To get to the root of the problem of leader self-deception, one must understand how and why a leader would engage in this destructive practice. There are institutional and societal mechanisms in place that may enable or encourage one to self-deceive. In this blog, we discuss the mental and cognitive partitioning processes a leader employs to help them self-deceive for their own gain. Some leaders attempt to convince others and themselves of their leadership prowess by first deceiving themselves. Self-deceivers can compartmentalize information to separate the good from the bad, or they can choose to be ignorant of certain pieces of information. Either strategy will cause mental strain on the individual.
In the journal, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, William von Hippel and Robert Trivers argued that self-deception evolved to facilitate interpersonal deception. In their 2011 article titled, The Evolution and Psychology of Self-Deception, several peers offered confirming and opposing views in their commentary of the von Hippel and Trivers article. One peer commented that compartmentalizing information involved one part of the mind operating with a certain degree of autonomy from others. The part of the mind pigeon-holing this information is not deceiving the other compartments, just separating it. This description of a modular system in the mind allows a more coherent way to discuss this phenomenon.
Von Hippel and Trivers disagreed with this colleague that the modular description provided a simple and clear solution to the problem of self-deception. The debate involved the notion of whether one mental compartment and another opposing compartment contained some of the same information represented by different opinions. These authors debated whether two different representations of information in two different compartments could represent the same thing. For example, if a leader knows something to be true but then stores that information deep inside a mental compartment, can they truly know and not know the validity of the information? They can if their mental and cognitive biases operate below the level of consciousness in deeply-ingrained mechanisms.
When a leader intentionally ignores harmful information, they do so to protect themselves from the results that will ensue when others discover the hidden truth. Sissela Bok wrote about the defining traits of secrecy. She argued that any information could be kept secret from one’s self as long as it is intentionally concealed within a mental partition. The self-deceiver must first actively conceal the information before they can go through the process of separating it into mental bins.
The main benefit of this process to the leader is that they are able to avoid responding to situations that they do not want to make a choice about. This could be viewed as a two-step process. First, the leader dodges the information. Someone hiding information from themselves does so to avoid it. But there is other information that will affect a leader’s decision that they may want to keep as accurate as possible to their benefit. So, the second step is the leader secluding the information so that this data does not come into conflict with other truthful information that they wish to keep true. The self-deceiving leader must hide the information that will negatively impact their decision from coming into contact with information they need to be true to avoid contradicting themselves.
Again, the Von Hippel and Trivers article offers insight into the academic debate as to whether information can truly be compartmentalized and whether this compartmentalization is permanent. These scholars debated the process. Von Hippel and Trivers argued that leaders initiate deception by knowingly propagating a falsehood. They begin by transmitting the misinformation externally, then circle back and convince themselves that the lie is true. This works as well with self-deception. The leader can knowingly lie to themselves, then follow-up by convincing themselves that the lie they are telling themselves is true.
The debate about the process of inventing, hiding, and believing false information raged on between von Hippel and Trivers and their peers, Hui Jung Lu and Lei Chang, and Hugo Mercier. Mercier offered that to possess both truthful and false versions of the same information, people have to actually believe one version. A self-deceptive person would choose to knowingly believe the false version. Along this self-deceptive continuum, von Hippel and Trivers contended that this person could purge themselves of inconvenient truths. By consciously or subconsciously preventing themselves from knowing the truth by storing it away in a mental bin, they actually prevent themselves from knowing the truth, making the lie more palatable. This process works even if the self-deceiving leader initially encoded the information correctly, first storing it as truthful information, then relocating it to a compartment containing information they wish to conceal.
Compartmentalizing the information allows a self-deceiving leader to hide harmful information in an attempt to project a positive image of themselves while preserving the positive self-image they’ve built up. Colleagues Lu and Chang described the benefits of this process. They explained that by hiding truthful information in the subconscious or purposefully distorting the encoded material, the person could honestly offer false information to others. This intentional process of selectively hiding information can help the individual maintain their mental fitness. The individual, in our case, a strategic leader, can later retrieve the intentionally hidden or masked truthful information to alleviate the stress caused by lying.
Ego-Depletion: The Mental Strain from Self-Deception
The result of all of this mental juggling could be harmful to the psyche. It mimics physical exertion. When mental resources are spent willingly going through this compartmentalizing and modulating information process, the cognitive self undergoes depletion. Mental capacity, like physical capacity, is a limited resource. When a leader expends the mental energy required to hide information from themselves, distorts that information from themselves, and later retrieves it, their mental abilities are strained. This results in a detrimental impact on future cognition.
To continue with the physical strength analogy, someone who is stronger physically and in better shape will be better able to withstand muscular exertion and bodily strain. Carrying that to the mental capabilities, someone who is high in morality, one who does not make it a habit of lying to themselves, is less vulnerable to the depletion of their ego. Leaders have to make decisions every day. Sometimes these decisions carry a heavy weight, affecting the future of their organization and the people that rely on them for their livelihoods. This constant barrage of psychological and intellectual strain may make a leader more susceptible to unethical behavior. As they face decision after decision in a rapidly increasing operational tempo, they can get worn down mentally. Just as physical exhaustion can lead to an increased chance of physical injury, mental exhaustion can lead to lapses in ethical decision-making. Thus, it is all the more important that a strategic leader starts with a high moral identity to serve as a buffer against the cumulative effects of ego depletion on their ethical state.
Academics seem to disagree as to where and how a self-deceiver cognitively stores and retrieves information for later use. The goal one may have in mentally compartmentalizing information and storing it as true or false is to protect their ego. One can see that this process can incur a mental toll on the individual.
deceiving oneself causes mental strain, resulting in a detrimental impact on future cognitive capabilities
individuals may be able to mentally compartmentalize information in an attempt to avoid dealing with unwanted information
 Gray and Densten (2007)  Von Hippel and Trivers (2011)  Kurzban (2011)  Von Hippel and Trivers (2011)  Kurzban (2011)  Gilovich et al. (2002)  Bok (1989)  Bok (1989)  Von Hippel and Trivers (2011)  Mercier (2011)  Von Hippel and Trivers (2011)  Lu and Chang (2011)  Baumeister et al. (1998)  Joosten et al. (2014)  Joosten et al. (2014)