In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Self-Deception

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Measurement

Psychology Self-Deception
Harry Triandis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0067


Self-deception is seeing the world the way we wish it to be rather than the way it is. When people have a self-deception, they use their hopes, needs, desires, theory, ideology, prejudices, expectations, memories, and other psychological elements to construct the way they see the world. Furthermore, as humans sample information from their environment they tend to sample more heavily the positive rather than the negative elements and the elements that are consistent with their ideology, theory, or religion rather than the elements that are inconsistent. Self-deceptions are usually individual, but when they are widely shared in a culture they are cultural. For example, humans in most cultures believed that spirits and supernatural beings make the world work. However, after around 585 BCE (see Religion) some humans began to believe that the way the world works can be explained by natural factors—that is, by astronomy or physics. In another example, in many cultures most people believe that their culture is the best in the world; in fact the name they use for their own culture is often the same word used for “humans.” In short, whoever is not “us” is not human.

General Overviews

Self-deception has been an intriguing phenomenon. How can people intentionally fool themselves? It appears illogical. Thus philosophers and psychologists have struggled to understand it. Triandis 2009 takes the position that self-deception occurs because humans cannot process all the information available in their environment, so they select the positive and avoid the negative information. This bias results in self-deception. Most of the overviews listed in this section provide examples of self-deception, and some present theoretical and methodological arguments about how to study the phenomenon. Baumeister 1993 provides an excellent overview of the topic with numerous examples. Golman 1985 writes for the general public; this book would be good as an assignment for undergraduates. Myslobodsky 1997 argues that humans have a propensity to construct myths, which can be traced to our ancestors many millennia ago. Sackeim 1988 discusses several kinds of self-deceptions. Lewis and Saarni 1993 is for the serious scholar. Lockard and Paulhus 1988 has a set of chapters that examine the topic from both a philosophical and a psychological aspect; they are aimed at serious scholars. McKay and Dennett 2009 is a very sophisticated discussion of disbelief, including self-deception, for the experts on this topic. Murphy 1975 is one of the early reviews of this topic, written for undergraduates. Triandis 2009 focuses on the applications of self-deception in many aspects of everyday life, especially in politics, religion, and terrorism.

  • Baumeister, Roy F. 1993. Lying to yourself: The enigma of self-deception. In Lying and deception in everyday life. Edited by Michael Lewis and Carolyn Saarni, 166–183. New York: Guilford.

    This chapter provides a broad overview with many examples. Examines how self-deception is possible. The chapter is strong in historic examples; for example, Muslims see the Crusades as attempts to eliminate their religion, and people in the West see them as opening trade and improving intercultural understanding.

  • Golman, Daniel. 1985. Vital lies, simple truths: The psychology of self-deception. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    A psychologist who writes on science for the New York Times summarizes what was known about self-deception in the 1980s. Golman writes for the general public but is accurate.

  • Lewis, Michael, and Carolyn Saarni, eds. 1993. Lying and deception in everyday life. New York: Guilford.

    This book has many chapters about lying, including self-deception. The emphasis is much more on deception than on self-deception.

  • Lockard, Joan S., and Delroy L. Paulhus, eds. 1988. Self-deception: An adaptive mechanism? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Includes chapters with both psychological and philosophical content, with special emphasis on the evolutionary processes implicated in self-deception. Most authors argue that self-deception is highly adaptive.

  • McKay, Ryan T., and Daniel C. Dennett. 2009. The evolution of misbelief. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32:493–561.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X09990975

    A psychologist and a philosopher provide an extensive, sophisticated discussion of misbelief, including self-deceptions and “positive illusions.” Reactions to the main article are provided by an international set of about fifty behavioral scientists and philosophers. There are almost one thousand references, most of which are indirectly related to self-deception.

  • Murphy, Gardner. 1975. Outgrowing self-deception. New York: Basic Books.

    A major social psychologist reviews self-deception. There is an extensive discussion of religion as a self-deception. He discusses the “too-muchness of reality” and the need to select information from the environment and the bias of selecting positive rather than negative information.

  • Myslobodsky, Michael S. 1997. The mythomanias: The nature of deception and self-deception. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    A broad review of self-deception with special focus on its relationship to deception. Humans are inclined to believe in myths. This may be traceable to our hunting and gathering ancestors, who had a strong tendency to construct and use myths.

  • Sackeim, Harold A. 1988. Self-deception: A synthesis. In Self-deception: An adaptive mechanism? Edited by Joan S. Lockard and Delroy L. Paulhus, 146–165. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Examines the paradox of self-deception and several resolutions of the paradox. Mental experience is often distorted, but that is not always a self-deception. Furthermore, within the domain of self-deception there is much variability. A distinction is made between weak and strong self-deceptions.

  • Triandis, Harry C. 2009. Fooling ourselves: Self-deception in politics, religion, and terrorism. Westport, CT. Praeger.

    Covers many aspects of the topic, including applications in everyday life, politics, religion, and terrorism, and suggests that the purpose of life is to help as many people as possible to be healthy (both physically and mentally) and happy so they can live a long time without destroying the environment.

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