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The Toolbox of Self-Deception

To thine own self be true, but only some of the time.

Below, the first of three parts on the ubiquitous nature of self-deception in daily life:

It was a Wednesday in late October, and I had to teach at 10:30. Usually, this meant a morning behind a closed office door, but this was the day of my university's health fair. Apparently, I could get a $40 gift card just for getting my vital signs checked. Between learning how to lower my cholesterol and scoring a free bloomin' onion, I figured I would just about break even. But I was in for a rude surprise: one of my test results was borderline "abnormal."

There had to be some innocent explanation, I told myself. The room where the screening took place was hot and crowded. Things were busy enough that someone could've transposed digits or confused samples. The presidential election was approaching, and I had stayed up too late the night before, reading online polls.

I even cajoled the nurse into taking another measurement, despite the look she gave me that said, Buddy, everybody thinks the numbers are wrong, but they never are. The second measurement wasn't much better.

Still, I didn't buy it. I went straight from the health fair to my research methods class, where–as any of the students who took notes can attest–I spent the first 10 minutes using my experience to illustrate the concept of measurement error. That'll teach them to mess with me, I figured.

Why did I go to such lengths to refute objective information–information that was intended solely for my benefit? Because it was threatening. People do this all the time. We bend the facts to fit our self-image, perpetuating a view of ourselves that is often more positive than accurate.

Thirty years ago, Anthony Greenwald, a psychologist now at the University of Washington, went so far as to compare the ego to a totalitarian dictator. Just like Stalin, who had a habit of airbrushing ex-comrades out of old photos after they were sent off to the gulag, we regularly write revisionist histories and paint unrealistically glossy portraits of ourselves.

When you stop to think about it (and that's what we psychologists are trained to do), we enlist an impressive array of cognitive tactics and behavioral gambits in the daily effort to feel good about ourselves. We carry around a veritable toolbox of self-deception. The main tool I pulled out at the health fair was good old-fashioned denial. But there are many other options as well–more than I can catalog here. What follows is but a sampling of the more common strategies we employ in the pursuit of positive self-regard.

1. Rationalization

Rationalization is a core component of self-deception. In my health-screening example, it accompanied my denial, as I simultaneously refused to believe the measurement and wracked my brain for reasons why it had to be erroneous. But rationalization can take other forms. As Jeff Goldblum's character says in the movie The Big Chill, "I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex."

It's through rationalization that the smoker convinces herself that her habit isn't that unhealthy. After all, she still exercises, unlike some people she knows. It's rationalization when a customer keeps the extra change the cashier mistakenly hands back and justifies his decision by reflecting that the store is marking up prices to begin with. Or when a relative of mine–who shall remain nameless–refers to the banana he picks up and eats while grocery shopping as "the price of doing business" with him.

In a now-famous experiment, Leon Festinger and Merrill Carlsmith of Stanford University had participants complete an excruciatingly boring series of peg-turning tasks for a full hour. The researchers then asked them to help create a positive expectation for the next participant–by telling that person the experiment would actually be fun. Participants complied, agreeing to lie in the name of science, and were each promised either $20 or $1 for their efforts.

How did they live with themselves afterwards? For the participants who had been paid less, rationalization was the key. When asked later by a departmental representative ostensibly unaffiliated with the study how much fun the peg turning had really been, those who received $20 reported that the experience was mind-numbing. Those paid a mere dollar assessed the task much more favorably. Without a compelling financial justification for their deceit, the $1-participants convinced themselves that they really hadn't lied at all.

2. The Better-Than-Average Effect

How strong are your social skills? Seriously, think for a second and rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10. (A rating of 1 means you're the most socially inept person on the planet, a 10 that you're the best.) Then keep reading.

When I ask my students this question in class, the average response is usually 8 or 9. Even when I tell them to limit the comparison group to fellow students, far more than half tell me that their social skills are better than average. Impressive, no? Either I am the luckiest professor at the university or a large percentage of those students are kidding themselves.

This inclination–what Cornell psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning call the better-than-average effect–isn't limited to my students. In one survey, 86 percent of business managers said they were more ethical than their peers. In another, 94 percent of professors said they were better teachers than the average faculty member on campus.

Ironically, the better-than-average effect is most exaggerated among the least competent. The worse we are at something, the better we often think we are, as fans of American Idol can attest. Of course, such distortions are most prevalent in domains that have a low threshold for competence. Almost anyone can drive a car or exhibit decent social skills, and amusingly high numbers of people believe that they're great at these things. But in domains where general levels of societal proficiency are lower–let's say, juggling or public speaking–the bias isn't nearly as prevalent.

So how strong are your social skills? I don't profess to know. But I'm not sure you know, either.


This piece originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Tufts Magazine.