It is well established that all of us, humans, are excellent liars. For example, we tell ourselves that we are smarter and better looking than our friends. We claim that the group with which we strongly associate can do no wrong. We refuse to extend a helping hand to a colleague in need pretending that we are too busy. We can go on.
We need to appreciate, however, that lying has all kinds of everyday applications with varying degrees of acceptability. We do not hesitate to go out of our way to ensure that we do not hurt somebody’s feelings, as for example, by saying that their baby is adorable, even if we think the opposite. We want our dinner hosts to feel good by telling them how much we enjoyed the meal, even when the food tasted awful. If we come across the family we know is dysfunctional, we pretend we are not aware of any problems in the family.
We can see that lying always involves a mostly unconscious cost-benefit analysis, and this is perhaps how lying actually evolved. We know young children lie all the time. They have no problem lying. They are quick to realize that if they say, “I ate a cookie before dinner,” or “I broke the window,” they are going to be in trouble. In a study observing behavior of children, it was found that four-year-olds lied roughly once every two hours, and six-year-olds once every ninety minutes.
According to another study most people lied at least twice a day and deceived others on an average about thirty times per week. The same study found that college students lie to their mothers in fifty percent of their conversations, and dating couples lie about themselves thirty three percent of the time.
Interestingly, we don’t like to think of ourselves as capable of lying as it hurts our ego and so we lie about that too.
Cortney S Warren, author of the book ‘Lies We Tell Ourselves’, laments that as a clinical psychologist, he is consistently faced with the harsh reality that humans lie to themselves on a daily basis. We deceive ourselves about everything from tiny, seemingly insignificant aspects of our lives to our most influential life choices.
Although self-deception is a complicated construct, we lie to ourselves at the most basic level by not admitting something that is true or by believing in something that is false.
Warren attributes this tendency to lack of psychological strength in us to admit the truth and to change our position once the truth is acknowledged. More importantly, self-deception helps us to avoid confronting painful life realities.
One of the most common types of self-deception is self-enhancement. Psychologists have traditionally argued that we have evolved over the years to overestimate our good qualities because it makes us feel good. Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at Berkeley, also showed that overconfident people are looked at by everyone as more competent and therefore appear to enjoy higher social status. One research finding goes on to suggest that people may not always reward the more accomplished individuals but will prefer to reward the more overconfident people. The risk we face is that if overconfident individuals are more likely to be risk-prone then by promoting them we may be creating institutions, including banks and armies, which are more vulnerable to risk.
One silver lining in this otherwise hopeless situation is that extended interaction may diminish or eliminate a self-deceived individual’s ability to deceive another individual. This is because deception only works as long as the deceived individual has incomplete information about the deceiver. Extended interactions over a period of time is likely to provide the deceived individual ability to assess the deceiver’s true abilities.
Interestingly, while some people have this self-deception tendency as an inborn personality trait, others may develop the habit as a way of coping with their problems and challenges.
The unfortunate consequence of self-deception is profound discontent because lying to ourselves will thwart our ability to live the life that would be most fulfilling for each one of us.
From an existential and philosophical perspective, self-deception can be understood as a desire to avoid the “Givens of Life” which are the four basic realities of being human that we must face over the course of our lifetimes.
- Death: We and everyone we love will die one day.
- Ultimate aloneness: We are all born and will die as single persons housed in a solitary physical body.
- Meaninglessness: Our lives are inherently meaningless unless we give them meaning because none of us are that important, special, or unique in the grand scope of human history.
- Freedom: We are responsible for every aspect of ourselves because we have the freedom of choice.
To avoid the discomfort of accepting these realities, we frequently lie to ourselves.
For instance, you may deny your mortality and the mortality of those you love by refusing to write a will, skipping your medical checkups, or avoiding discussions about the poor health of family and friends.
Another reason for self-deception is cognitive dissonance.
Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, is responsible for the development of the “Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” which is the idea that we find it hard to hold two contradictory beliefs, so we unconsciously adjust one to make it fit with the other.
People quickly adjust their values to fit their behavior, even when it is clearly immoral. Those stealing from their employer will claim that “Everyone does it” so they would be losing out if they didn’t, or alternatively that “I’m underpaid so I deserve a little extra on the side.”
I’m sure you can think of a number of situations in which people resolve cognitive dissonance through rationalizations. The son who justifies not visiting his parent in a nursing home because of lack of time. The father who justifies abandoning his family because they are better off without him. The criminal who justifies his crimes because of environmental factors. The person who gets fired because the boss hates outspoken people. The self-made billionaire who shies away from people in his past because all they want is his money. The list goes on.
In an interesting study of resolving cognitive dissonance, students found a boring task more interesting when they were paid very small amounts of money to take part. Their unconscious thinking resolved the cognitive dissonance of working on a boring task for a pittance. The thinking ran like this: If I did not do it for money, then I must have done it because the task must be interesting. Thus, a boring task became more interesting as otherwise the behavior cannot be explained.
The reason why cognitive dissonance is unsettling is that our minds are performing these sorts of rationalizations all the time, without our conscious knowledge.
Being aware of this can help us avoid falling foul of the most dangerous consequences of cognitive dissonance: Believing our own lies.
Another interesting aspect of lying is projection, which involves taking an undesirable aspect of our behavior and ascribing it to someone else. In other words, instead of admitting something that we don’t like about our own behavior, we see the same flaw in someone else. Projection makes us look highly hypocritical in the eyes of others. For example, you may accuse someone of being a gossip instead of admitting that you are the one gossiping. You may claim that someone is a racist when in practice you look at every one with colored glasses. You point out these behaviors in other persons to basically cover up the fact that you are uncomfortable with you own behavior.
Given the unconscious nature of self-deception, becoming honest is incredibly challenging. However, confronting your self-deception is critical to long-term life fulfillment and happiness.
Becoming more honest is a lifelong journey. It takes daily practice and effort because most of the time we are completely unaware of the rampant lying going on in our own minds. However, we cannot be honest with others until we are first honest with ourselves. Although we can’t directly ask ourselves how we lie, we can learn about who we really are by consciously observing ourselves, paying particular attention to and when required questioning our emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and culturally internalized beliefs.
Really understanding who we are requires brutal honesty. May be, one way is to share and confront our self-deception with an excellent therapist. As we learn about ourselves at a deeper level, we give ourselves the freedom to heal, change, and evolve.