The Power of Self-Deception

Oct. 22, 2021

When someone sneers, “you’re lying to yourself,” she’s usually not giving you a complement. She’s not saying that you feel in control or are more likely to be successful. Instead, your critic is accusing you of some combination of: exercising poor judgment, of having an inflated sense of your abilities, of failing to foresee some harm in your future.

But various thinkers and researchers are exploring some very real upsides to self-deception. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Joseph T. Hallinan puts the matter under his microscope in his recent book Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception. Hallinan’s thesis is that self-deception, far from being destructive, is also beneficial. And it’s not beneficial in building confidence or something superficial, but responsible for health benefits and true happiness.

Confidence Is Sexy, Don’t You Think?

One of the main benefits of self-deception is the way in which it fosters self-confidence. Confidence is the key to winning the confidence of others and drawing them to us. But it also often gives us important control. That can be what enables us to move forward on important actions, to be decisive, and to have the faith to put effort into our projects. But being in control also has very scientifically-proven, practical benefits, according to Hallinan. The author told O Magazine, “When you feel powerless, stress hormones flood your system, and over time, they may wear your body out.” He goes on to outline a study that said people with control over their schedules live longer than those who don’t. The remedy for people with, say, a fixed lunch schedule on the job, is to deceive oneself into thinking your lunch time is when you’d happen to eat anyway.

The Self-deception Gene

Part of winning others over to us through confidence can be considered deception. We might project greater mastery or knowledge than we really have, and consciously or unconsciously, people take our word for it. This is part of the reason just about anyone will tell you that a person seeking dates and significant others must project confidence. The thinking goes that if Dylan seems to think something is wrong with himself than something probably is.

According to well-known evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, females need to find “reproductive” success in male suitors. The way the male can demonstrate this can often be deception, putting forth selective traits and details while hiding others, boasting their successes, seeming more confident about future success than they have good reason to be, etc. These men are more likely to find sexual partners than others, and this means passing on genes for a penchant for self-deception to their offspring.

The Lie Becomes the Truth

In general, the idea behind better living through self-deception is that the lie can become the truth. Sometimes it’s a matter of perception or interpretation, and sometimes we deal in quantifiable results. Sometimes a magical transformation can occur in which living and acting as though X is the case starts to make it the case. It can be a matter of becoming comfortable with, say, pretending to be more at ease in social situations than one is, and slowly becoming more at ease.

Be Careful

Certainly, you don’t want to become a delusional maniac. Being aware of limitations can save a lot of heartache, and marshaling a bit of realistic thoughts doesn’t have to mean putting an end to one’s lofty ideals and thoughts altogether. It’s quite a trick, knowing when to rein in one’s useful self-deception, but then again, you’re uncommonly wise, right?

This is a repost of my article on LinkedIn: