Getting Away with Self-Deception

Deceiving oneself is similar to deceiving others. The lies and misrepresentations of information must be crafted to deceive an audience. The audience could be direct reports or board members, or the audience could be oneself. Deception, either aimed inwardly or at others, may be easier for some. The chance of getting caught in a lie is always present, and the deceiver must be able to find a way out before the deception becomes counterproductive to their objectives.

Self-Deception is Easier than Other-Deception

The number of targets of a deception plays into the scheme’s difficulty. For self-deceivers, the audience is obviously one. For other-deceivers, the number of targets could be numerous and unknown. The importance of looking at the number of intended targets is that this number affects the possibility of detection. It is easier for a deceiver to deceive a small number of people than it is to deceive a large number of people because as the numbers grow, the deceiver has more inquiring individuals that could uncover the lie. Therefore, self-deception can be a way to avoid trying to deceive a number of other people. The self-deceiver only has to convince themselves. If they are trying to lie to many people, it’s easier to fool one person, themselves, than it is to fool many.[1]

There is a benefit to the deceiver to keep the intended audience small when considering one’s ethical conscience. If the number of targets is small, then the deceiver is less likely to think of their moral transgressions. Self-enhancement as a form of self-deception is more oriented to a large group, like the public in general. They present a false moralistic presentation of the self to avoid the public detection of their deception. So, when trying to fool the public, the deceiver will be more acutely cognizant of their wrongdoings. If the number of deception targets is one, as in self-deception, the deceiver will be even less critical about their moral weaknesses.[2]

Scaling Up the Deception

If the audience must be large, there are factors that the deceiver will have to think about. The consequences of lying and getting away with it increase exponentially. If one lies to others or to themselves and the lie is undetected or causes little to no harm producing little to no consequences, then the deceiver will more likely lie again. Each consecutive lie takes that practitioner further away from ethicality and the accepted practices of the group. If the series of lies is sufficiently small so that they appear insignificant in aggregate, the deceiver is taking steps toward a journey of unethical and illegal activities.[3]

Self-deceivers may find it easier and easier to lie to themselves for self-preservation or for advancement if their lies continue to be undetected. They will be more likely to lie again if they are successful in fooling their audience, either others or themselves. The organization, not just the individual, will eventually suffer. If lying becomes more pervasive and the consequences more severe, this behavior from an individual could permeate throughout the organization. The deceiver adversely impinges on the interests and well-being of others and unjustly benefits from this behavior. This transgressor is creating a conniving, corrupt atmosphere.[4] Since the leader largely sets the culture, this dangerous behavior could spell disaster.

Who Can Get Away with Self-Deception

Lying and getting away with it is no simple task. There’s much to consider when embarking on a deception effort. The lie must be constructed. A deceiver has to invent its content from scratch or distort truthful information to a degree. The delivery and timing of the release of the lie must be determined. The deceiver must be careful in choosing their audience and accomplices. They choose those they wish to collude with, if anyone, based on how well their accomplices can maintain secrecy. Lastly, the deceiver has to think of the effects of their deception; who is hurt, who benefits, how much do they benefit, and unintended results.[5]

Alisher Faizullaev, in his research on diplomats, explained that they are high in self-awareness. They are chosen not only for their loyalty but for their intelligence. He said that these diplomats who are high self-monitors could more easily practice self-deception because they are keenly aware of their strengths and weaknesses and the intricate consequences of their every action.[6] Lying can be complicated as there is a lot to consider. People who are more in tune with their cognitive abilities and the complex happenings that extend from their acts will be better at constructing elaborate lies.

Escape Strategy: Feign Ignorance

If it all falls apart, and the deception starts to backfire, the practitioner must find a way to save face and avoid the consequences. They will want to minimize the retribution by the injured parties if their deception is discovered. If it is self-deception and the truth they’re hiding on themselves comes to the conscious level, they will want to minimize the damage to their self-esteem. One can always feign ignorance, claim they didn’t do it or didn’t know about it or that they’re a victim too. This strategy for avoiding the consequences of a lie is far too common. Claiming ignorance rather than duplicity may work to get someone out of a lie but could have farther reaching consequences.[7] When caught red-handed, claiming ignorance may have the unintended consequences of making that person look foolish, vulnerable, and inept. The deceiver, when caught, has to decide which is worse; being a liar or a moron.

When to End the Self-Deception

When to end a deception, in this instance, is not about the magnitude of its success or failure. Lies can steamroll. As one successfully lies, they become better at it and more comfortable with the ethical ramifications of it. An original lie, either to oneself or to others, may be an act of self-preservation. Once this lie is accepted as truth, then the deceiver will have to maintain that lie, which means they may have to create more lies to put on top of that lie. They may end up painting a pretty elaborate picture of a false reality. It then becomes necessary to add layer upon layer to this fiction until even the best novelist cannot follow it.[8] Things will get more complicated unless the transgressor gets out once their objective is achieved and before things get too messy to explain away. The further away from the truth the offender gets, the more difficult it will be to retrieve truthful information when they need it to serve themselves.[9]

A leader who deceives themselves or others does not want to get caught in a lie. There are personal and professional ramifications if one is discovered in deception. Lying adds complexity to human interaction. It serves a leader best to avoid such practices.

[1] Lu and Chang (2011) [2] Lu and Chang (2011) [3] Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) [4] Fleming and Zyglidopoulos (2007) [5] Williams et al. (2009) [6] Faizullaev (2006) [7] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [8] Williams et al. (2009) [9] Lu and Chang (2011)

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