You Callin’ You a Liar?

We all tell ourselves stories. We explain away why we didn’t get this job, we justify why we did get that one, and we trust the stories that we tell. Why, after all, would we lie to ourselves?

February 1, 2014

An interesting question recently taken up by Zoë Chance of the Yale Center for Customer Insights, with coauthors from Harvard and Duke Universities.

While it’s well established that we don’t always come clean with our conscience, prior studies have generally looked backward, examining how people use self-deception to cope with past behavior. In contrast, Chance’s work peers forward to understand how self-deception can influence our perspective on the future.

In Chance’s experiments, participants took two tests. During the first test, half the participants were given an answer key. Not surprisingly, their scores on the test were higher. When participants were then asked to predict their performance on an additional test, those who had the answer key for the first section predicted that they would do equally well on the second section--failing to recognize the essential assistance provided by the key. As Chance writes, the test demonstrated that “people who use an answer key to perform well on a test interpret their resultant high scores as evidence of superior intelligence.”

self-deception can have some short-term benefits, but it can bear long-term costs

Even when self-deception was costly, it persisted. Under the same conditions outlined above, the researchers offered participants a bonus of up to $20 on the second test that they could earn by doing as well as they could and predicting their score perfectly. Despite this incentive not to inflate their estimates, those who had received the answer key continued to deceive themselves, overestimating their scores on the second section and losing money as a result. According to Chance, though self-deception can have some short-term benefits—feeling smarter, in this case—it can bear long-term costs.

In a final test of how social cues interact with self-deception, half the participants who had had the answer key for the first test were given a certificate of recognition for above-average work—a small pat on the back that made them even more likely to inflate their opinion of their test-taking abilities. This social outcome implies a cycle in which cheating might result in praise that increases the likelihood of further self-deception.

“Sadly,” the authors conclude, “people not only fail to judge themselves harshly for unethical behavior, but can even use the positive results of such behavior to see themselves as better than ever.”