to tolerate examining what my client is deeply reluctant to examine and negotiate. This requires considerable empathy from me and courage from them.  They have their good reasons to be defensive. 

Bad faith, self-deception, and unconscious motivation restrict a person's ability to see their world with clarity and make informed choices. Action is compromised when a person's vision of their overall circumstance is defensively restricted. Ethical and aesthetic judgments that require or are enhanced by deliberation are undermined when relevant options are unacknowledged. Undoing self-deception in the service of enhancing judgment is vital when ethical concerns and matters of fairness or justice are at stake. Pleasurable opportunity and prudent restraint are also undermined when a person's recognition of choice is unnecessarily restricted. 

Here's a map of bad faith, self-deception, and unconscious motivation.




The overall circumstances of a person’s self and world provide the opportunities and dilemmas that are the context for judgment and behavior.  Appraisals of opportunity and dilemma motivate and guide behavior.  The known overall circumstance, the behavioral context, provides a complex domain of sub-circumstances.  An overall appraisal takes into account, more or less, the appraisals of the sub-circumstances. The final appraisal that guides behavior may be a result of careful deliberation or a response that follows an immediate impression.  Emotional behavior is usually associated with a person’s immediate impressions but can also be the reaction to a deliberately considered or delayed appraisal.

An individual’s motivationally weighted Hedonic, Prudent, Aesthetic, and Ethical/Moral perspectives intrinsically guide what a person will seek or recognize as opportunity and dilemma and will provide fundamental reasons to do one thing rather than another.  Briefly defined:  Hedonics refers to the ordinary pursuit of pleasure including the visceral pleasures.  Prudence refers to self-interest and self-protection. Aesthetics involves the mixed categories of beauty, elegance, truth, rigor, objectivity, closure, and the like.  A person’s ethics and morals concern their appraisal of fairness, justice, “the level playing field”, “the golden rule”, and the like.  Action often involves complex recognitions and reasons. Compromise and conflict are unsurprising and often inevitable.

Ethical and aesthetic appraisals require the ability to engage in Deliberate Action, i.e., the potential to make a choice. Ethics and aesthetics require the potential for renunciation. Hedonic and prudent motivations only require that the actor recognize some desired goal whether or not choice is involved. The actor’s personal characteristics are shown in how they weigh hedonic, prudent, ethical, and aesthetic reasons for action.  These motivations may be independent, complementary, antagonistic, and so on.

In making a judgment, the actor as self-critic can attempt to renounce or reorder self-recognized motivational priorities. Non-acknowledged priorities are not open to deliberation and are problematic when the self-regulation of those values is critical to the person’s wellbeing and place in the community.

Communities commonly find unregulated hedonic and prudential behavior, especially sexual or hostile manifestations, problematic and attempt to regulate them accordingly. Motivations for sexual and hostile behaviors are often problematic for some people to recognize in their own action.  What is problematic when not adequately regulated becomes especially problematic when it is cannot be acknowledged.

Here's a dynamic framework for the transformation of what a person finds unthinkable into thinkable or intolerable into tolerable.  This is the behavioral logic of defense:  What is unthinkable does not have a place in a person's knowledge of themselves and their world. What is intolerable does not have a place in their values or competencies. They can't think it and they can't manage it but they have to do something about it. 

It works like this:


Adapted from Peter Ossorio’s Persons, 1995


1. The empiricist principle. A person finds out about the real world by observation. The observer will have a range of specific concepts and personal characteristics that will limit his observation.

2. For a given observer, the real world is the one that includes him as an observer. (For no one is the real world a place where they have no place. This is a formal constraint. For no observer is the real world one that would leave him in an impossible position. (A person’s vantage point concerns the range of that person’s possible observations, descriptions, and critiques).

3. If a situation calls for a person to do something he can’t do, he will instead do something he can do.


If, for a given observer, O, the real world is such that it would leave him in an impossible or intolerable position, he will not see it that way. Instead, he will see it as a world that does have a place for him, and he will act accordingly.

A second observer, P, who sees the world differently from O and knows it, can count that difference as O’s distortion of reality. 

P can account for O’s distortion by reference to some real condition that O would find unthinkable (because it would leave him in an impossible or intolerable position) and therefore be unable to behave with respect to it.


1. Among such unthinkable real conditions would be that O’s behavior was a particular behavior or that it had a particular motivation or significance (hence unconscious motivation).

2. Because the derivation above is a statement of logical constraints, the conclusion and the phenomenon is non-voluntary and automatic (hence one can speak of mental mechanisms).

3. Because the effect of the logical constraints is that the person continues to function more or less effectively when otherwise he would be unable to function, one can speak of the mechanisms as preserving realistic functioning or as ego defensive.

4. The second observer, P, could establish a taxonomy of the kinds of distortions O was engaging in.  If the distortions were explained by the operation of mechanisms, the taxonomy could be identical to that for ego defense mechanisms: denial, repression, projection, reaction formation, etc. 

On the dilemma of interpretation of unconscious motivations: On the Interpretation of Unconscious Action and Self-Deception.



  1. Creating a safe environment that would ultimatly allow the client to tolerate examining what he/she is deeply reluctant to examine and negotiate appears to be a manageable task. However, I would not know how to begining engaging in a discussion where as P (second observer) I would be placed in a position to confront O's distorition of reality and challenge their way of thinking/seeing the world.

    How does one create a safe enough environment where it would be comfortable enough to challenge the client in such a way? I find it hard to believe that anyone would want to continue in a relationship where they are told that the way they view the world is actually distorted. I cannot make myself believe that confrontation is theraputic, it almost seems counterintuative and in my opinion, would make the client put up more ego defenses.

    1. It's not always easy. One way is to engage in "empathic confrontation". The strategy is old and comes from Freud. "Analyze defense before drive." Or, start by accrediting that the client has their own good reasons for seeing the world as they do. It makes sense to them to see and behave as they do. They have their own good reasons to be defensive. The first move is to acknowledge the client's reality and to do so tactfully, kindly and accurately. The second move is to show some evidence that the way they are seeing things might have worked at some point but for reasons they already know are no longer adequate for what they need to manage. And the third step is to ask if looking at these things differently might increase their effective behavior potential. We don't argue our interpretation, we offer it, and we negotiate its possible usefulness. Like I said, it might not be easy to accomplish but that's why they pay us the big bucks.

    2. Making it safe is one of the therapist's most important jobs. One size and one technique does't fit all. Roy Schafer's "Analytic Attitude" is an exploration of how Freud and others developed what he calls "the conditions of safety." There is the message and there is the manner of delivering the message. We don't want anyone to want to kill the messenger.