Why We Lie to Ourselves

Technology only makes willful ignorance and self-deception easier.

Anderson Mancini/Flickr

You might have engaged in a little bit of self-deception this weekend — and been completely at peace with it. Let’s say you grabbed an extra ice cream bar knowing full well it’s kinda not great for you. But YOLO and it’s a three-day weekend so you’re going to spend it like a kid on summer vacation. Innocent enough, a white lie that’s really kind of more a favor to yourself.

But there’s the other, more dangerous side of the spectrum, when the lies you feed yourself become the truth to other people, causing them harm, possibly upending your own, making things way more complicated than if you’d been straightforward with yourself in the first place.

Psychologists typically classify self-lying into two distinct groups: willful ignorance and self-deception. While both are driven by similar psychological motivations, willful ignorance involves neglecting information about how your actions will affect others. Self-deception, like the name suggests, is commonly associated with lying to make yourself feel better. But it’s easy to see how those are pretty intertwined.

Either way, the topic is quickly becoming an urgent one in the scientific community. In a 2016 paper by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, the authors suggest the deliberate choice to not know information is not simply an “anomaly in human behavior” and hypothesize it will be the next scientific frontier that psychologists take on.

“Mainstream social and behavior science has long skirted the topic of ignorance or treated it as a social problem in need of eradication,” they write. “Psychology has been enhanced by processes of knowledge acquisition and human curiosity. The desire to not know, in contrast, is poorly understood.”

But we actually do understand some things — namely, that what drives self-deception and willful ignorance is the common denominator of selfishness that drives much of human behavior. Studies have demonstrated that leaders who make bad decisions with harmful outcomes — but are willfully ignorant about those decisions — are usually punished less than straight-up dictators. Other researchers have pegged deliberate ignorance as an emotion regulation and regret avoidance device, a way to avoid liability while also driving performance. We can think of it like Melodonium, only instead of swallowing a pill you tell yourself that your housemates really would want you to eat the rest of cake you originally said you would save. Yeah, sure.

Sure you do.


In short: Self-deception basically works the same way deceiving others does. The person avoids critical information so they don’t know the whole truth; biases aren’t quite self-deception, but self-deception does involve a bias in what information you accept. In a 2011 paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, researchers argue that self-deception may have an evolutionary purpose in a blatantly depressing way: We self-deceive, they say, because it trains us to be better liars. “In the struggle to accrue resources, a strategy that has emerged over evolutionary time is deception,” the researchers write. “Self-deception may be an important tool in this co-evolutionary struggle, by allowing deceivers to circumvent detection efforts.” In other words, the more we convince ourselves of little lies, the less likely we are to demonstrate the nervousness and idiosyncratic tendencies that come with lying to other people, allowing us to become powerful, even if precariously so. Which, while that is likely true, is sort of a bummer.

Science also shows we’re disturbingly good at lying to ourselves. In a 2011 study, researchers from Duke University and Harvard Business School conducted a series of trials where they allowed one group of subjects to perform better on a test than another group by allowing them access to the answers before the test began. In follow-up surveys, they found that the group that was allowed to see the answers (in plainspeak, cheat) deceived themselves into thinking their high scores were because of some newfound intelligence. They expected to perform similarly well on future tests, even though their own skills had nothing to do with how well they did.

“We show that although people expect to cheat, they do not foresee self-deception, and that factors that reinforce the benefits of cheating enhance self-deception,” the researchers write. “Beyond merely sweeping transgressions under the psychological rug, people can use the positive outcomes resulting from negative behavior to enhance their opinions of themselves — a mistake that can prove costly in the long run.”

Juuuust keep smiling.


But what about technology? We live in an age where you can Google your date before you meet them in person and know whether their Tinder profile is a carefully concocted tale or factually correct, at least according to Facebook. The internet and the access we have to it from our smartphones and laptops, after all, is a beacon of knowledge: In less than ten seconds, Siri can answer your every query. You don’t even have to type: just ask.

But it’s almost a bit too easy: Willful ignorance and self-deception hinge on minimizing the cognitive load of information and feeling confident in the results. So instead of learning from other people and determining what’s true, you can Google how will Donald Trump help America, see that he plans to “make it great,” be relatively satisfied with that answer, and be done with it. Self-deception allows people to, “stop gathering information when they like the early returns but keep gathering information if they do not.”

Researchers Ralph Hertwig and Christoph Engel from the Max Planck Institutes agree, writing that technology encourages the habit of willful ignorance because it’s so easy to manipulate beliefs by selecting only a few readily available pieces of information. This decision to take what makes someone happy and ignore the rest, they say, could partly be an information management device because of the onslaught of information we deal with on a daily basis. In 2008, the average American thirstily gobbled up 34 gigabytes of information and 100,500 words a day. In retrospect, while that is a ton of information, it’s still a tiny amount considering how much we have the potential to devour.

“Depending on one’s perspective, it [the Internet] is either a paradise or a nether world where people drown in intractable amounts of information,” write Hertwig and Engel. We can either self-deceive our way through the world, or just deal with the fact that — gasp! — we’ll never really know everything. And that’s okay.

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