Why Do We Deceive Ourselves?

man leaning on his hand

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Key Takeaways

  • We use self-deception, or self-denial, when we allow ourselves to maintain false or unvalidated beliefs.
  • Psychologically, lying to ourselves is an act of self-defense or -enhancement.

We all lie to ourselves. Whether we're convincing ourselves that something is or isn't true, self-deception is a common psychological tactic—so common, in fact, that people can be unaware they're even doing it.

But why do we do it? Research defines self-deception as an independent mental state made up of conscious and unconscious memories and attitudes, as well as controlled and automatic processes, that serves as an attempt at self-protection or enhancement.

Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers theorized that we deceive ourselves, or actively misrepresent reality to the conscious mind, in the hope of better-deceiving others or setting ourselves up for a better future.

However, self-deception can be deployed in both helpful and harmful ways. It can manifest in negative self-talk, in the consistent belief that your partner is cheating on you despite a lack of evidence, in the overconfidence of your abilities to perform a certain task or in denying the reality of bad news. We lie to ourselves to meet certain psychological needs and, sometimes, for social gain.

Self-Deception in Practice

A recent study examining the role of self-deception and the strategies people use to deceive themselves suggests that the habit helps with motivation in challenging situations. Researchers observed participants reorganizing beliefs, seeking out solely supportive evidence while avoiding unsupportive evidence and rejecting facts by voicing doubts around credibility of a source.

Other research has shown that self-deception reduces cognitive load, or the amount of information that can be held by the working memory at one time. And this helps to save cognitive resources.

Terri Cole, LCSW

Some people spend their entire life in self-deception or denial, but the situations or circumstances that we are denying will usually get worse with time.

— Terri Cole, LCSW

Psychotherapist Terri Cole, LCSW, groups self-deception in with self-denial and self-delusion. It's deeper than just a conscious effort to avoid uncomfortable information, but rather it's an unconscious psychological defense mechanism that protects against painful or intolerable feelings.

She points to some examples, such as individuals who deny their own financial mismanagement or unhealthy relationship with alcohol or painful reality about a partner. While ignoring the information might allow you to avoid taking action, is self-deception really sustainable?

"Yes and no," Cole says. "Some people spend their entire life in self-deception or denial, but the situations or circumstances that we are denying will usually get worse with time. So, it takes more and more effort to continue to keep them out of the conscious mind."

Licensed marriage and family therapist Ling Lam, PhD, says he's seeing the habit of self-deception more often. Part of the cause could be the overall "muddiness" of truth and facts in the media.

"The overwhelming information and data coming at us from all sides make it hard for our brain to discern what's true and what's not," Lam says. "The exponential increase in information actually makes it easier to engage in self-deception, because our brain screens out things that don't already fit our existing sense of coherence."

He's noticed several forms of self-deception in sessions with Silicon Valley professionals, specifically, and breaks them down into five categories: cognitive distortions; a skewed view of self in two possible directions — grandiosity or toxic shame; illusions, avoidance and denials; over-reliance on logic and rationality; and the mindset that there are shortcuts for everything, including healing and wholeness. They all serve a purpose, he says.

"Our mind longs to have a coherent narrative about ourselves, our experiences and the world and is drawn to explanations that makes sense to us, maintaining a sense of coherence," Lam says. "Cognitive and emotional dissonance are difficult to hold. Self-deception allows us to hold onto this sense of coherence, even though it means we leave out some parts of the truth of who we are and live under some form of illusion."

Benefit of the Truth

While lying to ourselves can sometimes be an act of self-preservation, living within that illusion can negatively impact our lived reality and relationships. It's important to look into the reasoning behind the lie, Cole says. Facing the reality that self-deception will likely keep you in toxic or unsatisfying habits, situations and relationships can act as motivation to examine the root of the issue.

"You want to look at the places in your life where you feel stuck and ask yourself,  'What do I get to not face, not feel or not experience by staying stuck here?'" Cole says.

Ling Lam, PhD

Our mind longs to have a coherent narrative about ourselves, our experiences and the world and is drawn to explanations that makes sense to us, maintaining a sense of coherence. Self-deception allows us to hold onto this sense of coherence.

— Ling Lam, PhD

By answering that question, Cole says you'll reveal the secondary gain, or the invisible benefit you get from staying in self-deception. After seeing a patient continue to struggle in changing her drinking habits, Cole asked her the secondary gain question, which helped the patient get to the bottom of her problem: Her marriage wasn't working, and she was using alcohol to cope.

While it's important to note that self-deception can be a survival tactic for people living in dangerous environments from which they can't necessarily exit right away, many instances of self-deception are more harmful in the long run. In cases like these, stepping out of the lie can be the act of self-preservation.

What This Means For You

Self-deception is common practice in today's world. But it's important to examine the deeper reasoning behind the deceit to ensure it doesn't become a toxic habit.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Von Hippel W, Trivers R. The evolution and psychology of self-deceptionBehav Brain Sci. 2011;34(1):1-16. doi:10.1017/s0140525x10001354

  2. Jian Z, Zhang W, Tian L, Fan W, Zhong Y. Self-deception reduces cognitive load: The role of involuntary conscious memory impairmentFront Psychol. 2019;10:1718. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01718

  3. Marchi F, Newen A. Self-deception in the predictive mind: Cognitive strategies and a challenge from motivationPhilos Psychol. 2022:1-20. doi:10.1080/09515089.2021.2019693