Why We Lie to Ourselves

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Mandy has been working in the mental health field for more than eight years and has worked with a diverse group of clients. These range ...Read More

What is Self-Deception?

Self-deception is the act of fooling yourself into believing something that is not true or denying aspects of reality to avoid discomfort or cognitive dissonance. Signs of self-deception include:

  • Rationalizing or justifying your actions or beliefs
  • Ignoring evidence that contradicts your beliefs
  • Minimizing or dismissing the effect of your behavior on yourself or others
  • Avoiding self-reflection or introspection to maintain a preferred self-image

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance: The Root of Self-Deception

Cognitive dissonance is when a person feels uncomfortable because they have conflicting thoughts or beliefs. If someone knows smoking is bad for their health but still smoke, they may feel uneasy about it. This discomfort is cognitive dissonance. Self-deception often happens when people try to reduce this discomfort by convincing themselves that their conflicting beliefs or actions are okay or justified, even if they aren’t. In other words, self-deception is an attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance by believing something false or ignoring reality to feel better about conflicting behaviors.


Here is another example of cognitive dissonance:

A recent client had an affair whilst being married. She held a belief that good people do not have affairs. So there was cognitive dissonance between how she wished to see herself (as a good person) and her behavior (having an affair). In order to allow the two conflicting feelings/beliefs to live in harmony, my client had to lie to herself on some level. To her, this was the only way to reduce the tension she felt about herself and her actions.

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So, she justified her actions by telling herself that if her husband had not been so busy at work and had paid her more attention, she would never have strayed. This way, she could feel a whole lot better about herself and what she was doing. She was entitled to seek out another man, wasn’t she?

Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Leon Festinger (1957) proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.

Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance).

The Psychology Behind Self-Deception

The psychological mechanisms involved in self-deception include rationalization, where people find reasons to justify their actions or beliefs even if they contradict reality.

Another mechanism is selective attention, where people focus only on information that supports their beliefs and ignore evidence that challenges them. Self-deception often plays a role in preserving self-esteem by shielding individuals from uncomfortable truths or criticisms that could threaten their positive self-image.

Resolving Cognitive Dissonance

1) We can change our attitude

2) We can acquire new information

3) We can reduce the importance of our beliefs

The more a person wishes to conform, the more likely they are to use cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance explains many of our everyday actions. The person who steals from his employer but tells himself that he is underpaid and deserves the extra is twisting the interpretation of his behavior in order to still feel he is okay as a human being is another good example.

People interpret the same information in extremely different ways to support their own views of the world. We can be quite selective when looking for evidence to justify what we do. People quickly adjust their values to fit their behavior even when it is immoral.

When you think about it, the list of situations in which people resolve cognitive dissonance through rationalizations becomes even longer. If you’re honest with yourself, I’m sure you can think of many times when you’ve done it yourself. I know I can.

Being aware of this can help us to be more aware of and hopefully avoid the many negative consequences of the self deception we all engage in – believing our own lies.

Identifying Self-Deception in Daily Life

It can be hard to recognize if you are engaging in self-deception, especially because it can be a helpful defense mechanism at times. Some common examples of self-deception include:

  • Ignoring health warnings and continuing to engage in unhealthy habits like smoking while ignoring the health risks
  • Making excuses for delaying important tasks instead of acknowledging the need for action
  • Blaming other people for personal shortcomings or failures instead of taking responsibility
  • Believing you are more skilled or capable than you actually are, leading to unrealistic expectations
  • Downplaying the significance of problems or conflicts to avoid confronting uncomfortable emotions

Some pointers for personal reflection include:

  • Ask yourself if there are areas of your life where you might be avoiding the truth or making excuses
  • Consider feedback from trusted friends or family members about your behavior or attitudes
  • Look for recurring themes or behaviors that may indicate a pattern of self-deception
  • Explore alternative perspectives or interpretations of situations to challenge your own beliefs
  • If you’re unsure about your level of self-deception, consider speaking with a counselor for guidance and support
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