The Toolbox of Self-Deception

The ubiquitous nature of self-deception in daily life.


In a now-famous experiment, Leon Festinger and Merrill Carlsmith of Stanford University had participants complete an excruciatingly boring series of peg-turning tasks for a full hour. The researchers then asked them to help create a positive expectation for the next participant–by telling that person the experiment would actually be fun. Participants complied, agreeing to lie in the name of science, and were each promised either $20 or $1 for their efforts.

How did they live with themselves afterwards? For the participants who had been paid less, rationalization was the key. When asked later by a departmental representative ostensibly unaffiliated with the study how much fun the peg turning had really been, those who received $20 reported that the experience was mind-numbing. Those paid a mere dollar assessed the task much more favorably. Without a compelling financial justification for their deceit, the $1-participants convinced themselves that they really hadn't lied at all.

The Better-Than-Average Effect

In one survey, 86 percent of business managers said they were more ethical than their peers. In another, 94 percent of professors said they were better teachers than the average faculty member on campus.


Ironically, the better-than-average effect is most exaggerated among the least competent. The worse we are at something, the better we often think we are, as fans of American Idol can attest.

Illusions of Control

Rationally speaking, it's hard to explain why anyone ever buys lottery tickets. But buy them we do, and part of the reason lies with another of our feel-good strategies: illusions of control. We convince ourselves that the randomness of life doesn't apply to us. Others may be unable to manage their own destinies, but somehow we think we can.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer ran a study in which she either gave people a raffle ticket or let them choose one. When she then tried to buy the tickets back, those who had been allowed to select their own held out for four times as much money as those who were simply handed a ticket.

Just putting thought into, for example, which lotto numbers to play is enough to make us more optimistic–as if our intellect were so profound that it somehow gives us better odds than all those idiots with lousy numbers.

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