A new theory states self-deception helps people to remain motivated when faced with difficult situations

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A philosophy team from Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) and the University of Antwerp analyzed the role self-deception plays in everyday life and the strategies people use to deceive themselves.

In the journal Philosophical Psychology, Dr. Francesco Marchi and Professor Albert Newen describe four strategies used to stabilize and shield the positive self-image.

According to their theory, self-deception helps people to stay motivated in difficult situations.

Four strategies of self-deception

“All people deceive themselves, and quite frequently at that,” says Albert Newen from the RUB Institute of Philosophy II.

“For instance, if a father is convinced that his son is a good student and then the son brings home bad grades, he may first say that the subject isn’t that important or that the teacher didn’t explain the material well.”

The researchers call this strategy of self-deception the reorganization of beliefs. In their article, they describe three more frequently used strategies that come into play even earlier in order to prevent unpleasant facts from getting to you in the first place.

This includes selecting facts through purposeful action: people avoid places or persons that might bring problematic facts to their attention, such as the parent-teacher conference. Another strategy is to reject facts by casting doubt on the credibility of the source.

As long as the father hears about his son’s academic problems only indirectly and does not see the grades, he can ignore the problems.

The last strategy is what Newen and Marchi call generating facts from an ambiguous state of affairs: “For instance, if the kind mathematics teacher gently suggests that the son is not coping, and the father would have expected a clear statement in case of difficulties, he may interpret the considerable kindness and the gentle description as a positive assessment of his son’s abilities,” Francesco Marchi elaborates on the example.

The researchers describe all four strategies as typical psychological thinking tendencies. Self-deception is neither unreasonable nor detrimental to people in the short term, but always in the medium and long term.

“These are not malicious ways of doing things, but part of the basic cognitive equipment of humans to preserve their established view of themselves and the world,” says Newen. In normal times with few changes, the tendency to stick to proven views is helpful and also deeply rooted in evolution.

“However, this cognitive tendency is catastrophic in times of radically new challenges that require rapid changes in behavior,” adds the Bochum researcher.

An example from the coronavirus situation

Newen gives an example from the coronavirus situation: “If people in the early stages of a pandemic are skeptical about whether a vaccine will still show unexpected side effects, this is understandable caution that people can initially compensate for by strictly adhering to precautionary rules. Self-deception can also help to avoid panic reactions,” he explains.

“However, if it becomes clear in the medium term that the side effects of the vaccine are clearly limited, then doubt is unreasonable and turns into direct danger to oneself and others. Self-deception also entails distorted risk assessments, because the health risk of foregoing vaccination is much greater than that resulting from vaccination.

“Self-deception can therefore stabilize the self-image, established ways of thinking and motivation to act in normal times, but becomes detrimental in times of crisis that require radical rethinking and new ways of acting, and puts society at risk.”


Self-deception as a process is a controversial concept and an object of debate among scholars. The Collins Dictionary defines self-deception as the act of deceiving oneself, especially about the true nature of one’s feelings or motivations. Basically, self-deception consists of a psychological process that originates and feeds a belief that is opposed to the evidence that the subject possesses. In this work, we will approach self-deception from a psychopathological perspective.

Self-deception is not in itself pathological. We all are capable of it and use it to a greater or lesser extent to interrelate. Pathological self-deception is based on a set of false beliefs, with harmful consequences for the subject’s mental health. Through a process of false self-conviction, subjects begin to fool themselves repeatedly until they come to believe their own deception through an implicit non-associative learning process [1]. Elements such as confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance feed back into this process.

Self-deception or unconscious deception has enormous clinical potential. Researchers have focused on apparently similar and dissimilar constructs, such as deception, lying, desirability and impression management (a process whereby someone tries to influence the observations and opinions of others about something). Even certain defense mechanisms, such as projection, rationalization and denial, are satellite concepts that surround the world of self-deception and mystification [2].

Self-deception affects people with substance abuse problems, making them less able to cope with imminent threats to their health [3]. During the self-deception process, these people try to maintain conviction in their beliefs or give themselves a sense of control over their world [4], that is, over their addiction.

It has been shown that, in the clinical population, specifically among drug addicts and emotional dependents, a syndromic profile of self-deception is more pronounced than in the general population [2]. The literature on addiction points out that substance abusers show more self-deception than those who do not abuse [5], which is not surprising since the abuse of drugs and alcohol are disorders characterized by denial, dishonesty and self-deception [6]. As a result, therapeutic intervention has shifted the focus towards the recovery of honesty and the capacity for objectification [7] as substantial elements in the treatment for dependency [8].

Self-deception has a negative impact on addiction in that there is an inverse relationship between self-deception and the duration of abstinence (individuals with higher self-deception scores are more likely to experience shorter periods of abstinence). Consequently, the level of arbitrary beliefs related to addiction are also higher. In Martínez-González’s [9] research, the importance of self-deception as a maintenance mechanism for drug addiction was demonstrated: Drug addicts presented high levels of denial, selective amnesia, projection and fantasized thinking. These authors also observed a significant relationship between nuclear beliefs related to consumption, craving and the level of self-deception.

Due to the important role played by self-deception in the recovery and treatment of addicts, research is necessary to provide clinicians with valid and reliable instruments to evaluate it.

Most self-deception measures available in the literature are related to a conceptualization of social desirability [10, 16] in which a move away from reality [14] and manipulation play important roles [17] (see Table 1). Decades ago, Damarin & Messick [18] suggested that self-deception implies the defensive distortion of private self-image to be consistent with a global evaluative bias; this idea was operationalized by Sackeim & Gut [19] and served as the basis for the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responses (BIDR) [14, 15], in which two separate dimensions of desirable response were distinguished: self-deception and impression management.

Table 1

Instruments measuring the various components of self-deception.

INSTRUMENTCOMPONENT OF SELF-DECEPTION
Edwards social desirability scale (1957) [10]Social desirability
Crowne-Marlowe social desirability scale (1964) [11]Social desirability
Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI) (1964) [12]Lie scale
Occupational Personality Questionnaire (SHLSaville & Holdsworth 1999) [13]Social desirability
Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDRPaulhus) [14, 15]IM scale: impression management, social desirability
SDE scale: self-deception increase scale
Escala de self-deception (IAM-40) de Sirvent (2012) [2]General scale: self-deception
Subscales: insincerity, manipulation, reiteration, mechanisms of denial, mystification, distorted reality

Another relevant aspect often highlighted in the literature might accompany the evaluation of manipulation on scales of self-deception: contact with reality. The available empirical evidence suggests that self-deception can protect people’s beliefs and desires from a contrary reality (see Von Hippel & Trivers [17] for a review of related studies) and that self-deceivers can be systematically imprecise in their perceptions of reality. An important characteristic of self-deception is its permanent tension with true perception, which could explain why self-deception is related to so-called contact with reality. In the same way, deviation from reality is a characteristic of the desirable social response [20] described by Paulhus [15], which also applies to the dimension of self-deception.

A loss of contact with reality relates to the concept of “clinical mystification.” [21] Clinical mystification consists of a peculiar form of self-deception that affects the subject’s vital activity and development, generating a shield of distrust that hinders interpersonal communication with communicative opacity and the systematic use of denial mechanisms [22].

Additionally, there are perceptual biases that in extreme but not infrequent cases lead to “deception as a way of life,” including the assumption of a false external appearance and even the adoption of a misanthropic attitude. This stage is reached through an implicit non-associative learning process [22]. Mystification can occur in psychiatric pathologies, such as addiction, sociopathy or personality disorders.

The purpose of this study was to develop an instrument to evaluate pathological self-deception that includes its two essential dimensions: manipulation and mystification. As has been shown previously, the availability of pathological self-deception instruments is relatively scarce, and none of them is indicated as a screening instrument.

The existing tests (see Table 1) are limited to self-deception in general [2, 14, 15], desirability [11–15], impressions management [14, 15] (more typical of educational and occupational psychology) and the extent of lying [12], a scope that is not relevant here. Only the IAM-40 inventory explores related facets, but it does not have a scale for clinical mystification, and that test is more directed at clinical intervention than at screening [2], where the component of “clinical mystification” [21] is accentuated in addition to being an effective instrument for assessing level of self-deception in general. The present study explores the validity and psychometric properties of a brief 12-item self-deception scale, developed from the IAM-40 Inventory by Sirvent [2] and measuring the dimensions of manipulation and clinical mystification. It is assumed to be present in a large number of psychic processes, both normal and altered. Here, data were collected from subjects enrolled in a program for substance use disorders as well as adults from the general population.

reference link : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6353154/


Original Research: Closed access.
Self-deception in the predictive mind: cognitive strategies and a challenge from motivation” by Francesco Marchi et al. Philosophical Psychology

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