By David Robson; 30th May 2022
The media today is full of people who have lived a lie.
There’s Elizabeth Holmes, the biotech entrepreneur, who in 2015 was declared the youngest and richest self-made female billionaire. She now faces 20 years in prison for fraud. Then there’s Anna Sorokin – aka Anna Delvey, who pretended to be a German heiress, and subsequently fleeced New York’s high society of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And Shimon Hayut, aka Simon Leviev – the so-called Tinder Swindler.
What marks all of these people is not just the lies they told others – but the lies they must have told themselves. They each believed their actions were somehow justifiable, and – against all odds – believed they would never be found out. Time and again, they personally seemed to deny reality – and dragged others into their scams.
You might hope that this kind of behaviour is a relatively rare phenomenon, restricted to a few extreme situations. But self-deception is incredibly common, and may have evolved to bring some personal benefits. We lie to ourselves to protect our self-images, which allows us to act immorally while maintaining a clear conscience. According to the very latest research, self-deception may have even evolved to help us to persuade others; if we start believing our own lies, it’s much easier to get other people to believe them, too.
This research might explain questionable behaviour in many areas of life – far beyond the headline-grabbing scams in recent years. By understanding the different factors contributing to self-deception, we can try to spot when it might be swaying our own decisions, and prevent these delusions from leading us astray.
Safeguarding the ego
Any psychologist will tell you that studying self-deception scientifically is a headache. You can’t simply ask someone if they are fooling themselves, since it happens below conscious awareness. As a result, the experiments are often highly intricate.
Let’s begin with the research of Zoë Chance, an associate professor of marketing at Yale University. In an ingenious experiment from 2011, she showed that many people unconsciously employ self-deception to boost their egos.
One group of participants were asked to take an IQ test, with a list of the answers printed at the bottom of the page. As you might expect, these people performed considerably better than a control group who did not have the answer key. They did not seem to recognise how much they had relied on the ‘cheat sheet’, however – since they predicted that they would do equally well on a second test featuring another hundred questions, without the answer key. Somehow, they had fooled themselves into thinking that they had known the solutions to the problems without needing the helping hand.
To be sure of this conclusion, Chance repeated the whole experiment with a new set of participants. This time, however, the participants were given a financial reward for accurately predicting their results in the second test; overconfidence would come with a penalty. If the participants were conscious of their behaviour, you might expect this incentive to reduce their overconfidence.
In reality, it did little to puncture the participants’ inflated self-belief; they still fooled themselves into thinking they were smarter than they were, even when they knew that they would lose money. This suggests that the beliefs were genuine and deeply held – and surprisingly robust.
It’s not hard to see how this might apply in real life. A scientist may feel that their results were real, despite the use of fraudulent data; a student may believe they earned their place at a prestigious university, despite cheating on a test.
Categories: Morality/moral values, Psychology
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