Survival of the fibbers: why self-deception is an evolutionary strategy that hinders self-awareness

Written by
Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

14 Nov 2019

14 Nov 2019 • by Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

“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 has 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 would not have developed the ability to self-deceive.

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 self-inflation

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 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 benefits to blocking out negative thoughts or taking an optimistic view of one’s abilities (both tend to improve performance or persuasive ability), the drawbacks take various forms, he argues. 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 The Folly of Fools, published in 2011, he goes so far as to assert 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 SARS-CoV-2 virus. Many listened to scientists and experts selectively and downplayed the crisis even as it worsened

For example, president Trump likened the virus to the common flu and called concerns about its impact “a hoax” even as the death toll in the US continued to rise. 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.

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.' 

  1. My first impressions of people usually turn out to be right. 
  2. I don't care to know what other people really think of me.
  3. Once I've made up my mind, other people can seldom change my opinion.
  4. I am fully in control of my own fate.
  5. I never regret my decisions.
  6. I am a completely rational person.
  7. 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.

Discover our Transformational Leadership Programme