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The Toolbox of Self-Deception

How and why we kid ourselves

It was a Wednesday in late October and I had to teach at 10:30. Usually, this meant a morning behind a closed office door, but this was the day of the university’s health fair. Apparently, I could get a forty-dollar gift card just for getting my vital signs checked. Between learning how to lower my cholesterol and scoring a free bloomin’ onion, I figured I would just about break even. But I was in for a rude surprise: one of my test results was borderline “abnormal.”

There had to be some innocent explanation, I told myself. The room where the screening took place was hot and crowded. Things were busy enough that someone could’ve transposed digits or confused samples. The presidential election was approaching and I had stayed up too late the night before, reading online polls.

I even cajoled the nurse into taking another measurement, despite the look she gave me that said, Buddy, everybody thinks the numbers are wrong, but they never are. The second measurement wasn’t much better.

Still, I didn’t buy it. I went straight from the health fair to my research methods class, where—as any of the students who took notes can attest—I spent the first ten minutes using my experience to illustrate the concept of measurement error. That’ll teach them to mess with me, I figured.

Why did I go to such lengths to refute objective information—information that was intended solely for my benefit? Because it was threatening. People do this all the time. We bend the facts to fit our self-image, perpetuating a view of ourselves that is often more positive than accurate. Thirty years ago, Anthony Greenwald, a psychologist now at the University of Washington, went so far as to compare the ego to a totalitarian dictator. Just like Stalin, who had a habit of airbrushing ex-comrades out of old photos after they were sent off to the gulag, we regularly write revisionist histories and paint unrealistically glossy portraits of ourselves.

When you stop to think about it (and that’s what we psychologists are trained to do), we enlist an impressive array of cognitive tactics and behavioral gambits in the daily effort to feel good about ourselves. We carry around a veritable toolbox of self-deception. The main tool I pulled out at the health fair was good old-fashioned denial. But there are many other options as well—more than I can catalog here. What follows is but a sampling of the more common strategies we employ in the pursuit of positive self-regard:

1. Rationalization
Rationalization is a core component of self-deception. In my health-screening example, it accompanied my denial, as I simultaneously refused to believe the measurement and wracked my brain for reasons why it had to be erroneous. But rationalization can take other forms. As Jeff Goldblum’s character says in the movie The Big Chill, “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”

It’s through rationalization that the smoker convinces herself that her habit isn’t that unhealthy. After all, she still exercises, unlike some people she knows. It’s rationalization when a customer keeps the extra change the cashier mistakenly hands back and justifies his decision by reflecting that the store is marking up prices to begin with. Or when a relative of mine—who shall remain nameless—refers to the banana he picks up and eats while grocery shopping as “the price of doing business” with him.

In a now famous experiment, Leon Festinger and Merrill Carlsmith, of Stanford University, had participants complete an excruciatingly boring series of peg-turning tasks for a full hour. The researchers then asked them to help create a positive expectation for the next participant—by telling that person the experiment would actually be fun. Participants complied, agreeing to lie in the name of science, and were each promised either twenty dollars or one dollar for their efforts.

How did they live with themselves afterwards? For the participants who had been paid less, rationalization was the key. When asked later by a departmental representative ostensibly unaffiliated with the study how much fun the peg turning had really been, those who received twenty dollars reported that the experience was mind-numbing. Those paid a mere dollar assessed the task much more favorably. Without a compelling financial justification for their deceit, the one-dollar participants convinced themselves that they really hadn’t lied at all.

2. The Better-Than-Average Effect
How strong are your social skills? Seriously, think for a second and rate yourself on a scale of one to ten. (A rating of one means you’re the most socially inept person on the planet, a ten that you’re the best.) Then keep reading.

When I ask my students this question in class, the average response is usually eight or nine. Even when I tell them to limit the comparison group to fellow Tufts students, far more than half tell me that their social skills are better than average. Impressive, no? Either I am the luckiest professor at the university or a large percentage of those students are kidding themselves.

This inclination—what Cornell psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning call the better-than-average effect—isn’t limited to Jumbos. In one survey, 86 percent of business managers said they were more ethical than their peers. In another, 94 percent of professors said they were better teachers than the average faculty member on campus.

Ironically, the better-than-average effect is most exaggerated among the least competent. The worse we are at something, the better we often think we are, as fans of American Idol can attest. Of course, such distortions are most prevalent in domains that have a low threshold for competence. Almost anyone can drive a car or exhibit decent social skills, and amusingly high numbers of people believe that they’re great at these things. But in domains where general levels of societal proficiency are lower—let’s say, juggling or public speaking—the bias isn’t nearly as prevalent.

So how strong are your social skills? I don’t profess to know. But I’m not sure you know, either.

3. Illusions of Control
Ever play the lottery? I’ll admit that I buy tickets when the jackpot gets to nine figures, an interesting phenomenon in and of itself: as if $100 million would be life-altering, but $75 million isn’t worth my effort.

Rationally speaking, it’s hard to explain why anyone ever buys lottery tickets. But buy them we do, and part of the reason lies with another of our feel-good strategies: illusions of control. We convince ourselves that the randomness of life doesn’t apply to us. Others may be unable to manage their own destinies, but somehow we think we can.

The Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer ran a study in which she either gave people a raffle ticket or let them choose one. When she then tried to buy the tickets back, those who had been allowed to select their own held out for four times as much money as those who were simply handed a ticket. Just putting thought into, for example, which lotto numbers to play is enough to make us more optimistic—as if our intellect were so profound that it somehow gave us better odds than all those idiots with lousy numbers.

Illusions of control also explain why, even after being reminded that divorce rates hover at 50 percent, respondents in one study by the late Ziva Kunda, a psychologist at Canada’s University of Waterloo, estimated that their own marriage had only a 20 percent probability of dissolving. Or why, in a recent survey on the real estate website Zillow.com, half of homeowners said their house had held its value or even appreciated during a year when nationwide sale prices dropped 9 percent. Or why we’re able to assure ourselves that we will escape the documented side effects of a given medical treatment—you know, the ones that are muttered in hurried tones at the end of pharmaceutical commercials.

4. Basking in Reflected Glory
People are social animals. We spend much of our lives seeking out and managing bonds with others. It should come as no surprise, then, that when we’re trying to feel good about ourselves, we frequently call to mind our more illustrious associations, basking in their reflected glory. If you don’t believe me, Google “claim to fame.” You’ll find a variety of websites on which posters can tout their great-great-grandmother’s affair with General Custer or celebrate a chance golf outing with Alice Cooper.

Sports fans are awash in reflected glory. A study by Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona State University, has found that college students are more likely to wear their school insignia to class on a Monday following a football victory than they are following a loss. In a second study, Cialdini and colleagues reported that while 32 percent of students use the pronoun we in talking about a victory by their school’s team, only 18 percent use we in talking about a loss.

The we effect is most pronounced when people need an ego boost. In yet another Cialdini study, respondents were asked to complete a survey about the student body on their campus. Half of the participants, selected at random, were given positive feedback (“you did really well compared to the average student”). The other half received negative feedback (“you did really poorly”). In subsequent discussions about their school’s victorious football team, the tendency to use we was higher among the students who presumably needed pumping up: 40 percent for those who believed they had failed the survey, compared with 24 percent for those who believed they had aced it. There’s a reason why those big foam fingers sold at football stadiums never say “They’re #1.”

5. Downward Social Comparison
So associating ourselves with successful and accomplished others is always the way to go, right? Not so fast. What if those others are thriving in the very areas where we’re faltering? The novelist may revel in the feats of her neighbor the musician, but the best-selling book of her cousin may bring on crippling envy. And what if we can’t even use the better-than-average effect? What if we run up against irrefutable evidence that we’re actually not better than average? In such cases, we often resort to downward social comparison, viewing our attainments alongside those of the least successful individuals we know.

Think about the last time you were handed back an exam, whether days or decades ago. If you’re like most of the test takers I know, one of your first reactions was to wonder what the average score was. Or to ask your friend how she did. Or maybe even to sneak a peek at the score of the guy sitting down the row from you.

A study by Joanne Wood and colleagues at the University of Waterloo shows downward social comparison in action. Participants were given a series of tests, and then some, chosen at random, were told they had succeeded, while others, also chosen at random, were told they had failed. The participants’ next task was to select a test for their unseen partner in a separate room—a test that they would score for the partner. Those who thought they themselves had done poorly assigned their partner the most challenging test to muddle through.

Though this tendency doesn’t paint the prettiest picture of human nature, sometimes there’s nothing like other people’s struggles to make us feel better about our own plight. Research on breast cancer reveals that one coping strategy for women who need a lumpectomy is to compare themselves with those undergoing mastectomy. Our own financial woes don’t seem so bad when we think about families in foreclosure. And your 75 on the biology exam isn’t as problematic when you consider the even lower score of that guy who sleeps through class.

Not to mention that the test was unfair, you were nursing a head cold, and you stayed out too late the night before. Speaking of which . . .

6. Self-Handicapping
Sometimes we actually undermine our own performance to ward off threats to the ego. Psychologists refer to this as self-handicapping. To illustrate, let’s say you do stay out late the night before a big test. If you don’t perform well, you can tell yourself that it wasn’t because of any intellectual shortcoming. If you pull off a good grade anyway, then wow—you did it without even studying.

For me, the king of self-handicapping will always be my best friend from college. He had an uncanny knack for placing himself in no-lose situations. In Wiffle ball, he’d inevitably start swinging left-handed halfway through. If he lost, well, hey, he was swinging left-handed; if he won, we’d never hear the end of it. The honors thesis that I sweated over for months during my senior year? He wrote his the night before. Literally all of it. That we earned the same grade chafed a bit, I’ll admit. But it made his day.

Some people are more prone to self-handicapping than others, of course. Several studies indicate that men are more susceptible than women. And according to Robert Arkin, of Ohio State University, self-handicapping is especially common among the chronically self-conscious. In one of Arkin’s studies, students were given a choice of music to listen to while completing a test of spatial skill. Some musical options, they were told, might enhance their concentration, while others could prove distracting. When the test was framed as a powerful predictor of future college and career success, more participants went for the supposedly distracting music, giving themselves a ready-made excuse for poor performance. This tendency was pronounced among men and among students of either sex who reported feeling self-conscious in public.

Do you recognize any of these self-deceiving strategies in your family? Your friends? Your colleagues? I know better than to ask if you engage in any of them. I mean, of course you don’t.

But even if we are momentarily candid with ourselves, the question remains: What should we do about this blindness to reality, this resistance to the awful truth? Quite possibly, nothing.

In an influential article published in 1988, Shelley Taylor, of UCLA, and Jonathon Brown, of the University of Washington, suggested that distortions of reality are essential to our mental well-being. This idea was illustrated in a study by Lauren Alloy, of Temple University, and Lyn Abramson, of the University of Wisconsin. Study participants—some of them depressed and some of them not—sat in front of a light bulb with a button that they could either push or not, as they chose. Sometimes when the button was pushed, the light went on; other times it didn’t. In reality, the button wasn’t connected to the light at all—the bulb simply flashed on and off at random. Later, when asked how much control they thought they had over the light, participants who were depressed accurately reported that they had none. But those who weren’t saw things differently. These “normal” people had an exaggerated sense of control, the same type of illusion harbored by the overconfident lotto player or the superstitious sports fan.

Our real task, psychologically, may not be to banish self-deception but to make it work for us—to enlist it when we feel threatened and let go of it when we’re ready to face facts. Should we always evaluate ourselves in relation to those of inferior aptitude? No—we’ll grow complacent and develop an exaggerated sense of competence. But sometimes a dash of downward social comparison is just what we need to bounce back from failure. Or maybe the better-than-average effect will do the trick. Or a little rationalization.

My health screening was a case in point. Denial, with a dollop of rationalization, helped get me through the day. I taught, got some writing done, and went about business as usual. Then a few days later, when I had come to grips with reality, I made an appointment to see my doctor. Now, the offending number is back to normal, and I have a new morning routine before I teach: running at the gym. Consider it a public service—my ten-minute miles are perfect fodder for your next downward social comparison. And when I finally cash in my gift card, I’ll order a salad, dressing on the side. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

SAM SOMMERS is an assistant professor of psychology at Tufts. His research examines how juries make decisions in criminal trials and how interactions between people of different races go awry. In 2007 he received the Lerman-Neubauer Prize for Outstanding Teaching and Advising.

  © 2009 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155