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Top 20 Ways You Are Lying to Yourself

There are many psychological biases and cognitive distortions. Here's my top 20.

Art credit Alexi Berry
Source: Art credit Alexi Berry

I often write about how we humans deceive ourselves. Much of the time I’ll list a few ways that relate particularly to whatever I am writing about. Often, I am asking the reader to take a leap of faith and trust that psychology has demonstrated self-delusion based on a few examples. For this post, I have compiled some of my favorite ways the unconscious affects behavior without awareness.

  • Fundamental Attribution Error: In this bias, we attribute our mistakes to circumstances, but others’ mistakes to flawed character. I often use driving as an example for this. When one cuts someone off, it’s a mistake, by accident, or there was little choice. But when someone cuts you off, they are a selfish jerk.
  • Self-Serving Bias: This bias enhances or preserves self-esteem by viewing oneself in an overly positive manner. With this bias credit for accomplishments is due to hard work, but failure is due to external factors.
  • Egocentric Bias: People see the world from their own lens and accept it as reality. Over relying on one’s own perspective, which everyone naturally does, is egocentric bias.
  • In-Group, Out-Group Bias: With this bias people give preferential treatment, and feel more positively, about people they perceive as similar to them, while looking negatively upon others they see as different.
  • Halo Effect: This is the inclination to attribute positive character traits to those we find attractive. Someone beautiful is also thought to be kind, smart, compassionate, etc.
  • Doppelgänger Bias: I’ve only recently heard of this bias (Fagan, 2018). This, according to studies by Oriel Feldman Hall, is the propensity to trust someone who looks like someone who, in the past, you found trustworthy.
  • Mere Exposure Effect: This is the tendency for one to like something simply because it becomes familiar. This explains some songs’ growing popularity, or how one becomes more attracted to people one is around.
  • Implicit Egotism: This is the affinity to gravitate toward people like ourselves, such as having the same numbers in one’s birthday, or gravitating toward a job like one’s last name (Bakers being a baker, etc.) (Vedantam, 2017).
  • Self-fulfilling Prophecy: This is the tendency to enact what one believes. For example, if you believe you’ll fail, you do. I write about this in, You, and the manifesting of reality”.
  • Stereotype Effect: This is similar to the above. When a group is reminded of a negative stereotype (for example women being bad at math) they do more poorly on tasks. In an interesting study related to how beliefs affect performance, Adam Galinsky and Hajo Adam, demonstrated that wearing a white lab coat believed to be a doctor's coat led to participants performing better on an attention task. When participants wore the same coat, but believed it to be a painter’s coat, they performed significantly worse (Rosin, H., Miller, L.).
  • Backfire Effect: This is the idea that telling someone facts that counter their beliefs will change their beliefs. In actuality, the person becomes more tied to their beliefs. The podcast, “You’re Not So Smart” has dedicated 4 episodes to this phenomenon (which seems more pronounced in our political times).
  • Cognitive Dissonance: One holds conflicting beliefs, or acts against one’s beliefs, and experiences cognitive dissonance. Then, due to feeling uncomfortable psychologically, “The person then becomes strongly motivated to lessen the discomfort caused by this conflict, and must either adjust the existing belief to fit the new information, or distort the new information to fit the existing belief”. (Goud, p.156). People might rate something as more pleasurable than they initially thought, simply because they can’t explain why else they did it.
  • Illusion of Control: This occurs when one overestimates the amount of control one has in life. An example is victims blaming themselves because it is easier to believe they have control than the world is chaotic and horrible things can happen without reason.
  • Negativity Bias: I’ve written about this one a good amount in other posts. It is the tendency of the human mind to give more weight to negatives than positives. Some psychologists (Gottman, Hanson) have rated the ratio as taking five positives to equal one negative.
  • Confirmation Bias: The tendency to focus on information that supports one’ beliefs and / or remembering confirming information more than information contradicting one’s beliefs.
  • Dunning-Kruger Effect: When unskilled people are overconfident about their answers or ability, and remain unaware due to the lack of metacognitive ability to recognize their shortcomings.
  • Hindsight Bias: When one “feels he knew something all along” this is Hindsight Bias. In experiments, when presented with an outcome such as, “studies indicate 71% of American’s fear financial ruin” (a made-up statistic and study) overwhelmingly people will report that this makes sense and why. However, if you reversed it (studies indicate 71% of people feel financially secure) they will express similar knowing that statistic to be true.
  • Affective Forecasting: Daniel Gilbert has studied the tendency for one to believe, and overestimate, that her preferences today will remain the same in the future. (For more on this, see my post, “You don’t know what you want”).
  • Projection: This is my favorite defense mechanism. I have written a good deal about projection (see, “Your dream world”). Projection is taking something that resides in your unconscious and believing another possess it. For example, you are afraid of your dark thoughts, unconsciously suppress them, then see the world as very dangerous.

The final, and, in some ways, ultimate way people are lying to themselves is sometimes referred to as confabulation. This usually means creating false memories, and though the malleability of memory is another way we distort reality (through distorting our personal history), in this case it is creating, and believing, reasons for our behavior without realizing the true motivation.

In, “Selfie” (You are Not So Smart podcast) author Will Storr and host David McRaney describe the left-brain interpreter as confabulating reasons for behavior. Storr posits that we have a voice in our heads that is explaining our behavior, but it has no access to the parts of the brain that control what we do. According to Storr, “It’s basically making stuff up. We really have no access, we have no idea, why we do what we do.” (McRaney, 2018, 5:49-5:55).

The best example of this comes from split-brain studies. Robert Wright (2017) points out several studies that demonstrate this type of confabulation. To explain how this works, people with severe epilepsy are given surgery that separates the two hemispheres of the brain. Though functioning normally most of time, the surgery allows data to be sent to only one side of the brain through that side’s vision field (the opposite eye) (p. 78). In an interesting experiment that utilizes this phenomenon, the command “Walk” was given to the right hemisphere. The subject got up and walked. “When the left hemisphere is asked to explain behavior initiated by the right hemisphere, it tries to generate a plausible story.” In one case, the subject replied he got up and walked to get a soda. (p.79). “And the person who comes up with the improvised explanation-or, at least, the person’s left hemisphere, the part of the person that’s doing the talking-seems to believe the story.” (p. 79).

This is true of those whose brain remains intact as well. Wright cites another well cited experiment: Experimenters noticed when people were asked to evaluate four pair of pantyhose, they had a tendency to pick the pair on the far right. When asked to explain why, they discussed the quality of the fabric as well as other explanations. However, all the pantyhose were exactly the same. (p. 80). Wright concludes, “people are capable of convincing themselves of whatever stories about their own motivation it’s in their interest" (p.99).

This last implication that we are making up our reasons for behavior, and are unaware we are doing so, alone could make one question the confidence he has in thinking. The other nineteen (and the dozens I left off the list) just add to the evidence. Whether confabulation is a conglomeration of all the ways one deceives oneself, or the icing on the cake, if you have any faith in science at all, you have to be questioning your thinking.

You might wonder, as some of my students do, “why are you trying to convince us we can’t trust our thinking?”. It is a scary prospect: if you cannot trust your thinking, what do you trust? The best answer I can offer returns me to the Ram Dass quote, “The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.” (See, “Talk your brain into being a better servant” for more on this). If you become aware of how inaccurate your thoughts can be, how your mind is biased, egotistical, and creates a sense of self where none truly exists (see, “You aren’t you at all”), you are less attached to your mind, your perceptions, and your idea of self. If you are less attached to these, you are more open to genuine, authentic experience. You are more Zen, more mindful, more present. You become what Tolle calls, “the observer”, (p.31) or operate from what Wright calls the default mode (p.45). You are able to detach from thinking, make a more objective decision, or handle things without as much emotion. Additionally, this ability to step out of thinking leads to more mindfulness, which leads to more peace and mental well-being. This overcoming (to the extent we are able) of ego is a step to enlightenment and self-actualization. It all begins by realizing your mind is full of it.

Copyright William Berry, 2018


Fagan, A., (2018), The Doppelgänger Bias, p.16 in Psychology Today, June 2018.

Gottman, J., (2007), The magic relationship ratio, YouTube video, retrieved from: May 19th, 2018.

Goud, N., (2009), Fooling Yourself, in Psychology and Personal Growth, ed. 8., Pearson Education, Boston, MA.

Hanson, R., (2018), Take in the good, in Just One Thing, retrieved from: May 18th, 2018.

McRaney, D., (2018), Selfie., You are not so smart podcast. May 7th, 2018.

Rosin, H., Miller, L., (2016), The secret emotional life of clothes, from the podcast, Invisibilia, July 22nd, 2016. Retrieved from: May 16th, 2018.

Tolle, E., (1999), The power of now, New World Library, Novato, CA.

Vedantam, S., (2017), Me, Myself, and IKEA: What Our Love For Swedish Furniture Says About Narcissism, The Hidden Brain podcast. Retrieved from:… 5/11/18.

Wright, R., (2017), Why Buddhism is true., Simon and Schuster, N.Y., New York.

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