Self-deception is a process of denying
Denial is a defense mechanism postulated by Sigmund Freud, in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.The subject may use:* simple denial: deny the reality of the...

 or rationalizing
Rationalization (psychology)
In psychology and logic, rationalization is an unconscious defense mechanism in which perceived controversial behaviors or feelings are logically justified and explained in a rational or logical manner in order to avoid any true explanation and made consciously tolerable by plausible means...

 away the relevance, significance, or importance of opposing evidence
Evidence in its broadest sense includes everything that is used to determine or demonstrate the truth of an assertion. Giving or procuring evidence is the process of using those things that are either presumed to be true, or were themselves proven via evidence, to demonstrate an assertion's truth...

 and logical argument. Self-deception involves convincing oneself of a truth (or lack of truth) so that one does not reveal any self-knowledge of the deception.

Definitional problems

A consensus on the identification of self-deception remains elusive to contemporary philosophers, the result of the term's paradoxical elements and ambiguous paradigmatic cases. Self-deception also incorporates numerous dimensions, such as epistemology, psychological and intellectual processes, social contexts, and morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

. As a result, the term is highly debated and occasionally argued to be an impossible phenomenon.


The traditional paradigm of self-deception focuses on interpersonal deception, as described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In this paradigm, A intentionally gets B to believe some proposition p, all the while knowing or believing truly ~p. Such deception is intentional and requires the deceiver to know or believe ~p and the deceived to believe p. On this traditional mode, self-deceivers must (1) hold contradictory beliefs and (2) intentionally get themselves to hold a belief they know or believe truly to be false.

The process of rationalization, however, can obscure the intent of self-deception. Brian McLaughlin illustrates that such rationalizations in certain circumstances permit the phenomenon. When a person, who disbelieves p, intentionally tries to make himself believe or continue believing p by engaging in such activities, and, as a result unintentionally misleads himself into believing or continuing to believe p via biased thinking, he deceives himself in a way appropriate for self-deception. No deceitful intention is required for this.


Self-deception calls into question the nature of the individual, specifically in a psychological context and the nature of "self". Irrationality is the foundation upon which the argued paradoxes of self-deception stem, and it is argued that not everyone has the "special talents" and capacities for self-deception. However, rationalization is influenced by a myriad of factors, including socialization, personal biases, fear, and cognitive repression. Such rationalization can be manipulated in both positive and negative fashions; convincing one to perceive a negative situation optimistically and vice versa. In contrast, rationalization alone cannot effectively clarify the dynamics of self-deception, as reason is just one adaptive form mental processes can take.

Paradoxes of self-deception

The works of philosopher Alfred R. Mele have provided insight into some of the more prominent paradoxes regarding self-deception. Two of these paradoxes include the self-deceiver's state of mind and the dynamics of self-deception, coined the "static" paradox and the "dynamic/strategic" paradox, respectively.

Mele formulates an example of the "static" paradox as the following:
If ever a person A deceives a person B into believing that something, p, is true, A knows or truly believes that p is false while causing B to believe that p is true. So when A deceives A (i.e., himself) into believing that p is true, he knows or truly believes that p is false while causing himself to believe that p is true. Thus, A must simultaneously believe that p is false and believe that p is true. But how is this possible?

Mele then describes the "dynamic/strategy" paradox:
In general, A cannot successfully employ a deceptive strategy against B if B knows As intention and plan. This seems plausible as well when A and B are the same person. A potential self-deceiver's knowledge of his intention and strategy would seem typically to render them ineffective. On the other hand, the suggestion that self-deceivers typically successfully execute their self-deceptive strategies without knowing what they are up to may seem absurd; for an agent's effective execution of his plans seems generally to depend on his cognizance of them and their goals. So how, in general, can an agent deceive himself by employing a self-deceptive strategy?

These models call into question how one can simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs ("static" paradox) and deceive oneself without rendering one's intentions ineffective ("dynamic/strategic" paradox). Attempts at a resolution to these have created two schools of thought: one that maintains that paradigmatic cases of self-deception are intentional and those that deny the notion—Intentionalists and Non-Intentionalists, respectively.

Intentionalists tend to agree that self-deception is intentional, but divide over whether it requires the holding of contradictory beliefs. This school of thought incorporates elements of temporal partitioning (extended over time to benefit the self-deceiver, increasing the chance of forgetting the deception altogether) and psychological partitioning (incorporating various aspects of the "self").

Non-Intentionalists, in contrast, tend to believe that cases of self-deception are not necessarily accidental, but motivated by desire, anxiety, or some other emotion regarding p or related to p. This notion distinguishes self-deception from misunderstanding. Furthermore, "wishful thinking" is distinguished from self-deception in that the self-deceivers recognize evidence against their self-deceptive belief or possess, without recognizing, greater counterevidence than wishful thinkers.

Numerous questions and debates have continued to foment regarding the paradoxes of self-deception, however, a consensual paradigm remains intangible.

Trivers' theory of self-deception

It has been theorized that humans are susceptible to self-arousal because most people have emotional attachments to beliefs, which in some cases may be irrational. Some evolutionary
Evolutionary psychology
Evolutionary psychology is an approach in the social and natural sciences that examines psychological traits such as memory, perception, and language from a modern evolutionary perspective. It seeks to identify which human psychological traits are evolved adaptations, that is, the functional...

 biologists, such as Robert Trivers
Robert Trivers
Robert L. Trivers is an American evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist and Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. Trivers is most noted for proposing the theories of reciprocal altruism , parental investment , facultative sex ratio determination , and...

, have suggested that deception
Deception, beguilement, deceit, bluff, mystification, bad faith, and subterfuge are acts to propagate beliefs that are not true, or not the whole truth . Deception can involve dissimulation, propaganda, and sleight of hand. It can employ distraction, camouflage or concealment...

 plays a significant part in human behavior, and in animal behavior, more generally speaking. One deceives oneself to trust something that is not true as to better convince others of that truth. When a person convinces her or himself of this untrue thing, s/he better mask the signs of deception.

This notion is based on the following logic
In philosophy, Logic is the formal systematic study of the principles of valid inference and correct reasoning. Logic is used in most intellectual activities, but is studied primarily in the disciplines of philosophy, mathematics, semantics, and computer science...

: deception is a fundamental aspect of communication in nature, both between and within species. It has evolved so that one can have an advantage over another. From alarm calls to mimicry, animals use deception to further their survival. Those who are better able to perceive deception are more likely to survive. As a result, self-deception evolved to better mask deception from those who perceive it well, as Trivers puts it: "Hiding the truth from yourself to hide it more deeply from others." In humans, awareness
Awareness is the state or ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events, objects or sensory patterns. In this level of consciousness, sense data can be confirmed by an observer without necessarily implying understanding. More broadly, it is the state or quality of being aware of...

 of the fact that one is acting deceptively often leads to tell-tale signs of deception, such as nostrils flaring, clammy skin, quality and tone of voice, eye movement, or excessive blinking. Therefore, if self-deception enables someone to believe her or his own distortions, s/he will not present such signs of deception and will therefore appear to be telling the truth.

Self-deception can be used both to act greater or lesser than one actually is. For example, one can act overconfident to attract a mate or act under-confident to avoid a predator or threat. If a person is capable of concealing her or his true feelings and intentions well, then s/he is more likely to deceive others and succeed.

It may also be argued that the ability to deceive, or self-deceive, is not the selected trait but a by-product of a more primary trait called abstract thinking. Abstract thinking allows many evolutionary advantages such as more flexible, adaptive behaviors and innovation. Since a lie is an abstraction
Abstraction is a process by which higher concepts are derived from the usage and classification of literal concepts, first principles, or other methods....

, the mental process of creating a lie can only occur in animals with enough brain complexity to permit abstract thinking. Self-deception lowers cognitive cost; that is to say, it is less complicated for one to behave or think in a certain manner that implies something is true, if one has convinced oneself that that very thing is indeed true. The mind will not have to think constantly of the true thing and then the false thing, but simply convince itself that the false thing is true.

Evolutionary implications of Trivers' theory of self-deception

Because there is deceit, there exists a strong selection to recognize when deception occurs. As a result, self-deception evolves so as to better hide the signs of deception from others. The presence of deception explains the existence of an innate ability to commit self-deception to hide the indications of deceptions. Humans deceive themselves in order to better deceive others and thus have an advantage over them. In the three decades since Trivers introduced his adaptive theory of self-deception, there has been an ongoing debate over the question of such behavior having a genetic basis.

The explanation of deception and self-deception as innate characteristics is perhaps true, but there are very many other explanations for this pattern of behavior. It is possible that the ability to self-deceive is not innate, but a learned trait, acquired through experience. For example, a person could have been caught being deceitful by revealing her/his knowledge of information she/he was trying to hide. Her/his nostrils flared, indicating that she/he was lying to the other person, and she/he thus did not get what she/he wanted. Next time, to better achieve success, the person will more actively deceive her/himself of having knowledge to better hide the signs of deception. People therefore could have the capacity to learn self-deception.


Though the term is difficult to define, examples of self-deception are abundant in varying degrees. Simple instances of self-deception include common occurrences such as: the alcoholic who is self-deceived in believing that his drinking is under control, the husband who is self-deceived in believing that his wife is not having an affair, the jealous colleague who is self deceived in believing that her colleague's greater professional success is due to ruthless ambition.

The implications of self-deception increase in gravity when conducted on a political scale. Both policymakers and heads of state are capable of self-deception, which can affect both internal and foreign affairs. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq, based, in part, on the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction, serves as a prominent—and controversial—case of self-deception that is still being examined because of its dismal results.

In the same invasion, former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf illustrated another well-known instance of self-deception. On April 7, 2003, al-Sahhaf claimed that there were no American troops in Baghdad, and that the Americans were committing suicide by the hundreds at the city's gates. At that time, American tanks were patrolling the streets only a few hundred meters from the location where the press conference was held. Despite empirical evidence contradicting al-Sahhaf's claims, he claimed that the reports were provided by "reliable sources".

Further examples can be found in various despotic countries around the world. Self-deception is typically evident in such environments, nourished by reluctance to leadership criticism from both the citizens and members of the regime. This notion is personified by Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il, also written as Kim Jong Il, birth name Yuri Irsenovich Kim born 16 February 1941 or 16 February 1942 , is the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea...

, de facto leader of Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), through self-proclamations (such as his messianic title "Dear Father") and his entourage of primarily Korean War veterans. With heavy restrictions placed on free speech, and Kim Jong-il's noted intolerance for criticism, self-deception on the state of internal and external affairs can foment without advisory counterevidence.

See also

  • Anosognosia
    Anosognosia /æˌnɒsɒgˈnəʊsɪə/ is a condition in which a person who suffers disability seems unaware of the existence of his or her disability. Unlike denial, which is a defense mechanism, anosognosia is rooted in physiology...

  • Bad faith
    Bad faith
    Bad faith is double mindedness or double heartedness in duplicity, fraud, or deception. It may involve intentional deceit of others, or self deception....

  • Bad faith
    Bad faith (existentialism)
    Bad faith is a philosophical concept used by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to describe the phenomenon where a human being under pressure from societal forces adopts false values and disowns their innate freedom to act authentically...

  • Cognitive dissonance
    Cognitive dissonance
    Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying,...

  • Confabulation
    Confabulation is the process in which a memory is remembered falsely. Confabulations are indicative of a complicated and intricate process that can be led astray at any given point during encoding, storage, or recall of a memory. Two distinct types of confabulation are often distinguished...

  • Delusion
    A delusion is a false belief held with absolute conviction despite superior evidence. Unlike hallucinations, delusions are always pathological...

  • Denial
    Denial is a defense mechanism postulated by Sigmund Freud, in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.The subject may use:* simple denial: deny the reality of the...

  • Distancing language
    Distancing language
    Distancing language is phrasing used by people to "distance" themselves from a statement, either to avoid thinking about the subject or to distance themselves from its content...

  • Doublethink
    Doublethink, a word coined by George Orwell in the novel 1984, describes the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts. It is related to, but distinct from, hypocrisy and neutrality. Its opposite is cognitive dissonance, where...

  • Double-blind

  • Groupthink
    Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without...

  • Introspection illusion
    Introspection illusion
    The introspection illusion is a cognitive illusion in which people wrongly think they have direct insight into the origins of their mental states, while treating others' introspections as unreliable...

  • Indoctrination
    Indoctrination is the process of inculcating ideas, attitudes, cognitive strategies or a professional methodology . It is often distinguished from education by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned...

  • List of cognitive biases
  • Point of no return
    Point of no return
    The point of no return is the point beyond which one must continue on his or her current course of action because turning back is physically impossible, prohibitively expensive or dangerous. It is also used when the distance or effort required to get back would be greater than the remainder of the...

  • Positive illusions
    Positive illusions
    Positive illusions are unrealistically favourable attitudes that people have towards themselves. There are three broad kinds: inflated assessment of one's own abilities, unrealistic optimism about the future and an illusion of control...

  • Propaganda
    Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one's group....

  • Psychology
    Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

  • Rigour
    Rigour or rigor has a number of meanings in relation to intellectual life and discourse. These are separate from public and political applications with their suggestion of laws enforced to the letter, or political absolutism...

  • Self-fulfilling prophecy
    Self-fulfilling prophecy
    A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior. Although examples of such prophecies can be found in literature as far back as ancient Greece and...

  • Self-handicapping
    Self-handicapping is the process by which people avoid effort in the hopes of keeping potential failure from hurting self-esteem. It was first theorized by Edward E...

  • Self propaganda
    Self propaganda
    Self-propaganda is a form of propaganda and indoctrination performed by an individual or a group on oneself.-Background:Essentially, it is the act of telling one's self something that they consider to be true, or to convince themselves, with the unfortunate repercussion of their having no doubts...

  • Subjective validation
    Subjective validation
    Subjective validation, sometimes called personal validation effect, is a cognitive bias by which a person will consider a statement or another piece of information to be correct if it has any personal meaning or significance to them...

  • True-believer syndrome
    True-believer syndrome
    True-believer syndrome is an informal or rhetorical term coined by M. Lamar Keene in his 1976 book The Psychic Mafia. Keene used the term to refer to people who continued to believe in a paranormal event or phenomenon even after it had been proven to have been staged...

  • Wishful thinking
    Wishful thinking
    Wishful thinking is the formation of beliefs and making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality or reality...

  • Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur
    Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur
    Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur, a Latin phrase, means "The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived."- Origins :The saying is ascribed to Petronius, a Roman satirist from the first century, CE.Other attributions include the following:...

External links


  • Leadership and Self Deception, by Arbinger Institute - talks at length about self-deception and its implications for leaders - in personal and public life. ISBN 978-1576759776
  • Anatomy of Peace - Resolving the Heart of Conflict, by Arbinger Institute ISBN 978-1576753347
  • McLaughlin, Brian P. & Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (eds.) (1988). Perspectives on Self-Deception. California UP: Berkley etc.


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