Degrees of Self-Deception

Everyone has told a lie, big or small, harmless or damaging, at one time or another. Usually, we examine the reasons for a lie as to how they affect other people and who the intended target is. This blog is more to help people understand how and why a leader would lie to themselves. Be it for material gain or to reassure themselves, leaders self-deceive to differing degrees of prevalence. Sissela Bok assured us that all people lie. There is a degree of openness or concealment in everything that people do.[1] However, self-deception is not necessarily pervasive in everything one does. People are capable of regulating how much and how often they lie to others and to themselves. The great danger to the self is that pathological self-deception can be harmful to one’s mental health.[2]

Certain personalities are more prone to self-deception. Different factors help determine how much, how often, and why a leader would choose to deceive themselves. Delroy Paulhaus and Kevin Williams, in their study of the ‘Dark Triad,’ found that narcissists had a strong self-deceptive component to their personality. They described narcissists as people who exhibited greater levels of grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority than others. Narcissists tended to be more extroverted and overstated their intelligence to enhance their public image. These characteristics were evident in people with low insight into their personalities.[3]

In addition to personality, other factors can affect one’s frequency and degree of self-deception. Internally, certain character traits, like the need to self-enhance, seem to accompany a leader with a greater propensity to self-deceive. Externally, the possibility of getting caught factors in. Self-deceivers are sensitive to the probability of detection present in a situation. It may seem contradictory, but an individual may be more likely to self-deceive when there is a higher chance of getting caught in a lie. People’s capacity for self-deception has evolved to avoid detection when an individual deceives themselves to plausibly deny they are lying.[4]

Levels of Self-Deception

Lying to one’s self and lying to others is still lying. There are different levels and degrees of self-deception, just as there are outright lies and ‘white’ lies. The level of deception or self-deception can be gauged by the intent or results of the lie.

One can simply omit the truth. A lie of omission occurs when someone withholds information with the intention of deceiving.[5] The target of the deception could be others, but could also be the self. The deceiver does not have to tell an outright lie. They could avoid the truth, obfuscate it, exaggerate it, or simply try and cast doubt on the information.[6]

An outright lie is a lie of commission. Someone intentionally gives false information by directly creating the errant information or misstating accurate information.[7] A deception practitioner with a target of either someone else or themselves can deny the truth and say that accurate information is false, or they can advocate the false and say that information that they know to be false is, in fact, true.[8]

Self-Deceiving for the Gain

People deceive to different degrees based on the expected size of the resultant gain. In their article, The Business of Lying, Kaylene Williams, Edward Hernandez, Alfred Petrosky, and Robert Page explained that people would lie based on what they believe they will gain from their deception. This applies to self-deception as well. A person may believe that by intentionally withholding or distorting information from themselves, they will gain something. They stated that humans are not the only primates that lie to gain wealth, security, or build social status, but humans possess the unique intelligence and language skills to elaborately construct a deception. People have and will adjust their lying or truth-telling behavior based on the amount they have to gain through deception.[9]

Thus, the degree to which someone lies to others or to themselves depends on the level of gain they expect to receive. External and internal attempts at deception stand a greater chance of success if the derivations from reality are small and believable. One ignores or distorts reality at their own peril,[10] so it stands to benefit the deceiver if they stick as close to the truth as possible. Deceivers should temper the degree to which they omit information or outright distort it to help hide their intentions.

While people lie based on what they hope to gain, they are also concerned with what their intended target could lose. People deceive to achieve a certain end result that would benefit them. The result could be to enhance their own positions or to minimize conflict. In The Business of Lying, the authors gave the example of a used car salesperson who intends to lie to a potential customer to make the sale. This salesperson may omit some details about the faulty air conditioner in the car, but not lie about the bad brakes.[11] The stakes are much higher in hiding the truth about a defect that could cause someone extreme harm as opposed to omitting information that would merely cause discomfort, especially if the salesperson knows they will gain a commission.

Justifying Self-Deception

A deceiver or self-deceiver can place the blame for their discrepancies on their intended target or on the situation. For instance, during a negotiation between two parties, each side will enhance their role in the relationship based on the gain they expect to receive if they come out on top. To enhance the impression of themselves they wish to project onto their adversary, each side may engage in self-deception to convince themselves of the image they are trying to convey.[12] If you look at this scenario from a real-world perspective, during a negotiation, each side is lying for practical reasons. They are fully aware that what they are claiming to be true or at least a version of the truth is false. Therefore, in their minds, they are lying for pragmatic reasons. Thus, they feel no self-deception is involved, or it is at least justifiable deception. The deception only comes about when one consciously admits their aims and engages in biased reasoning to support their claim.[13]

Leaders deceive themselves for different reasons. When they choose to deceive themselves, they must choose the level of which they lie. The decision to deceive oneself or others and the degree to which one engages in this practice more than likely is driven by the gain expected if the deception is successful and undetected.


  • narcissists, exhibiting greater levels of grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority, have a strong self-deceptive component to their personality

  • an individual is more likely to self-deceive when there is a high chance of getting caught in a lie they tell to others

  • there are different levels and degrees of deception and self-deception, and the degree to which one lies may depend on the level of their intended gain

[1] Bok (1989) [2] Sirvent et al. (2019) [3] Paulhaus and Williams (2002) [4] Lu and Chang (2011) [5] Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) [6] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [7] Fleming and Zyglidopoulos (2007) [8] Preti and Miotto (2011) [9] Williams et al. (2009) [10] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [11] Williams et al. (2009) [12] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [13] Frankish (2011)

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