Cortney Warren on Honest Liars: The Psychology of Self-Deception at TEDxUNLV
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Cortney Warren – Clinical Psychologist, Researcher, Author
Humans are masters of self-deception. We fool ourselves into believing things that are false and we refuse to believe things that are true.
I was in graduate school when I really started delving into the topic of self-deception. And it rocked my world. I saw it everywhere, in everyone.
We lie to ourselves about the smallest details, such as how much we really ate today, and why we didn’t list our actual height and weight on our driver’s license.
We lie to reflect our aspirational goals: “I’ll only have one glass of wine tonight,” — when I know I’m drinking at least three.
We lie to uphold social ideals: “I never have sexual thoughts with anyone except my spouse,” because that wouldn’t be acceptable.
We lie about our most important life choices, such as why we married who we did, or chose our given career path. Unfortunately, for all the romantics out there, love is rarely the full motivation for those choices.
Nowhere was self-deception more obvious than in my romantic relationships. I was terrified of being left. My fear of abandonment led me to act in ways that are still hard for me to admit — anxiously awaiting a phone call, driving to see if he was where he said he would be, asking repeatedly if he loved me. At the time, I couldn’t have told you any of that, because I wouldn’t have been able to admit it to myself.
At the core, we lie to ourselves because we don’t have enough psychological strength to admit the truth and deal with the consequences that will follow.
That said, understanding our self-deception is the most effective way to live a fulfilling life. For when we admit who we really are, we have the opportunity to change. It’s hard to look at this photo and think, “Liars!”
But our self-deceptive tendencies start here. From a very early age we start observing and making conclusions about ourselves and our environment. Right or wrong, the conclusions we made affected our identity.
As adults, we will most want to lie about how psychologically painful realities experienced as children affected who we are today. Perhaps you were raised in a single parent home, in which you were neglected by your father. You learned that something was wrong with you — you weren’t smart enough, attractive enough, athletic enough. You concluded that to make people love you, you need to be perfect.
As an adult, when someone points out your imperfections, you feel tremendous anxiety but deny where it comes from. Perhaps you felt ugly as a child because you were teased for your appearance. You learned to eat in response to emotional pain. As an adult, you struggle to maintain a stable weight, because your eating has very little to do with hunger.
Perhaps you watched your parents fight. You learned to avoid conflict. Now, you struggle to admit even feeling negative emotion. Although each of our specific childhood learnings will be unique, what we learned will be exemplified in the lies we tell ourselves as adults.
Psychological theories of human nature can help us understand our self-deception. Sigmund Freud first described lying through ego-defense mechanisms: Psychological strategies that protect our egos — our core sense of self — from information that would hurt us.
Denial: Refusing to believe that something is true, even though it is. “I don’t have a problem with alcohol,” — even though I drink everyday.
“I’m not jealous,” — even though I secretly check my partner’s email.
Rationalization: Creating a reason to excuse ourselves. “I wouldn’t have yelled at you if you hadn’t treated me so unfairly,” thereby justifying my yelling.
“I know that smoking isn’t good for my health, but it helps me relax,” thereby justifying my smoking.
Projection: Taking an undesirable aspect of ourselves and ascribing it to someone else. “I’m not like that. You’re like that.”
When dating someone you’ve lost interest in, you say things like, “You’re not ready for this relationship,” when, in fact, you’re not ready for this relationship and never will be.
Pioneers in the cognitive-behavioral realms describe how our thoughts deceive us through cognitive distortions — irrational ways we think.