The Role of the Unconscious in Skeptical and Paranormal Beliefs
The unconscious is basically the foundation of Psychology, which is due in large part to Sigmund Freud. Sigmund Freud is synonymous with psychology. Every introduction to Psychology book must present him and his ideas as they were extremely important in the birth of psychology as a science. Freud’s theories are both complex and extensive, however, his fundamental idea, to which all others extended, was that of the unconscious.
Freud’s view is that the human mind has three levels. The first level is the conscious, which is small and contains thoughts and perceptions we are aware of at this moment. The second level is the pre-conscious, which contains memory and stored knowledge. The third level is the unconscious, which contains fears, violent motives, unacceptable sexual desires, irrational wishes, immoral urges, selfish needs, and shameful experiences. The trouble with the unconscious is that it cannot be studied to the extent that is necessary to either prove or deny its existence or purpose. Freud is by no means the creator nor is he the first to study the unconscious, however, if one reads every piece of information regarding different views or perceptions of the unconscious there does exist some overlap. The unconscious can simply be put in terms of processes that occur that are outside the immediate realm of awareness, which effect thoughts, behaviors, emotions and perceptions of an individual leading to self-deception. One cannot deny that there are processes that occur in the mind that we are not aware, however, definite answers as to what propels these processes may never be known. While it is helpful to understand Freud’s views on the unconscious the important concept to grasp is what is meant be the term “unconscious”.
The unconscious is a complex process which rises questions such as; How can I have thoughts or “things” happening in my head that I'm unaware of and have no control over? Why in the world would I want to deceive myself? What are the benefits to self-deception?
Self-deception is the process of deceiving oneself into believing that a false or unfounded feeling, idea, or situation is true. In my discussions with skeptics they will often state that paranormal believers are “good people but they are deceiving themselves.” This may seem like a condescending statement, however, let’s look a little further at the causes to self-deception keeping in mind that skeptics are guilty of it as well. In regards to self-deception one philosopher states “It is difficult to understand how an individual cannot know or disbelieve something that they already know to be true”.1
Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre were both early philosophers who believed that the reason we deceive ourselves or disavow certain behaviors is because they do not fit into our chosen way of being in the world.2 Material is not buried, rather we choose not to look at aspects of ourselves that do not fit into our self-concept. Sartre developed “bad faith”, which can be described as an individual hiding behind identities that they create for themselves.3
Freud’s unconscious is essentially the ultimate self-deception. By this I mean that if the unconscious is true, every action we make is driven by unconscious motivation, therefore we never know the true motivation of any action or decision. A great example of self-deception in Freud’s unconscious theories takes place when we use defense mechanisms to restore balance. These operations operate unconsciously and their purpose is to distort, transform, or falsify reality in some way in an effort to decrease anxiety.
In psychology defense mechanisms are very popular coping strategies for individuals. Defense mechanisms sole purpose is to deceive the individual in order to decrease internal conflicts. Examples of self-deception in the form of defense mechanisms include denial, displacement, intellectualization, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, sublimation, and suppression.4 Rationalization is utilizing logical or rational reason as opposed to owning up to reality. An example would be a man who was just fired from his job and proceeds to blame his dismissal on his boss’s personality rather than his poor performance. In this case the truth that he is a poor worker is too difficult to handle so it is twisted to avoid internal conflict. The worker in a way convinces himself that his termination had nothing to do with his personality or work performance, but rather that his boss was incompetent, jealous, or crazy. Intellectualization involves separating oneself from emotional content by focusing on intellectual aspects. A daughter might focus on the details of the funeral for her mother rather than process sadness and grief. It is too psychologically damaging for the woman to face the emotions of her mother’s death so she becomes engrossed in something else to ease psychic conflict. Men are notorious for this coping mechanism.
The primary example of self-deception in Carl Jung’s unconscious is the persona. Carl Jung is another prominent psychoanalyst and colleague of Freud. The persona is basically the mask we wear to make an impression on others and conceal the true nature of ourselves.5 Jung professed that whatever one expresses outwardly he is in turn the opposite internally, so the ideal picture of a man outwardly, is internally compensated by feminine weakness. If one plays the role of a strong man, he inwardly becomes a woman, is called anima.6 The anima is unconscious and because the individual is less capable of realizing his weaknesses he identifies more with the persona. One can build up this persona to the point where they actually believe that they are what they pretend to be.7 So why is this a bad thing? If an individual wants to be something and deceives himself into believing he is that something, who gets harmed? Well, according to Jung, the individual gets harmed as unconscious reactions develop including phobias, irritability, addictions, and vices.8
Another form of self-deception involves the archetype of the shadow. The shadow is, in essence, all the nasty stuff about oneself that they wish to deny or hide. The shadow like all other archetypes is unconscious and to become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of one’s real personality, which Jung believed most individuals are comfortable not knowing.9 The shadow is unique because while we deny the negatives in ourselves, these negatives are projected onto others.10 Projection places onto other people parts of our self that we reject or deny. For instance, if I notice qualities or characteristics in somebody else that just annoy, anger, and frustrate the hell out of me, chances are those qualities, in the other person, make up my shadow.
When looking at how self-deception and the unconscious relate it is easy to see some similarities between the views. It seems that we can all agree that humans have the ability to incorporate strategies that help them maintain balance, stability, and psychological well-being; however, the differences come when discussing the processes that are utilized in performing these strategies. Take a moment to think about how the unconscious and self-deception relate to paranormal beliefs. We may unconsciously view events in a certain why to ease our internal emotional conflict. The reason I included such an in-depth analysis of the unconscious and self-deceptions it to make the reader aware that these types of internal processes are constantly occurring in every human.
We must be as honest with ourselves as possible and this includes believers and skeptics alike. I will at times browse paranormal and skeptic message boards, forums, and Facebook discussions. I’m amazed at how cruel and dismissive some skeptics can be towards those who believe in the paranormal. My training in psychology often gets the better of me and I start asking myself; Why are they so intent on trying to make others feel inferior or stupid? What motivates them to spend such a significant amount of time arguing with those who are steadfast believers in the paranormal? It’s similar to arguing with a football fan wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey in an effort to convince him to be a Cleveland Browns fan. I often believe that certain skeptics’ actions are based in some unconscious process, some type of defense mechanism, or perhaps they are overcompensating, displaying a persona, or attempting to hide their shadow. The unconscious has always fascinated me and in all honesty is what led me into my psychological studies. I encourage the reader to read more into the unconscious not only in regards to psychology but in philosophy as well.
1. Higgins, M.H. (1996). Bad Faith and Kitsch as Models for Self-Deception. In Ames, R.T. & Dissanayake,
W., Self and Deception: A Cross-Cultural Philosophical Enquiry. State University of New York Press.
Albany, pg. 123
2. Butt, T (2004). Understanding People. Palgrave McMillian. Houndmills, Basingstoke
4. Defence Mechanisms (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 2, 2011 from
5. Storr, A. (1983). The Essential Jung. Princeton University Press. New Jersey
10. Moreno, A. (1974). Jung, Gods, and Modern Man. Sheldon Press. London