Why We Lie to Ourselves: The Roots and Recollections of Self Deception

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You don’t ever deceive yourself, do you? Of course not! Me neither.

Psychologists and counsellors deal with self deception all the time, helping clients to identify and explore the myriad ways in which they enable themselves to believe things which they ‘know’ to be untrue. The good ones also deal with it all the time within themselves: attempting to observes themselves in the act of self deception, bringing the cool light of self-awareness into the darker corners that can so easily be obscured by a little internal bait-and-switch.

Recent research is now offering some solid food for thought as to why we deceive ourselves in the first place — the potential advantages of self deception, how it may have come to evolve, and the counterbalancing costs associated with it. Could it even be rational at times to believe that which evidence strongly indicates is false?

As a ‘BBS Associate’ — part of an international community of authors, referees and commentators drawn upon by the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences — I recently received this abstract by psychologist William von Hippel (University of Queensland) and anthropologist Robert Trivers (Rutgers):

Abstract: In this article we argue that self-deception evolved to facilitate interpersonal deception by allowing people to avoid the cues to conscious deception that might reveal deceptive intent. Self-deception has the additional advantages that it eliminates the costly cognitive load that is typically associated with deceiving and it can minimize retribution if the deception is discovered. Beyond its role in specific acts of deception, self-deceptive self-enhancement also allows people to display more confidence than is warranted, with a host of social advantages. The question then arises of how the self can be both deceiver and deceived. We propose that this is achieved through dissociations of mental processes, including conscious vs. unconscious memories, conscious vs. unconscious attitudes, and automatic vs. controlled processes. Given the variety of methods for deceiving others, it should come as no surprise that self-deception manifests itself in a number of different psychological processes, and we discuss various types of self-deception. We then discuss the interpersonal vs. intrapersonal nature of self-deception before considering the levels of consciousness at which the self can be deceived. Finally, we contrast our evolutionary approach to self-deception with current theories and debates in psychology and consider some of the costs associated with self-deception.

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The paper has been selected as a target article for open peer commentary at the prestigious journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the foremost print publications in its field. If you’d like to have a look at the full text of the paper, the pre-print is available here: von Hippel and Trivers Preprint: “The Evolution and Psychology of Self-Deception”.

The journal employs a fairly unique quality-control system whereby commentaries are accepted only from people called ‘BBS Associates’ or those nominated by BBS Associates; and to be eligible to become a BBS Associate, you must either have had work previously accepted for the journal (or refereed for them), or been nominated by someone who has. As a BBS Associate myself since publishing with them in the late 90s, I’m happy to nominate others to write commentary for the article. So if you have relevant expertise in this area, and no other BBS Associate is available to you, please drop me a note via the site’s contact page and let me know a bit about your background and what you would like to contribute via published commentary.

About the Journal

Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) is an international, interdisciplinary journal providing Open Peer Commentary on important and controversial current research in the biobehavioral and cognitive sciences. Commentators must be BBS Associates, or suggested by a BBS Associate. If you are not a BBS Associate, please follow the instructions linked below:

http://journals.cambridge.org/BBSJournal/Inst/Assoc

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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