Psychologists have long studied the causes and characteristics of deception. In recent times they have had a huge pool of talented liars from which to draw — bankers, mortgage lenders, Enron executives, borrowers, and of course politicians. Now, researchers have begun to took at the art of self-deception, with some interesting results. Self-deception may be a useful tool in influencing others.
Lying to yourself—or self-deception, as psychologists call it—can actually have benefits. And nearly everybody does it, based on a growing body of research using new experimental techniques.
Self-deception isn’t just lying or faking, but is deeper and more complicated, says Del Paulhus, psychology professor at University of British Columbia and author of a widely used scale to measure self-deceptive tendencies. It involves strong psychological forces that keep us from acknowledging a threatening truth about ourselves, he says.
Believing we are more talented or intelligent than we really are can help us influence and win over others, says Robert Trivers, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University and author of “The Folly of Fools,” a 2011 book on the subject. An executive who talks himself into believing he is a great public speaker may not only feel better as he performs, but increase “how much he fools people, by having a confident style that persuades them that he’s good,” he says.
Researchers haven’t studied large population samples to compare rates of self-deception or compared men and women, but they know based on smaller studies that it is very common. And scientists in many different disciplines are drawn to studying it, says Michael I. Norton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. “It’s also one of the most puzzling things that humans do.”
Researchers disagree over what exactly happens in the brain during self-deception. Social psychologists say people deceive themselves in an unconscious effort to boost self-esteem or feel better. Evolutionary psychologists, who say different parts of the brain can harbor conflicting beliefs at the same time, say self-deception is a way of fooling others to our own advantage.
In some people, the tendency seems to be an inborn personality trait. Others may develop a habit of self-deception as a way of coping with problems and challenges.
Behavioral scientists in recent years have begun using new techniques in the laboratory to predict when and why people are likely to deceive themselves. For example, they may give subjects opportunities to inflate their own attractiveness, skill or intelligence. Then, they manipulate such variables as subjects’ mood, promises of rewards or opportunities to cheat. They measure how the prevalence of self-deception changes.