Keeping you in the dark: The psychology of self-deception

Have you ever told yourself you are better than others just to feel more confident? Or convinced yourself that you’d work harder even though you know you won’t? Most of us have lied to ourselves at some point in our lives. Most forms of psychotherapy seek to decrease self-deception so that clients are well adjusted, have valid information of themselves, and are in touch with reality. Influential psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Aaron Beck and others have emphasized the importance of realistic views about the self. So why do we keep ourselves in the dark? Research has focused on the various ill effects of self-deception. For example, the planning fallacy, which refers to our tendency to underestimate the time taken to complete a task (Buehler, Griffin, & Ross, 1994) could lead to procrastination, thereby, resulting in stress and poor quality work (Tice & Baumeister, 1997)

Even though we know self-deception is harmful, we continue to do it. This concurs with a contrasting view that self-deception is an important defence mechanism that protects us from threatening information or circumstances (Trivers, 2010). Researchers have found that people who have positive illusions about themselves are less likely to be depressed and have positive self-esteem (Taylor & Brown, 1988). Evolutionary psychologists propose that humans are good at deceiving themselves and that self-deception is adaptive. 

Self-deception has been regarded as an unconscious process because, it would be almost impossible for the self to be a deceiver if it consciously knows that it is being deceived (von Hippel & Trivers, 2011). Trivers (2010, p. 373) has defined self-deception as “hiding true information from the conscious mind in the unconscious.” If self-deception involves hiding facts, then how do researchers study this phenomenon? Further, how is self-deception detected? Some indicators include nervousness, and control, rather over-control, of the face, and body muscles (DePaulo et al. 2003). Self-deception can also be checked using questionnaires, like the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR) developed by Paulhus (1988). Here, items represent exaggerated positive characteristics about the self. For instance, one such item is “I never lie.” The higher individuals rate the item as personally relevant, the more likely they are to be representing a favourable image of themselves to others. After all, although everyone lies, lying itself is negative.

Even though normal individuals engage in self-deception, it has also been associated with psychopathology and neuropsychological disorders. One such neurological disorder, known as Anosognosia (Babinski, 1914) is a self-deceptive disorder where patients have physical injuries but deny them (Bayne & Fernandez, 2010). Ramachandran (2009) described an anosognistic patient who denied that her left arm was paralyzed and believed that her lifeless arm belonged to her father who was “hiding under the table.”

I remember telling myself that I would stop eating junk food. I wrote it in my diary and told my closest friends so that I would be committed to my resolution. Unfortunately, I cannot say that my diet has been very healthy. I remember how I always had some self-validated reason for eating junk, or would trivialize how much I actually ate. Deceiving myself let me do what I wanted without feeling guilty about it. Self-deception is an important coping mechanism to the extent that it does not always result in extreme distortions of reality. Given that about 40% and above individuals engage in self-deception (Svenson, 1981; Baumeister, 2010), we are faced with the glaring truth of how we lie to ourselves about lying to ourselves!

    Sharlene Fernandes