We deceive for biological reasons, but (self) honesty is still the best policy.
“My two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart…. I went from very successful businessman, to top TV star, to president of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius…. and a very stable genius at that!”
It doesn’t take a (stable) genius to work out whose words these are, but it’s arguable that it takes a certain level of self-deception for the person in question to articulate them.
However, Donald Trump certainly made it to the top. And self-deception may have helped him to get there, according to the theory devised by US evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist Robert Trivers, author of The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life.
Natural selection favours self-deception
Trivers interprets self-deception as an adaptive evolutionary strategy: we deceive for biological reasons, in order to help us to survive and procreate. Natural selection must favour self-deception, he argues, or we wouldn’t have developed the ability to self-deceive.
But just how does self-deception provide competitive advantage? Trivers claims that we often deceive ourselves because it then becomes easier to deceive others. Essentially, the most effective way to deceive others, and not display signs of lying, is to deceive oneself. Deceiving consciously is cognitively demanding; believing the lie can help ease that cognitive burden.
Self-deception plays a significant role in ‘reproductive success’, Trivers continues, explaining that “in humans, female choice usually focuses primarily on a male’s status, resources and willingness to invest”. Males who are adept at deceiving females regarding these attributes are more likely to have greater reproductive success. In this way, self-deception helps us to have more children – who carry genetic traces of their parents’ tendency to deceive.
From selective thinking to rose-tinted glasses
No matter how much we strive to be self-aware – and self-awareness is positively correlated with higher levels of job satisfaction and overall happiness – we have in-built barriers and biases when it comes to knowing ourselves.
Multiple forms of self-deception are open to us. One way in which we lie to ourselves is by misremembering details – for example, after an argument – or by seeking information selectively to validate our beliefs.
In an experiment Trivers conducted, researchers assembled a group of people who either strongly supported, or strongly opposed, capital punishment. Members were then presented with facts reinforcing both positions. Despite individuals believing that they were considering the information objectively, in reality they distorted it to align with their existing beliefs. The outcome was a strengthening in people’s original views.
‘Self-inflation’ is another human tendency, according to Trivers. As he explained in an interview with New Scientist: “If you ask high school students ‘are they in the top half of their class for leadership ability?’, 80% will say yes. It ain’t possible! And you cannot beat academics for self-deception. If you ask professors whether they’re in the top half of their profession, 94% say they are.”
The Dunning-Kruger effect
Such ‘illusory superiority’ could be put down to the Dunning-Kruger effect – a type of cognitive bias that causes us to overestimate our knowledge or ability, particularly in areas with which we have little to no experience. Studies show that people tend to rate themselves as “better than most” in areas ranging from driving to health, ethics and leadership – and that those with the least ability are most likely to overrate their skills.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is often shown as a curve, plotting the relationship between confidence and competence. Confidence is highly valued in the West, observes Argentinian psychologist Tomas Chamorro Premuzic, and too often confused with competence, accompanied by a stubborn belief that simply adopting a ‘can-do’ attitude will equip us to achieve our goals. While confidence evenly matched with competence is clearly positive, studies reveal a mere 9% overlap between the two.
And even the best of us have “pockets of incompetence” that we don’t recognise, according to psychologists Dunning and Kruger. When we lack knowledge and skills in specific areas, we suffer a double curse: not only do we make poor decisions and mistakes, but our knowledge gaps prevent us from catching these errors, because we lack the very expertise needed to know how badly we are performing. This is not so much an issue of our ego blinding us to our weak spots, but rather that when we have a moderate degree of competence in something, we are more likely to realise how much we don’t know.
Note that experts often make a different mistake, assuming that, because they are knowledgeable, everyone else is knowledgeable too. Ultimately, “whether we are inept or highly skilled, we often find ourselves caught in a bubble of inaccurate self-perception”.
Unfortunately, our relationships are no more immune to self-delusion than any other aspect of our lives. Research by Erika Carlson of the University of Toronto Mississauga asked friends and romantic partners to rate each other’s levels of self-awareness and the overall quality of their relationship.
While there’s “a common intuition that it’s good to know how others see you” Carlson found that this is not always the case. People tend to like individuals who have accurate self-perceptions, but enjoy their relationships more with people they believe see them in desirable ways.
This suggests that self-knowledge benefits the “people around us” more than ourselves. Our ability to understand the impressions we make on others may be a virtue in the eyes of other people, but it’s not always easy to face the truth about what others might think of us. We might feel safer sticking with an idealised version of ourselves and keeping our spectacles well and truly rose-tinted.
The value of self-awareness
So, given the evolutionary benefits of self-deception, and the many opportunities for embracing it, is there a case for lying more – to ourselves and to others? Trivers suggests not. While there may be advantages to blocking out negative thoughts or taking an optimistic view of our abilities (both tend to improve performance or persuasive ability), the drawbacks take various forms. For example, we are more likely to be manipulated by others, who are able to use tricks to set our self-deception in motion, and so control us.
In our relationships, Carlson’s findings suggest that ultimately the truth will out. While, in the short term, self-awareness was seen as less important for romantic partners, fast forward two years and that self-awareness was an indicator of higher-quality relationships. It seems that warts-and-all truth is, in the end, a better underpinning for long-term bliss than self-delusion. The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau claimed that “true friendship can afford true knowledge. It does not depend on darkness and ignorance”.
Ultimately, overconfidence fosters “a narcissistic culture” argues Chamorro Premuzic, where “we end up with people in charge who are overconfident, unaware of their limitations, unjustifiably pleased with themselves, and prone to taking reckless risks, making avoidable mistakes, blaming others for their own mistakes and taking credit for other people’s achievements.” It also leads to a dearth of women in senior positions, he points out.
He highlights some “key adaptational benefits to insecurity and low confidence”, which keep us modest and humble, making us more receptive to negative feedback, more coachable and less complacent about our abilities. In certain situations, low-confidence may represent a threat-detection signal that tells us we shouldn’t be doing something.
In The Folly of Fools, published in 2011, Trivers warns that “deceit and self-deception carry the costs of being alienated from reality and can lead to disaster”, citing the loss of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles as an example of self-deception with fatal consequences: NASA’s leaders persuaded themselves to ignore warnings issued by the scientists.
A more recent example of lethal delusion might be the response to COVID-19 by a host of world leaders, whose self-deception allowed them to underestimate the dangers of the virus. Many listened to scientists and experts selectively and downplayed the crisis even as it worsened.
President Trump, for example, likened the virus to the common flu and called concerns about its impact “a hoax”, while Tanzania’s COVID-denying leader, the late John Magufuli, is suspected to have succumbed to the virus himself, though his death was officially put down to “heart problems”.
In the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson was shaking hands with coronavirus patients on the same day the government’s scientific advisers recommended an end to the greeting. He tested positive for COVID-19 just weeks later.
It is worth noting that Trivers wrote The Folly of Fools in the aftermath of 2008’s global economic crisis, caused by self-deceived, over-confident financiers, who were completely out of touch with reality. In light of this – and recent events – it is hard disagree with him that decisions affecting millions of people should be as free from self-deception as possible. “I do not believe in building one’s life, one’s relationships or one’s society on lies,” he concludes.
The writer, Aldous Huxley, wrote that “If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasure of illusion.” Trivers teaches us that there are sound biological reasons why that might be the case. But self-delusion will only take us so far if we want to live in the real world and avoid the kind of self-deception that – at best – is inimical to building relationships and – at worst - can lead to poor judgements and dubious decision making.
As leaders, we’d be advised to take note of the wealth of research that shows that self-awareness is a fundamental building block of leadership. It may be hard, it may go against our very nature, but the alternative is not a long-term strategy for success. Fibbers may well survive, but it takes a healthy dose of knowing ourselves to help ourselves – and others – to thrive.
Take the test: How self-deceptive are you?
Delroy L Paulhus, psychology professor at University of British Columbia in Canada, is the author of a widely used scale to measure self-deceptive tendencies. The 40-item Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR) incorporates self-deceptive enhancement (honest but overly positive responding) and impression management (bias toward pleasing others).
Access the full scale or take the shortened test below, which provides some key questions relating to self-deceptive enhancement.
Answer on a seven-point scale, with 1 being 'not true,' 4 being 'somewhat true,' and 7 being 'very true.'
- My first impressions of people usually turn out to be right.
- I don't care to know what other people really think of me.
- Once I've made up my mind, other people can seldom change my opinion.
- I am fully in control of my own fate.
- I never regret my decisions.
- I am a completely rational person.
- I am very confident of my judgements.
Answer key: For each question, give yourself one point for answering 6 or 7. The higher your score, the more self-deceptive you tend to be.
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