Piercing the Veil: The Arbinger Institute on Self-Deception and Natural Goodness

Having come to the stretch of research for my book where I will primarily be reading business and self-help books, I picked up Leadership and Self-Deception, a book that my boss has been recommending to me practically since I started reporting to him. This was not meant to imply I needed it more than most; he recommends it to everyone. The first thing I noticed was the unusual byline—the author was not a person but an organization: The Arbinger Institute. The book itself was also not what I expected—it was written as a narrative, rather than a straightforward exposition. Between the format and the brevity of the book, I finished it in a couple of days and immediately picked up their other book, The Anatomy of Peace.

I enjoyed both books, and think nearly anyone could find something of value in either one. But given my reasons for reading the books in the first place, I couldn’t help but attempt to force their framework into mine. But of course, that’s no way to do a proper synthesis! First, you have to understand a framework on its own terms.

So I will attempt an honest, if brief and therefore incomplete, critical assessment here.


Self-Deception, Self-Betrayal, and Seeing People as People

The difference between the two books is not one of theory but of focus. If you’re primarily interested in how Arbinger’s philosophy can help you develop a company culture that is both effective and humane, you probably want to read Leadership and Self-Deception. If you’re more interested in the broadest possible applications of the philosophy, including to your life as a whole, then The Anatomy of Peace is your best bet. Both can serve either purpose, they are simply tailored differently.

The framework that runs across the books, and in the Arbinger Institute’s consulting work in organizational culture and conflict resolution, is consistent. People are steeped in self-deception, and this self-deception invites self-deception in the people around them and frustrates them in their goals. In Leadership and Self-Deception, the state of self-deception is called being “in the box”. In The Anatomy of Peace, they work up to that phrase but speak primarily of having your “heart at peace” rather than “at war”.

The process of getting into the box is quite straightforward. You see another person and perceive some way you can help them. Only you decide not to. In deciding not to, you do not merely do nothing and feel bad about it. You actively begin rationalizing the choice. In Anatomy, they use a metaphor from carpentry—when something is crooked it must be “justified”; that is, made straight.

The choosing not to honor the desire to help the person in question is what they call an act of self-betrayal, and this act makes us crooked. As such, we immediately begin seeking justifications. The justifications take two basic approaches—making ourselves feel bigger and more than we are, and diminishing the person we had the instinct to help. “I’m a busy, important person, and I don’t have time for this kind of trivial thing,” would be an example of the former. In each book they mention a high-powered career husband who uses this justification to avoid doing the dishes, mentally denigrating his wife because he comes home after working long hours only to be made to feel like he should do more, when she is “just a housewife.”

Moreover, we begin to feel resentful of the person we originally had the instinct to help, among other negative emotions. After we enter this state, it can persist, becoming a sort of mythology we build around ourselves and our relationship to this person, and even, as seen in Anatomy, the whole category of people to which they belong. This state is “being in the box”; where the box is the wall of justifications and negative emotions we carry with us whenever in certain situations with certain people.

Moreover, this has major implications beyond how we are feeling or what actions we take outwardly. When you’re “in the box” or your “heart is at war”, other people can tell, and their first instinct is to react in kind. In other words, when we betray ourselves and become warped, we invite the people we interact with to warp themselves as well. In both books this vicious cycle is called collusion because it becomes a sort of self-perpetuating mutual dysfunction.

The great strength of both books is how rich they are in stories, provided as examples. One story that sticks out in my mind is the relationship between a mother and a son, told by the former. She talks about how her son always stays out later than he’s supposed to, and she always nags him about it, and this just kind of keeps happening. Then she recounts one incident where he wanted to borrow their car, and she said he could do it on the condition that he came back by 10:30, assuming that was too early for him. But he immediately says yes, and she spends the rest of the evening stewing over how she is sure that he is going to be late. She sits, waiting for it to be 10:30, getting more and more angry about it.

But when he arrives at 10:29, she finds herself feeling disappointed. After wasting all that time feeling angry, she wants to feel justified about it. So instead of rewarding him for keeping his promise, she says “cutting it a little close?” in a snippy way. From his point of view, now, he’s justified in always coming home late because even when he comes on time she treats him the same way. From her point of view, the fact that he almost never comes on time regularly justifies her attitude. This is what Arbinger means by collusion—they get stuck in a particular relationship to one another and are more motivated to seek justification than to break the cycle. And they continually encourage the very behavior in each other that they wish would end.

The solution is embedded in the framing of the problem—we enter into self-deception when we betray ourselves and justify this betrayal in ways that make us see others as objects. The answer, then, is to honor our initial desires to help one another, and to see one another as full human beings struggling with needs, challenges, and desires just like us. Obviously it’s easier to say than it is to do, and I will have to point you to the books for their many, many examples of how this works in practice.

But the central story is this: we often create caricatures of the people around us for selfish but ultimately self-destructive reasons. With the courage to see people as they really are, and act on our generous impulses when we can, we can have more fulfilling and peaceful lives at home, at work, and even on the global stage of diplomacy and war.


Seeing People As They Are—Which is What?

At the heart of this new optimistic view of the possibility of knowledge lies the doctrine that truth is manifest. Truth may perhaps be veiled. But it may reveal itself. And if it does not reveal itself, it may be revealed by us. Removing the veil may not be easy. But once the naked truth stands revealed before our eyes, we have the power to see it, to distinguish it from falsehood, and to know that it is truth.

(…)Man can know: thus he can be free. This is the formula which explains the link between epistemological optimism and the ideas of liberalism.

-Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations

The big epistemological assumption underlying everything the Arbinger Institute does is that we can see people for who they really are. The reason it is called self-deception is because we are deceived; we are not seeing reality as it is. They do not shy away from this assumption; they state it quite plainly and repeat it frequently in both books. Whether or not you agree with the particular stages by which we enter self-deception, it’s all rather moot if there isn’t any payoff to overcoming it.

The books do not draw its arguments and evidence from metaphysics, scientific studies, or big-T Theories. The fact of prior research is mentioned several times and Arbinger’s history page claims that founder C. Terry Warner led “a team of scholars” in the 70s who conducted research on the matter. I am sure if I dug deeper into his and their corpus I could find more substantial stuff, but these two books are how they present their ideas to the world. So with the caveat that Warner and his institute may have more going on than there is in the two books, I’m going to focus on the framework as it appears in those books and in this short paper.

The framework is very thin on theory. There is a theory, and several core concepts, but it’s remarkably simple. The primary method of defending the theory is, as I said above, not through citations or drawing on a grand theory of human nature, but through casuistry. That is, through a pile of individual stories that are taken to be representative. Every objection in each book—and Anatomy in particular clearly draws on the objections that Leadership faced after its publication—is met with not one, but many little stories of interactions between people. There are also several visuals; simple charts and squares (“the box” comes from a four-square diagram used to illustrate the justifications and attitudes we carry around after betraying ourselves) in the style of a training session at a business.

This brings me to my core objection to the framework, and one which I believe it does not have the resources to respond to: everything we know about cognitive science tells us that the idea that we can pierce the veil between us an unblemished reality is simply false. Truth is not manifest. All of our perceptions are in some sense constructed; from our eyesight which is a model projected by our brain that can be manipulated in predictable ways, to our memories, to the rhetorical-ethical frameworks through which we interpret the world. Scientists, for instance, do not simply peer at reality dispassionately. They are selective in what they choose to observe and consider significant, and this selectiveness is informed by their beliefs about what has been established as more-or-less given by other people in their field, most of whom they have not met or are dead, and whose results were only replicated (when, in the best of times, they are in fact replicated at all) by a subset of the community.

Even the much more limited case of simply understanding the situation you are presently in, social psychology has demonstrated that how we construe a situation is as much about psychology as it is about perception.

I would be interested to see how they would respond to this line of criticism; as far as I can tell they haven’t yet defended their framework against it.


Virtue as Alternative but Close Cousin

It should come as no surprise that I see virtue ethics, in tandem with cognitive science, as able to provide a fuller account than the Arbinger Institute’s. However, I think the insights from both books are valuable, and can be comfortably absorbed into a virtue ethical framework.

“Self-deception” and the Arbinger’s story of how it develops is a wonderful shorthand for how our numerous cognitive biases nurture the vice of pride, and how that vice, if unchecked, comes to poison our relationships and our lives.

I have already said that I don’t think staring upon unblemished truth is an answer or even an option. But I do think that the virtue of charity can play that role in Arbinger’s framework just as ably. Especially that aspect of charity that is loving your neighbor as you love yourself; Leadership and Anatomy are both a call to see others as full human beings with “comparable hopes, needs, cares, and fears” to our own. That is the virtue of charity, to a T. That, and (as with all virtues) acting upon that notion—helping out people when you see them in need.

Living in New York City makes it very easy to think about this. Most of the time New Yorkers treat most other New Yorkers as objects—mostly physical impediments to getting somewhere, sometimes something worse. It’s not a regular occurrence, but also not rare for people to get into shouting matches on the subway because of perceived slights or perceived inconsiderateness. People don’t like being treated like objects, but their response is to treat others that way. On the other hand, it is very common that when someone looks lost, people will go out of their way to ask if they need help. And when someone falls down, half of the subway car will jump up to make sure they’re OK and offer their seat. And when someone who is elderly or pregnant gets on the train, they very frequently get offered a seat even when it’s crowded. When confronted by other people’s vulnerability, it is much easier for us to be charitable. Arbinger is asking us to be charitable even when it isn’t easy; that we owe it to one another to work as hard as we can to avoid seeing each other as objects, under any circumstances.

The books also ask us to have the courage to admit that we have accepted a construal of the situation that is psychologically self-serving but morally distorting. And, beyond that, to find the courage to act on this knowledge—to own up to these past mistakes to those we have harmed, to be vulnerable and ask the forgiveness of those we may have been harsh and unforgiving of ourselves.

And of course, they are asking for our faith. Faith that we can have the wisdom to see what we should do as we live our lives, faith that that will resonate with the people around us as Arbinger’s stories have resonated with us. Faith that we know what we owe, so that we can be just, that we can have the discipline to see this moral vision through most of the time, faith that we can be both forgiving and forgiven. Faith that we will work better together if we can do so with humility. Faith that other people are worth giving the benefit of the doubt in the first place. Faith in our natural goodness, and the natural goodness of most other people when helped out of their own cycles of self-deception.

I won’t go through and list how all of the virtues are applicable here (after all, they always are) but you get the idea. The basic insights of the Arbinger Institute’s books are valuable and basically correct, but they make more sense in a cognitively informed virtue ethical framework than in their simple, truth-is-manifest, pierce-the-veil framework.



Let me conclude by just saying that I am a big fan of these two books, and how they present their ideas. It was a surprise to discover that Leadership and Self-Deception is a narrative rather than an exposition, but a pleasant surprise. More philosophers and scholars should take a crack at presenting their ideas in fiction, even if it takes collaborating with someone who is a better writer than they are. This is part of what makes Russ Roberts, for instance, so admirable. He has not one but three novels dedicated to making the core insights of economics accessible.

I recommend either or both of these books to anyone thinking seriously about bettering themselves at work or anywhere else. They’re wonderful and inspiring, not to mention useful. Moreover, they are very short, so it is not a big time commitment to take them on. You could do worse than reading one of these books, or both.


7 thoughts on “Piercing the Veil: The Arbinger Institute on Self-Deception and Natural Goodness

  1. Dean Smith

    I’m reading this book now and was curious about its intellectual basis. It resonates intuitively, but that doesn’t mean it works. This article was very helpful to me in evaluating the material.

  2. Allen Sheldon

    That was a very interesting critic of the books. I just finished reading “The Anatomy of Peace” and found it very engaging. I had a vague feeling of suspicion about the the concepts as they were presented. They seem too easy at times when I consider my past and current work and social environment. Of course, it is very easy to remember all the times when one has “extended the olive branch” only to have it ignored or slapped away.
    I think you have very aptly put those doubts into words in a way that can be reasonably considered – “Truth is not manifest. All of our perceptions are in some sense constructed.”
    Thanks for your commentary.

  3. Thanks for a fascinating review. Since you seem interested in the philosophical underpinnings of Warner’s work I thought I’d refer you to his newly published book “Self-Betrayal and the Crisis of Self-Misunderstanding”(2019). It is a rigorous work of philosophy(mixed with characteristic vignettes) that lays out the deep implications of his work. It addresses your critique about being able to see people as they really are head on(mostly with reference to Levinas as far as I can tell). I highly recommend it.

  4. Steve H

    I find your critique interesting but misplaced, and your validation of these books insightful if unnecessary.

    As to the critique, you assume that a book intended to help people see their own problems and fix them needs to provide a solid philosophical (metaphysicial) basis in order to be valid. But this is nor written to a uniquely scholarly audience; it is a popular book intended for business people and others living their undoubtedly unphilosophical (in a scholarly sense, that is) lives. Although I minored in philosophy many years ago, I have spent 40 plus years (as opposed to the 7 years spent in a university setting) dealing with people with very practical and personal problems in decidedly non-academic settings. And while I enjoyed the university, I much prefer real life. And there is a difference. The Arbinger Institute is addressing people in real life, and so the failure to provide a sound metaphysical framework for its insights is no fault. It is simply irrelevant to its purpose.

    As to your validation, I agree. These are superb books, and their foundation is unexplicitly but also unquestionably based on moral (or virtue-based) values. I long ago concluded, after reading both books over a decade or so ago, that the authors purposefully constructed an amoral context for explaining their ideas, despite the moral basis it stands on, in order to help those who are culturally put off by traditional morality to understand, accept, and be willing to apply the recommendations provided.

    With no intent of denigrating these books, they are at their core self-help books and neither philosophical nor religious tracts. As such, they are both marvelous and highly effective.

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