Denial: The Fabric of Civilization Itself?
All civilization, an anonymous pessimist once said, is founded on denial, denial, denial. Freud once theorized that people enter a state of denial in defense of their mental health, attempting to avoid things in reality that might damage the fragility of the inner ego. Others theorize that denial is a defense mechanism, allowing a person to avoid having to face some unwanted facet of reality or of their own personalities. Regardless of which theory is correct, it is beyond doubt that everyone is in denial about something and that this denial might actually be an integral component of maintaining stable mental health. However, recent evidence is starting to reveal what some have suspected all along: denial touches on emotional health and relationships too, and not necessarily in a destructive manner either. According to Michael McCullough, a psychologist and author of the upcoming book “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct,” denial is all part of the social game humans play.
The ability to actively and subconsciously ignore the little deceptions and flaws inherent in ourselves and other humans is apparently a core component of our being able to maintain cordial social relationships with other people. Apparently, if people did not go into “denial mode” when faced with something about another person that they are uncomfortable with or don't like, people would effectively and quickly terminate all social contact with that person. The fact that people also appear psychologically wired to do this to themselves and others at all times on a subconscious level serves to enforce just how critical denial is to the mental, emotional, and social framework that people form around themselves. Denial also seems to play an interesting role in a person's moral compass. A recent study was conducted to see just how much dishonesty a person could commit without feeling dishonest about it.
A simple test was given out to students, with some test subjects receiving answer sheets that had the answers partially marked out. The study revealed that the students were generally unaware of how dishonest they actually were, with most of them feeling that they weren't dishonest at all. There were a few, however, that did feel as if they cheated, but only to a certain point. The conclusion that the research them came to was that, for as long as people can find a way to deny that anything wrong is being done or going on, then they can mentally pretend that nothing happened. However, there is also another level of the denial game that people are playing, which is the semi-conscious acknowledgment of it. Essentially, this part can be summed up in the words “I saw that, but I'll let it slide this time.” There are, of course, a variety of possible reasons for someone to do this. For the most part, this ties down to an attempt to preserve a current relationship by avoiding confrontation or conflict, particularly if the relationship in question is already on thin ice. This, like the earlier form, stems from a psychological need to maintain cordial connections with the people around you. Some evolutionary psychologists link this to early human interactions, where people found ways not to hold other people accountable for being unable to render aid.
There is a limit to this sort of thinking, of course, but for as long as the mind can conjure reasonable doubt, then people will conjure reasonable doubt. So, in the end, the aforementioned pessimist may actually be right. All civilization may well be built on denial, denial, denial.