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Misrepresenting Reality to Deal with Conflicting Information

Self-deception involves distorting or misrepresenting the truth internally when that information does not match up with what the self-deceiver wants or believes it should be. One who self-deceives may intentionally misrepresent incoming information in the form of cognitive bias to protect oneself or project a distorted self-image. Individuals must decide what to do with and about information they receive that runs contrary to already held beliefs. Leaders do this to maintain positive self-esteem so they can continue to lead in the face of adversity and challenge.[1]

Philosopher and author Herbert Fingarette gave a good example in his article explaining how the brain works. As a coping mechanism to deal with frustrations in life, he said that someone might self-deceive to avoid focusing on something they wish to avoid. It could be something of little consequence, but the act of self-deceiving is there. For example, someone intentionally avoiding focusing on something annoying, like the sound of a passing car. The self-deceiver avoids paying attention to the distraction without focusing their attention on the fact that they’re doing it. Ignoring information to avoid discomfort or distraction is only one way of dealing with information one may not want to face.[2]

Incongruency Gets the Self-Deception Started

When an individual wants to see things a certain way or at least expects things to be a certain way, and the reality is different, internal conflict ensues. Leon Festinger’s 1962 Cognitive Dissonance Theory suggested that individuals are forced to rationalize to themselves the difference between their behavior and their views about ethicality.[3] This rationalization may take place on the subconscious level. The person may attempt to hold onto a belief even when evidence exists that contradicts it. The interaction between the intrapersonal and the external, organized environment is incongruent, and the person may try and influence the external environment to match their internal understanding of the situation.[4]

Intentionally Misrepresenting Incoming Information

From an evolutionary perspective, self-deception can be viewed as a survival mechanism. Self-deception is the active misrepresentation of reality in one’s conscious mind.[5] This practice can be applied in an attempt to preserve one’s well-being, both physically and mentally. A person may try and deceive an opponent to gain an advantage over them. They can avoid the truth or omit the truth. When strategic leaders lie about planned actions or intentions, especially at the organizational, strategic level, they often employ extreme active misrepresentation schemes as opposed to just omitting some information.[6]

The intentional misrepresentation of the truth may or may not be planned, but it can be predicted. Deception may not be a knee-jerk reaction, like lying in the heat of the moment. Experienced employees at any level may see information coming that they know they will want to hide, avoid, or misrepresent. They know before the information comes to their attention that it will be inconsistent with what they want to believe. The strategic leader may choose to simply forget the information or misremember it later.[7]

Distorting Incoming Information

An important reason that a leader will engage in distorting accurate information is that the information may cause them great stress. Strategic leaders face a great deal of stress in managing large organizations anyway. If they can avoid piling on even more stress by employing self-deceptive practices, then they may. Intense stress provides great motivation for avoiding the situation that will cause it. So, the leader may choose not to focus their attention on it to avoid the trauma of a potentially emotional situation.[8]

These internal conflicts and intensely stressful circumstances can be debilitating to a leader.[9] In an attempt to avoid such situations, leaders may avoid, misrepresent, or outright lie about something and then create a narrative to convince others of their position. For instance, language euphemisms and metaphors are the disguised stories leaders tell to bring their unethical actions in line with how they are expected to act.[10] It is their way of explaining a horrible thing they’ve done with colorful language and emotionally-packed, heart-warming explanations. If the leader believes the story they are trying to sell their audience, they are deceiving themselves.

Discarding Incoming Information

Rather than constructing elaborate cover stories to explain wrongdoing, leaders could just discard information that conflicts with their already held thoughts. This might be simpler and much less difficult to justify if their deception is detected. Becoming defensive about feedback or derogatory information may be unbecoming for the head of an organization who is supposed to hold themselves to a higher standard than everyone else in the firm.[11] Back-pedaling, spin, and denials after the fact are all ways of coping but may present the leader as a manipulator of others for their own good.

To avoid all of the above drama, it might be easier, certainly less mentally stressful, to just discard the incongruent information. Leaders want followers to hold them in high esteem. As a result, they may avoid or ignore information that damages their beliefs about themselves and their leadership prowess.[12] Avoidance is an active process, just as is conducting elaborate excuses. Laying aside the truth and showing others that they are unconcerned with the information allows leaders to make whatever claims they want to convince others, and themselves, about what is most important.[13] The narrative they craft need only persuade themselves and others that the information they stress is more important than the information they disown.

Messing with the Information Processing Mechanism

Another way out of facing incongruent information and the resulting decisions is to distort the information processing mechanism rather than changing the information. A leader receives information, processes it, and then adds that to their decision calculus. If the information does not fit how they want it to fit, and they are intent on continuing on with their current course in spite of contrary information, they must find a way for the information to be consistent with their values and intentions. By misrepresenting the information before it is added as a factor to their decision, they are making a decision based on information that agrees with their views, not contradicting them. Any decisions they make after they distort the information that uses that distorted information will not cause internal conflict to the leader.[14] The leader does not believe that their decision is faulty if the information contributing to the decision supports their thought process and justification for their action.[15] The computation used bad information, not the person.

Ultimately, discarding, distorting, misremembering, or any other misrepresentation of the truth leads to blind spots. These are areas where someone may remain stubbornly steadfast in their beliefs, even though evidence exists to the contrary. They are more likely to dismiss contrary arguments, however sound they are, to cling to what they want to be true.[16] Leaders may support a preferred conclusion no matter what the truth is. They are willing to go to great lengths and invent fantastical narratives to argue for decisions they like and against ones they dislike.[17]

Information that does not agree with what a leader sees as the truth must be dealt with. Self-deceiving leaders can misrepresent, distort, or discard information they do not agree with. More damaging, the leader may tinker with how they process incoming information in an attempt to make it fit their preconceived beliefs.


  • ignoring incoming information is one way to deal with discomforting or distracting stimuli

  • discarding, distorting, misremembering, or misrepresenting information while self-deceiving leads to blind spots

  • self-deceivers may distort their information-processing mechanisms in place of altering incoming truthful information

[1] Alimo-Metcalfe (1998) [2] Fingarette (1998) [3] Festinger (1962) [4] Kuntz and Dehlin (2019) [5] Trivers (2006) [6] Williams et al. (2009) [7] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [8] Fingarette (2000) [9] Bok (1989) [10] Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) [11] Carless et al. (1998) [12] Carless et al. (1998) [13] Dunning (2011) [14] Pinker (2011) [15] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [16] Blakeley (2007) [17] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011)

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