I am a handsome, charismatic, brilliant, successful, wonderful person.
I am also a person who lies to himself — a lot.
It may seem to you that it’s a waste of time to lie to yourself when there are so many other people you can lie to, but there are real advantages to lying to yourself, or practicing “self-deception,” as we scientists call it. (Yes, I have advanced degrees in astrophysics, molecular biology and modern dance. It says so on my resume.)
I first heard the buzz about self-deception from the “Work & Family” columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger. “Lying to yourself,” Shellenbarger writes, “can actually have benefits.”
Before you hop on the fantasy train, take a moment to reflect. If you think it’s easy to lie to yourself, you’re lying to yourself.
According to Canadian psychology professor, Del Paulhus, “self-deception isn’t just lying or faking…(it) is deeper and more complicated.”
If you don’t speak Canadian, let me translate — convincing your boss that you are the right person to take on a big assignment is easy. Convincing yourself is hard. As Professor Paulhus explains, you can only practice self-deception by accessing the “strong psychological forces that keep us from acknowledging a threatening truth about ourselves.” While convincing your boss — and yourself — that you’re not the bungler you know you are can get you into trouble, it can also get you promoted. “Believing we are more talented or intelligent than we really are can help us influence and win over others,” says Robert Trivers, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University.
Here’s how it works — your bubblehead of a CEO has completely convinced herself that she is a business genius. As result, she lays out her lamebrain schemes with such vigor and assuredness that your fellow employees are persuaded she actually knows what she’s talking about.
Of course, since your fellow employees have also been deceiving themselves about how smart they are, everyone falls in line in this marvelous chain of self-deception, which can continue for years — right up until the moment the company goes belly up.
Exactly what causes us to practice self-deception is not exactly clear. Evolutionary psychologists theorize that self-deception is an inborn personality trait. For born liars, “different parts of the brain can harbor conflicting beliefs at the same time.” I don’t believe it. Any caveman who faced a charging dinosaur and said to himself, “I’m way too nice a person to be eaten by a Tyrannosaurus,” did not survive long enough to contribute his DNA to our genetic pool.
While some self-deceivers are born with the ability, others learn the technique “as a way of coping with problems and challenges.” Environment can also play a part in creating liars. In an ingenious study developed by Colgate University psychology professor Carrie Keating, two groups of women were asked to sketch outlines of their bodies. Then, the women were divided into two groups. One group was “asked to read about buildings and architecture.” The other group was put into a romantic mood by reading a story about dating.
Sent back to the drawing board, the love-crazed women sketched themselves as slimmer, with narrower waists. This demonstrated an effort to “block out any negative information about their bodies.” They also rushed out and purchased copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The women who read about architecture “didn’t much change their sketches.” However, they were seen to be hanging around in the lobbies of public buildings, and one is currently dating the Lincoln Memorial.
The urge to lie to ourselves is not limited to our work lives. Self-deception plays a role in deciding whether or not to diet and exercise, neither of which we have to do, if we only can only believe ourselves when we tell ourselves that our bodies are perfect. (This finding does not apply to you. You are perfect. Now go eat that three-layer chocolate cake you’ve got hidden in your file cabinet.)
In the final analysis, it seems that a little self-deception can be a good thing. If you can fool yourself into thinking you are a competent human being, you can probably fool others. On the other hand, too much self-deception can be dangerous. You might be able to convince yourself that your knucklehead CEO really knows what she is doing, but eventually, the truth will come out. And then you’ll have to convince yourself that you really do like being unemployed.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at firstname.lastname@example.org.