The NY Times ran an interesting article about the psychological mechanism of denial. Denial is often spoken of as if it is a maladaptive reaction, but if denial is purely maladaptive, we are at a loss to explain why it is such a robust phenomenon and why the capacity evolved in the first place.
In this article, denial is discussed as a capacity that evolved because of its social utility.
In the modern vernacular, to say someone is “in denial” is to deliver a savage combination punch: one shot to the belly for the cheating or drinking or bad behavior, and another slap to the head for the cowardly self-deception of pretending it’s not a problem.
Yet recent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness.
In this emerging view, social scientists see denial on a broader spectrum — from benign inattention to passive acknowledgment to full-blown, willful blindness — on the part of couples, social groups and organizations, as well as individuals. Seeing denial in this way, some scientists argue, helps clarify when it is wise to manage a difficult person or personal situation, and when it threatens to become a kind of infectious silent trance that can make hypocrites of otherwise forthright people.
“The closer you look, the more clearly you see that denial is part of the uneasy bargain we strike to be social creatures,” said Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami and the author of the coming book “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.” “We really do want to be moral people, but the fact is that we cut corners to get individual advantage, and we rely on the room that denial gives us to get by, to wiggle out of speeding tickets, and to forgive others for doing the same.”
The capacity for denial appears to have evolved in part to offset early humans’ hypersensitivity to violations of trust. In small kin groups, identifying liars and two-faced cheats was a matter of survival. A few bad rumors could mean a loss of status or even expulsion from the group, a death sentence. Read More