Friday, May 27, 2011

Selling Oneself Short: self-deception, dating and dive bars.

I’m sure most of you remember the scene in Good Will Hunting in which psychologist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams) calls out Will (Matt Damon) for lying to himself about why he refuses to capitalize on his talents. Will says that he doesn’t value working for the NSA (or as a math professor, or whatever), but Sean thinks that Will is afraid of failure.

Will defends his decision to lay brick (his current gig) instead of pursuing a more prestigious job in the following way:

“What’s wrong with laying brick? That’s someone’s home I’m building….There’s honor in that.”

In response, Sean points out to Will that he (Will) could have been a janitor anywhere, but chose to mop floors at the most prestigious technical school in the world (MIT) and solve equations at night and lie about it. “There’s no honor in that,” Sean contends.

In this situation, Will is able to offer a legit justification for choosing the life of a brick layer (or a janitor). There is honor in both jobs. But Will doesn’t embrace this justification, he doesn’t take it to be his own, but hides behind it. He’s really laying brick and mopping floors because he’s afraid to fail in his attempt to shoot for the stars.

Here I’m going to discuss two situations in which folks tend to (or are tempted to), hide behind legit justifications for not doing things they are scared to do.

First, consider Jennifer. She’s 26 years old, single, well-educated and gainfully employed (let’s see she’s a consultant). There are plenty of hip bars and clubs in Jennifer’s neighborhood. Bars and clubs populated by young, good-looking people. Jennifer, however, only frequents the grimy dive bars, populated by the locals who are, well, less successful than she.

Jennifer is a bit socially awkward and doesn’t consider herself to be that attractive.

Jennifer defends her bar choices in the following way:

“I go to the dive bars because those ‘hip’ spots are expensive, loud and full of pretentious people. I can go to the dive wearing whatever I like and talk to real people.”

Clearly, Jennifer cites legit reasons to prefer the dives over the hip clubs. But Jennifer never goes to the hip clubs, never. She is single and those places are full of guys who are similar to her in age, education and economic status. And, really, Jennifer hasn’t made the effort to confirm her judgment that all of the hip bars in her neighborhood are expensive and pretentious.

Might it be the case that Jennifer is hiding behind, as opposed to embracing her justification for only going to dive bars? Could it be that Jennifer doesn’t go to the hip bars because she doesn’t feel comfortable there (someone may try to dance with her!) and/or is afraid she’ll be rejected by the guys who frequent those spots?

I think so.

Now consider Tom. Tom is dating Sarah, a nice woman, but a woman who Tom isn’t that attracted to. Tom has some of the same hang-ups as Jennifer. He’s not completely insecure, but doesn’t take himself to be the best looking or the smoothest guy in the world.

Tom defends his dating Sarah in the following way:

“Sarah is a good person and I’m not shallow. We all know it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

As does Jennifer (and Will) Tom gives legit reasons for his dating Sarah rather than pursuing someone he’s more attracted to. But certainly Tom would prefer to date someone he’s attracted to and certainly he doesn’t think that there aren’t any attractive women who are also good people.

Could it be that Tom doesn’t think he will be able to date a woman he’s attracted to and is simply hiding behind this justification for dating Sarah?

Clearly, I think so.

To be clear, I don’t take it that I’ve provided enough information about Sarah or Tom to justify the conclusion that they are hiding behind their justifications. But I do think I’ve provided enough information to justify the suspicion that Sarah and Tom are hiding.

So, you ask, what’s your point Black Socrates?

My point is this: We often do (or, don’t do) things because we’re insecure and afraid of failure. When a legit justification for an action (or inaction) is in the offing, we often hide behind this justification instead of facing the truth.

Clearly, some people would genuinely rather lay brick than work for the CIA. Some frequent dives rather than hip clubs not because they are insecure, but because they really don’t like those clubs. And some people date people they are not attracted to not because they feel themselves unable to date someone more attractive, but because they are genuinely attracted to the personality of the person they’re dating.

I simply wish to warn you (reader) about a certain trap that people tend to fall into. Be honest with yourself. Justify your actions and don’t simply hide behind legit justifications.


  1. I'm confused by your closing paragraph. It seems like Tom HAS justified his actions, and, as you say, his justification is legit. It seems like you are saying that the justification offered is not legit for Tom. If that is the case, then isn't your moral "don't provide illegitimate reasons for your action"?

  2. An alternative reading of these situations is that my recognition of some reason's 'being in the offing' makes it my reason at least insofar as it seems to account for the data and provides further courses of action for me to pursue. The difference being that putative reasons don't function as reasons for action unless they are recognized. So, perhaps it is the case that I only buy the brand of mustard that gets all the advertising because(or 'for the reason that', in one sense of this word which is distinct from the one being explored) I have been exposed to their marketing campaign. In this case, there simply is no reason for which I purchase this brand over another.

    Bringing this alternative understanding to bear on your example cases yields the conclusion that--unless these two are lying, which seems odd given that this is a thought experiment--they have given you the reasons for which they do the things they do. Thinking otherwise is buying into a particularly questionable version of psychoanalysis: I told you that the reason for my liking black hair is that has a severity about it but I've come to recognize that the *real* reason is that my mother had black hair and (insert psychoanalytic story here). The correct reading is that the reason I give you for my liking black hair is clearly a separate matter from etiological facts (such as those relating to my genealogy or whatever)pertaining to the matter which explain it from a different perspective.