Sour grapes: The art of self-deception

When I was a child, I liked to leaf through the pages of a collection of Aesop's Fables in my primary school classroom. I enjoyed the pithy stories and the simple line-drawings that accompanied them.

One story I remember well was called The Fox And The Grapes. It went like this.

Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked: "Oh, you aren't even ripe yet! I don't need any sour grapes."

Aesop's fables illustrate moral precepts, and these were generally obvious to me, even as a child. However, in this case, the moral eluded me. I knew that the story was supposed to teach something, but I had no idea what.

Nowadays, a quick search of the Internet is sufficient to determine that the accepted moral of The Fox And The Grapes is that "it is easy to despise what you cannot have".

Instead of admitting his failure to reach the grapes, the fox tells himself that they are not worth having. Similarly, rather than admitting to our disappointments and failures, we will often disparage the things we cannot have, or cannot achieve.


When I was at secondary school, I witnessed a splendid real-life illustration of this idea. A friend of mine plucked up the courage to ask a pretty girl to "go out with" him. When she refused, he reported back to me saying: "I'm not bothered. I didn't really like her anyway!"


We humans will often try to protect ourselves from disappointment by belittling the things we cannot have.

In the same way, we will often try to bolster our self-esteem by sneering at the things we cannot do, or cannot achieve.

In American teen movies and TV-shows, you will often see this idea played out. The "nerds" despise what they see as the brute athleticism of the "jocks", while the jocks despise what they see as the effete intellectualism of the nerds.

In fact, both athleticism and intellectualism are good and desirable traits. But it is sometimes psychologically convenient to pretend that one or other of them is not.

As a rule, we attach far more importance to the things at which we excel than we do to the things at which we suck.


In 2007, psychologists at Yale University conducted an experiment that would have intrigued and delighted Aesop. They tested capuchin monkeys' preferences for differently coloured chocolate sweets.

Initially, the monkeys showed no marked preferences. But after being required to choose between sweets of two different colours, they subsequently demonstrated a marked dis-preference for the colour they had rejected.

For example, a monkey that had initially rejected blue sweets in favour of red, would, from that time on, indicate by its choices that it had devalued blue sweets in its mind.

Having once had to do without blue sweets, the monkey apparently persuaded itself that blue sweets were not so great anyway.


This is all rather light-hearted and amusing. And yet it provokes some serious thought.

We humans like to think of ourselves as thoughtful and rational. But, just like those monkeys, we have an emotional tendency to devalue whatever we have rejected.

Once we have adopted a particular lifestyle, religion or politics, we are strongly motivated to disparage alternative lifestyles, religions or politics.

We persuade ourselves that, since we have rejected them, they must be inferior.

Worth bearing in mind.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2018, with the headline 'Sour grapes: The art of self-deception'. Print Edition | Subscribe