The Truths We Want to Deny

If someone's self-image as competent and smart is challenged by the truth that he made a mistake, he is more likely to deny the truth.

A man who resented his parents' favoritism toward his younger brother was receiving psychotherapy in Boston for relationship problems. His therapist thought they were making progress, but she knew a problem loomed. Pregnant, she worried that her fragile patient might view her maternity leave as abandonment or rejection. She held off revealing her situation until she was six months along, last year. "Have you noticed anything about me?" she asked. The patient said he had not, so she told him she was pregnant. Looking at her bulging abdomen, he said she couldn't be; he was a keen observer of women's bodies and had made a habit of scrutinizing her because he worried this would happen. No, he said; you're not pregnant.

Denying the evidence of your eyes is the most extreme form of the coping mechanism called denial. But denial comes in milder forms as well. Parents refuse to believe their child is on drugs; that baggie under his bed contained oregano. A husband maintains his wife cannot be cheating; those late nights she spends with a friend are purely platonic. A wife denies that her husband is gay; he's just been too tired for sex with her these last few years.

And a president who insists that a war will succeed despite setback after setback? It's risky to put a politician on the couch, but that has not kept President Bush's critics from charging that he is "in a state of denial" about the situation in Iraq, as Sen. Harry Reid said last month. The phrase was the title of Bob Woodward's latest book on the war, and in January, USA Today editorialized that Bush is "in denial about the insurgency that has plunged [Iraq] into civil war."

This could all be dismissed as psychobabble, except for one thing. Psychology researchers, including some who advise politicians, have reached the same conclusion. "I do think there is denial on Bush's part in his running of the war," says Kerry Sulkowicz, clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center. "He seems unmoved by the extent of the evidence that things are far worse than he believes. The tip-off for denial is perpetual optimism, a pathological certainty that things are going well."

Bush could, of course, know full well that the United States cannot achieve its goals in Iraq. If so, then he is lying not to himself but to us (for reasons scientists would have a field day with, but that's another story). But while it's always risky to psychoanalyze a politician from afar, a few things in his past are consistent with the capacity for denial. When he was 7, his baby sister died of leukemia. Bush, while certainly not denying her death, tried to cheer up his grieving mother, saying everything would be OK. Also, those who abuse alcohol, as Bush has admitted doing, typically need to see the world in black and white in order to stay on the wagon. "It's how they control their addiction," says Sulkowicz. "It reflects an inability or refusal to see shades of gray."

People resort to denial when recognizing that the truth would destroy something they hold dear. In the case of a cheating partner, denial lets you avoid "acknowledging evidence of your own humiliation," says New York psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman. Short of catching a spouse in flagrante delicto, evidence of infidelity is usually ambiguous. "It's motivated skepticism," says psychologist Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine. "You're more skeptical of things you don't want to believe and demand a higher level of proof." Denial is unconscious, or it wouldn't work: if you know you're closing your eyes to the truth, some part of you knows what the truth is and denial can't perform its protective function.

One thing we all struggle to protect is a positive self-image. "The more important the aspect of your self-image that's challenged by the truth, the more likely you are to go into denial," says Ditto. If you have a strong sense of self-worth and competence, your self-image can take hits but remain largely intact; if you're beset by self-doubt, however, any acknowledgment of failure can be devastating and any admission of error painful to the point of being unthinkable. In their new book, "Mistakes Were Made," psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson argue that self-justification and denial arise from the dissonance between believing you're competent, and making a mistake, which clashes with that image. Solution: deny the mistake. Similarly, if a political leader believes himself competent and wise, and a decision has disastrous consequences, the only way to reconcile self-image with failure is to deny the failure. As Tavris and Aronson write, a president who believes "he has the truth becomes impervious to self-correction." He blinds himself to information that might make him doubt his decision. There are exceptions, however. When the Bay of Pigs proved to be a fiasco, JFK said responsibility was "mine and mine alone." No denial there.

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