Self-Deception: Why We Fool Ourselves

Self-deception takes place when we know that a certain thing is the case but we convince ourselves that something else is true. We know that we’ve deceived ourselves this way when, for example, a romantic relationship goes sour and we realize that we “knew all along there was an issue but I didn’t pay attention.” Or when we may believe in a religion or a political party or a profession for years only to find at some point that we have “finally come to our senses.” Sweepingly, too,we deceive ourselves about our superiority; most people, studies show, believe that their qualities and abilities are above average.



Evolutionary psychologists look at such self-deception and ask, how did we get this way? What benefit did early humans derive from deceiving ourselves over the tens of thousands of years? The benefits must have been significant because the costs are obvious: trekking the savannah with a spear, feeling like you’re the strongest creature out there, won’t save you from a hungry lion.

The payoff seems to be found in our relationships with other people. We are and always have been obsessed with reading each other: who to trust, who to help, who to mate with, who is lying, what a person’s motives are, who is in cahoots with whom, who is faking an emotion, and what others are thinking about us. Underlying most of these calculations run the twin skills of deceiving others and knowing when others are trying to deceive us (as in “John may look relaxed but I get the sense that he’s about to ask me to do him a big favor.”) Consider how much of our social conversation revolves around such detection and deception.

Psychologist Robert Trivers’ argues that the reason we deceive ourselves is that doing so makes us better at deceiving others. “Self deception evolves in the service of deception—the better to fool others.”* If you have convinced yourself that your child is extraordinary at the piano or that your fiancée is perfect, you will be able to talk on those subjects without stumbling over your words, looking flushed, or showing other signs of lying. And self-deception has an added advantage: it makes our dishonesty not only more convincing to others but also less stressful for us, since in fact, to us, it doesn’t feel like deception at all.

Trivers discusses organized religion as an example of large-scale self-deception. Here again there are benefits and costs. Among the benefits, members of a religious group cooperate with each other to a high degree. Their cooperation provides important survival benefits such as better health, mutual support, and social order. The benefits outweigh the costs of the believers’ self-deception, such as an inflated opinion of themselves, of their religion, and of the power of faith.

This evolutionary approach to understanding our psyches is not always pleasant. It’s discouraging to discover that we may be hard-wired to deceive ourselves. How are we trust our conclusions about ourselves and people in general? But the organ that we are using to find such truths was built for the very practical task of survival, and deception and self-deception are two of its tools. We can’t easily avoid them.

* The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, 2011, p. 4.