We often lie to ourselves. It's just easier than facing difficult decisions, standing up for what's right, telling the embarassing truth, facing down people who intimidate us, disagreeing with our friends, dealing with the sometimes frightening reality of things. Avoidance is easier.

Self-deception can be an innocuous practice, but ONLY if you are conscious that it is happening and YOU retain control of the process. If you are deceiving yourself without being conscious of it, you may easily harm yourself and others.

A good example of self-deception at the institutional level is provided by our governments declaration this year of a BUDGET SURPLUS.

From the Skeptic's Dictionary (

Ninety-four percent of university professors think they are better at their jobs than their colleagues.

Twenty-five percent of college students believe they are in the top 1% in terms of their ability to get along with others.

Seventy percent of college students think they are above average in leadership ability. Only two percent think they are below average.

---all of the above are taken from Thomas Gilovich How We Know What Isn't So

"Self-deception is the process or fact of misleading ourselves to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid. Self-deception, in short, is a way we justify false beliefs to ourselves.

"When philosophers and psychologists discuss self-deception, they usually focus on unconscious motivations and intentions. They also usually consider self-deception as a bad thing, something to guard against. To explain how self-deception works, they focus on self-interest, prejudice, desire, insecurity, and other psychological factors unconsciously affecting in a negative way the will to believe. A common example would be that of a parent who believes his child is telling the truth even though the objective evidence strongly supports the claim that the child is lying...

"... there are certain situations where self-deception is so common that we must systematically take steps to avoid it. Such is the case with belief in paranormal or occult phenomena such as ESP, prophetic dreams, dowsing, therapeutic touch, facilitated communication and a host of other topics taken up in the Skeptic's Dictionary.

"In How We Know What Isn't So, Thomas Gilovich describes the details of many studies which make it clear that we must be on guard against the tendencies to

  1. misperceive random data and see patterns where there are none
  2. misinterpret incomplete or unrepresentative data and give extra attention to confirmatory data while drawing conclusions without attending to or seeking out disconfirmatory data
  3. make biased evaluations of ambiguous or inconsistent data, tending to be uncritical of supportive data and very critical of unsupportive data.

"It is because of these tendencies that scientists require clearly defined, controlled, double-blind, randomized, repeatable, publicly presented studies. Otherwise, we run a great risk of deceiving ourselves and believing things that are not true. It is also because of these tendencies that in trying to establish beliefs non-scientists ought to try to imitate science whenever possible. In fact, scientists must keep reminding themselves of these tendencies and guard against pathological science.

Discuss how and when religious beliefs are warranted in light of the above comments. Religious beliefs certainly are not subject to scientific, physical proof. Does this make them unacceptable... or, part of a different category?

"..self-deception is not necessarily a weakness of will, but may be a matter of cognitive ignorance, laziness, or incompetence. In fact, self-deception may not always be a flaw and may even be beneficial at times. If we were too brutally honest and objective about our own abilities and about life in general, we might become debilitatingly depressed." (from Social Evolution and Social Influence: Selfishness, Deception, Self-Deception).

Self-deception and deception by others are the two hardest things to uncover and deal with in critical thinking. And yet, they are the most important, and often have the most potential for harming you if not uncovered.

A good way to begin seeing how deception can hurt you is to read through some of the Alternate News Sources. Then think about what you may be doing to yourself by not being honest WITH yourself.

Some Web links to look at:

National Debt - An Analysis, by Thomas H. Smith
Social Evolution and Social Influence: Selfishness, Deception, Self-Deception

Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

Return to Philosophy Homepage