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How and why people do it, and how to minimize it.
Apologies for the late post. Work and the dog are to blame. That’s my story and I refuse to accept evidence to the contrary. But thank you for your patience and for reading my work. Eight months ago only a couple of hundred people viewed my posts. Now, regularly over a thousand read them. I love it! I appreciate your shares and comments. It’s how I know I am not talking to the Internet but to real people. LOL.
We don't like it when someone lies to us, but we do it to ourselves all the time. Self-deception is one of the most puzzling and challenging to correct behaviors because we must not be aware of it ourselves for it to work. It might be why spiritual traditions and cognitive behavioral therapists teach clear seeing and mindfulness. Unfortunately, most use these teachings as armaments against what the world throws at them and rarely to illuminate self-deception.
So, allow me to make you very uncomfortable with this post. Here's why you lie to yourself and how you do it. Prove me wrong! I dare you!
1. Why do we do it
Most of it has to do with lowering cognitive dissonance. Some psychology researchers hypothesize that by preventing ourselves from acknowledging a threatening truth about ourselves, we can maintain self-esteem and remain convincingly confident. Look for the roots of this behavior in evolution. Our survival chances increased the more confident we were and the more we convinced others of our talents and abilities. We could win them over and make them believe in us. But we had to believe it ourselves first.
Also, ignoring shortcomings and inflating self-perceived intelligence and abilities make people feel better about themselves, which could lead to better performance. That's why some deliberately take the "fake it 'till you make it" approach. While some people are born adept at self-deception, others develop the ability over time. No one is ever innocent of it, although the more introspective could detect their self-deception in a "know thyself" kind of way.
According to research headed by behavioral economist Dan Ariely (one of my favorite thinkers out there):
"People often rationalize their questionable behavior to maintain a positive view of themselves. We show that, beyond merely sweeping transgressions under the psychological rug, people can use the positive outcomes resulting from negative behavior to enhance their opinions of themselves—a mistake that can prove costly in the long run,"
A 2010 study showed that children as young as three years old exhibit what's known as "positivity bias," which causes them to overestimate positive traits they possess and inflate favorable judgments of others. About 25% of college-bound adolescents estimate themselves to be in the top 1% in terms of their ability to get along with others. But if you've been to college, you'd know how few actually are.
Social psychologists argue that certificates of recognition, awards for mere participation, and other forms of non-performance-based acknowledgments further inflate recipients' false perceptions of their abilities and merit. It comes to bite them later in their non-performing pants when they face real competition for scholarships, jobs, promotions, and mates.
2. Self-deception strategies
Most of us know denial. We use denial in difficult situations when we fear loss and pain and feel attached to someone or something. Denial gives a false sense of control, buys time, helps avoid confrontations, leads to postponing difficult decisions, and provides excuses. But there are also affective benefits to denial, called "positive illusions" – they help us deal with future uncertainty by giving us hope and keeping us positive. Obviously, hope is different than avoidance leading to jeopardizing the future. So, the cost-benefit analysis of every situation will come out differently. However, rationalizations will complicate it unnecessarily.
Instead of completely denying or ignoring reality, sometimes people reorganize their beliefs. It involves explaining to oneself the inconsistency between beliefs and reality in an exculpatory way. For example, imagine you erroneously believe that you are a better tennis player than your friend. However, your friend beats you repeatedly the day you decide to match. You then reorganize your beliefs by saying that your friend was cheating or drinking energy drinks the entire time, or perhaps, that you had an off day because of stress at work. This preserves your belief in yourself, which will likely prevent you from becoming a better tennis player but will make you feel better about your loss at the moment.
A very common self-deception strategy in the age of Covid, used by people who disagree with public health policies, is to cast doubt on the credibility of the sources. I posted this graph from the CDC on my Facebook page with the following text:
This is why you need to be vaccinated (and boosted). The orange lines represent hospitalized people who are NOT vaccinated
Reduction of hospitalizations for vaccination and a booster vs unvaccinated, US data sources, Omicron
Age 65+ 98%,
Age 50-64 97%,
All ages,18+ 96%
And I got this reply from someone:
From the Center for vaccine resources.....hmmm......I am sure it must be reliable?!?!?! They would never lie right?
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words unless it does not match someone's beliefs and contradicts their self-deception strategies.
People use selective attention and selective exposure to avoid exposing themselves to uncomfortable truths about themselves. They avoid places and persons that can bring problematic facts to their attention. Suppose you think of yourself as honorable and keeping your promises but you owe someone money you haven't returned longer than initially agreed. In that case, you will go out of your way to avoid seeing or talking to that person.
Confirmation bias keeps people from seeking or accepting information conflicting with their beliefs, potentially contradicting their decisions' rightfulness. Instead, they seek that which confirms them. It's how people end up in echo chambers and cults.
Frequently people extrapolate from ambiguity and do so in a way that matches their predisposition and self-view. That which may be a gentle criticism could be interpreted instead as favorable attention and vice versa.
By definition, defensiveness serves to preserve congruency. No one ever feels the need to defend themselves if what they hear about themselves matches their beliefs. If a person believes to be responsible and someone questions their irresponsible behavior, they become defensive.
3. A philosophical look at self-deception
Clearly, self-deception has personal costs and benefits. But what happens when we consider the collective experience. Some interesting questions arise. Is there anything morally problematic with self-deception? Can a person be held morally liable for deceiving themselves the way they are when deceiving others, and if so, under what conditions? It matters because actions taken as the result of self-deception have real-life consequences that often affect others, as is the case of people who refuse Covid vaccines. Are there mitigating factors to absolve one's actions resulting from self-deceit?
In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, you can read and contemplate the philosophy of Self-Deception. But, for now, this quote will suffice:
To be ignorant of one's moral self, as Socrates saw, may represent a great obstacle to a life well lived whether or not one is at fault for such ignorance.
4. What can you do about minimizing self-deception
Probably, the first thing to do is understand your personality traits and defense mechanisms. From a psychological perspective, there are two major self-favoring tendencies – "egotistical" and "moralistic," which can be traced to two fundamental values – agency and communion. Meaning people are motivated to self-deceive either from an egotistical perspective because they value more their personal agency (personal power and independence), or from a moralistic perspective because they value more their place in the community (interdependence, seeking approval).
If you are of the first type, you tend to exaggerate your accomplishments, status, and intellectual abilities. You overestimate your creativity, dominance, fearlessness, and emotional stability, and you may even see yourself as a savior, a hero, someone indispensably important. If it sounds narcissistic, it's because it could be when the tendencies push the boundary of "normal."
If you are of the second type, you tend to exaggerate your agreeableness, dutifulness, dependability, purity, altruism, and moral standing, overlooking your ethical transgressions. If it sounds saint-like, that's because it could be when the tendencies push the "normal" boundary. We find "victims" and "martyrs" in this group.
The second thing to do is to learn mindfulness. Mindfulness will help you catch yourself in incongruent moments. It will be uncomfortable, so you better learn to be OK with uncomfortable. Just get over it. Everything is uncomfortable at first. Like new shoes, you have to break them in. Uncomfortable is not bad. It's just uncomfortable. It's an indication that something is happening. The ground is shifting. Your perspective is changing. You are outgrowing your old self.
If mindfulness doesn't come through for you, your friends and co-workers will. They will tell you who you are. All you need to do is listen. They will make fun of your hypocrisies and write your work evaluations. Notice your defensiveness and if you are using one of the strategies above to make yourself feel better. If so, consider revising your beliefs about yourself. This will also feel uncomfortable. Get over it. But I said that already.
Take this test online by Del Paulhus, University of British Columbia. It won't sell you anything. It's from the school's research project. It will tell you how to score it but the instructions may look confusing. So, here's a simpler version of it.
On a scale of 1—2—3—4—5—6--7, answer the following questions.
1 = not true, 4= somewhat true, 7=100% true
Except where it says “reverse scale,” then 1=100% true, 4=somewhat, 7=not true.
1. I sometimes feel irritated when I don't get my own way. (Reverse Scale)
2. I could never enjoy being cruel.
3. Seeing an attractive person of the opposite sex makes me think about sex. (Reverse Scale)
4. I have never felt joy over someone else's failure.
5. I have gotten so angry at a friend that I felt like hitting him(her). (Reverse Scale)
6. I have never felt like I wanted to kill someone.
7. There have been occasions when I was mean to someone unimportant. (Reverse Scale)
8. I never enjoy watching sexy scenes in movies.
9. I enjoy it when obnoxious people get put down. (Reverse Scale)
10. I rarely have sexual fantasies.
11. Once in a while I think of things too bad to talk about. (Reverse Scale)
12. I have never wanted to rape or be raped by someone.
13. More than once it felt good when I heard on the news that someone had been killed. (Reverse Scale)
14. I can't think of anyone I hate deeply.
15. There have been occasions when I felt like smashing things. (Reverse Scale)
16. Few of the things I do are simply for my own gain.
17. I must admit that revenge can be sweet. (Reverse Scale)
18. I never get jealous over the good fortune of others.
19. There have been times when I felt like rebelling against authorities, even though I knew they were right. (Reverse Scale)
20. I have never done anything that I'm ashamed of.
Score it: Assign 1 point to all of the questions you answered with 6 or 7. Assign 0 to the rest of the questions. Your answer is between 0 – 20. The higher the number, the more you self-deceive.
A couple of weeks ago I read and bookmarked a post about MLK by Asha Sanaker, intending to share it because it made me think. In her Dangerous Unselfishness, she says:
It was Dr. King's unselfishness, his insistence upon focusing his words and his life on uplifting the plight of all oppressed people, on calling for this country to seek, finally, to fully integrate the promises of our founding documents into the daily lives of all of our citizens, on standing in solidarity with the victims of imperialism around the globe, that made him truly dangerous.
It made me wonder if most of us have become dangerously selfish and disconnected from the larger reality of life. Most of us live very comfortable lives. Perhaps, there's too much to lose.
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Thanks for reading. Share your thoughts in the comments. This was a long one, but important!