Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Noble Art of Self-Deception

Self-deception is not always a bad thing.

Key points

  • Psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning revealed people seriously overestimate their abilities.
  • Metacognition is the ability to reflect on and assess one's own thought processes.
  • Incompetent individuals demonstrate less efficient metacognition compared to competent individuals.
Source: Photoagent/Shutterstock

Where I grew up, there was a lumberjack who was an oddball. He was stingy, surviving on coarse bread, grease, and salted herring. The remaining money was spent on vodka.

It is said that during his evening meal, he would spread grease on a slice of bread and place a piece of herring from a jar at one end of the bread. As he ate, he moved the herring farther away from the bread. Finally, when he finished the last piece of bread, he would return the herring to the jar and exclaim aloud to himself: "I fooled you again, you stupid bastard."

Who was fooling whom? The lumberjack was not schizophrenic, but like everyone else, he sometimes had a dialog with himself: Should he eat the herring now or save it for his future self? The herring became increasingly rancid, the more he favored the future.

How We Deceive Ourselves

How is it possible to deceive oneself? Wouldn't one immediately recognize the trickery if attempted? In reality, we are surprisingly adept at deceiving ourselves, often unconsciously. Psychologists have long understood that people live with various kinds of life lies, but self-deception manifests in many more contexts.

Bruce Rolff/ Shutterstock
Source: Bruce Rolff/ Shutterstock

Self-deception operates because the self is not an indivisible entity: The unconscious side of the self can deceive the conscious one. One form of self-deception involves expressing a desire to achieve a particular goal while unconsciously working towards another. This strategy is succinctly summarized by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal's aphorism: "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know at all."

We overestimate ourselves to prioritize ourselves over others and thus survive. If we were to perceive our objectively true selves, we would likely become despondent.

Deception does not always involve outright lies; it can also involve an exaggerating of certain characteristics. Literal self-embellishment—makeup, hairstyling, clothing choices—is an everyday form of self-deception that most people engage in. Rarely do we desire to reveal our authentic selves.

Most individuals harbor illusions about themselves and believe that they possess above-average positive qualities. We tend to think we are more intelligent, honest, friendly, original, and reliable than average. We also believe that we will live longer than average and drive better than average (even those who have been hospitalized for traffic accidents hold this belief). Moreover, these illusions extend to self-reflection: Most people perceive themselves as less influenced by such illusions than the average person.

Overestimating Our Own Abilities

Naturalist Charles Darwin long ago observed that self-confidence more often stems from ignorance than knowledge. For example, drivers who have been involved in accidents or people who have failed a driving test are worse at judging their own performance on a reaction test than are experienced drivers.

Social psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning conducted a series of tests revealing that people who are among the worst in terms of reasoning logically, writing grammatically, or understanding humor, for example, seriously overestimate their own abilities. On average, the lowest-performing quarter of the participants rated themselves as being in the top 40 percent.

Metacognition and the Two-Fold Burden

Kruger and Dunning explain this self-assessment by asserting that incompetent individuals possess poorer metacognition compared to competent ones. Metacognition is the ability to reflect on and assess one's own thought processes.

For example, the ability to write a grammatically correct sentence is akin to the ability to recognize that there is a grammatical error in a sentence. Hence, if they fail to recognize their mistakes, they will grossly overestimate their ability to write grammatically correctly.

Incompetent individuals, therefore, bear a two-fold burden: Not only do they draw the wrong conclusions and make the wrong decisions, but their incompetence also robs them of the metacognitive ability to recognize their shortcomings.

On the other hand, the top quarter of the subjects in the experiment slightly underestimated their competence on average. This aligns with research demonstrating that experts in a field have much more developed metacognition when it comes to problem-solving than do novices.

Positive Illusions and the Natural Urge to Embellish

A beneficial effect of overestimating oneself is that positive illusions lead to better health and longer life. Studies conducted on HIV-positive people revealed that those with excessively positive perceptions of themselves exhibited a significantly slower progression of the disease.

Similarly, patients who perceived no risk in an upcoming operation tended to recover more quickly after surgery compared to those who were concerned about the procedure. Furthermore, women who denied problems associated with a breast cancer diagnosis had fewer recurrences of the disease compared to others.

I travel extensively, both for work and vacation. Most of the time, I carry a camera to capture people, places, and moments that I want to remember. Often, I find myself attempting to embellish the pictures, for example, only capturing people when they appear happy or deliberately excluding an ugly house in a beach photograph. I believe many amateur photographers can relate to this behavior.

Why do I really want to embellish the images? My perception has been that I want to present others with more appealing depictions of my experiences than they actually were, much like dressing up to look good. However, I rarely show the pictures to others; instead, I mostly deceive myself.

In fact, what happens when I embellish a photo is that I design a memory. My memory of the trip will be largely colored by the images I choose to preserve. I deceive myself into thinking that the trip was more golden than it really was.

Apart from everyday self-aggrandizement, one of the most prevalent forms of self-deception involves selectively choosing which information to acknowledge. “What I don't know can't hurt me" is a prime example of self-deception.

The common understanding of self-deception posits the existence of hidden urges and other unconscious forces that drive our actions, while conscious motives guide our actions, or so we believe. In fraudulent cases, the unconscious does not align with the conscious.

Hence, the paradox of self-deception lies in the question of how we can avoid discovering that the interpretations we make of our actions are, in the long run, so poorly aligned with our actual behavior. Our consciousness never encourages us to be honest with ourselves. A life free from self-deception can only be attained through an unadulterated understanding of our actions.

More from Peter Gärdenfors Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Peter Gärdenfors Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today