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NEH Grant Aids Davidson Philosopher's Study of Self-Deception


There are some very good reasons for Professor Al Mele to leave his work at the office. The Davidson College philosophy professor has just received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to study and write about "twisted self deception."

He says it's not the type of research that invites family involvement. "You need a lot of data to do any legitimate analysis of people's actual motivations, and I'm only close enough to my family to get the data I'd need," he explained. "But trying to do that wouldn't make for a very happy life around the house!"

Instead, Mele will investigate the concept from the point of view of language and theory, leaving its application to human services professionals like psychologists and psychiatrists. His work over the past 15 years in weakness of will, motivation, self-deception and intentional action has captured the interest of some psychologists and psychiatrists, who apply it to their case work. Last year he presented an invited talk to a convention of psychiatrists in Manhattan who were considering "Weakness of Will." Two years ago he presented an invited paper on "Addiction and Self-Control" to a multidisciplinary conference on addiction in Oslo, Norway. Likewise, he reads psychology journals to gain insights into his subjects.

Mele is just not interested in case histories. "I like to have a nice rosy view of people, and think it would be depressing to work on real people’s actual problems," he said. "But I get very excited about trying to understand how this stuff works theoretically."

The latest grant, his eighth from the NEH, gives him $4,000 for two months of summer study. The NEH funded just 130 of 1,035 applications from professors around the country. All reviewers who read Mele's proposal gave it the highest possible rating. One stated, "Alfred Mele is doing some of the most important work there is today on irrationality..." and said Mele's proposal was the best he had read. Another called Mele "the leading philosophical theorist of action."

Mele has studied the idea of self deception since 1983. He theorizes that most self deception is based on motivational bias. For example, consider the case in which a man could believe that his son is lying to him, but convinces himself that the son is not. There may be enough evidence of lying that an impartial observer would believe it is happening, yet still the man decides there is no lie. Mele believes the man deceives himself because his desire that his son should tell the truth leads him to misinterpret the facts. This strong motivation can lead the man to be self-deceiving, Mele believes, without the man's explicit intent. "We all have defense mechanisms that helps us believe something even though evidence is contrary," he said.

This earlier work on self deception has now led Mele to consider "twisted self deception," a term he developed. In this case, a man may believe his son is lying even though the evidence of lying is slim. In this case, Mele believes that the man's emotional insecurity leads him to focus attention on the slim evidence of lying, and render it more vivid than it would otherwise be. He will argue in a paper he will write this summer with the NEH grant that in some cases human emotion can lead us to believe something we don't want to believe.

He concludes, "No goal is more central to humanistic inquiry than understanding human beings. Given the centrality of motivation in explaining human behavior, a proper understanding of motivation will promote the achievement of this goal."

Mele plans to convert the NEH-funded essay into a chapter of his next book, which will address fundamental questions in the theory of motivation. He plans to write it during a sabbatical year in 1999-2000, building logically on the work he has developed in previous books. Springs of Action (1992) explains the motivation for intentional action, Irrationality (1987) addresses action exhibiting weakness of will and self-deception, Autonomous Agents (1995) explains the control humans have over their motivation, action, belief and emotion. All of those books were published by Oxford University Press. His latest book is last year's The Philosophy of Action, which he edited as part of Oxford Press's prestigious philosophy series.

In addition to his books, Mele has written scores of articles for professional philosophy, psychology and literary journals. An article he wrote on "Real Self Deception" has been selected to appear soon in the quarterly journal "Behavioral and Brain Sciences." That journal takes the unusual step of simultaneously publishing an author's original paper along with commentaries on it by about 30 peer reviewers, as well as the author's response to those commentaries.

Though he is one of the college's most published writers, Mele carries a regular teaching load and believes students benefit greatly from his professional work in the field. "The more writing and research you do, the more you have to bring to the classroom," he said. "I enjoy seeing students come to understand complicated and important things, and develop an ability for themselves to understand them."

The secret to publishing and teaching at the same time is no secret at all, he said. "The trick is to work seven days a week, ten hours a day, and anyone can have two careers as a researcher and teacher!" he said. In addition to his NEH grants, Mele has received other funding from the Sloan Foundation and Mellon Foundation for development of a general account of how our beliefs, desires and intentions help explain our behavior. He has long felt driven by a desire to understand human behavior, particularly intentional behavior. As an undergraduate at Wayne State University, he tried and rejected psychology as a means toward that end. He found himself drawn toward Aristotle's behavioral theories instead. He switched to the study of philosophy and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1979. He has been teaching at Davidson since that time.


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