Self-Deception Enhances Others-Deception

The target of deception can be a combination of two parties, the self and others. When the target is the self, this practitioner denies information to themselves, deceives themselves, or tries to baffle and bewilder their senses. When the target is someone else, the practitioner is trying to manage their outward appearance through impression management to increase their social desirability or to outright fool someone else for material gain.[1]

Either way, everyone has practiced either self or other deception at one time or another, or both. If one can practice both inward and outward deception, an enigma exists when one tries to do both simultaneously.[2] Deception of others is the older of the two practices. Self-deception evolved out of the need to deceive others. In fact, self-deception finds its motivation in the pursuit of deception of adversaries and competitors.[3]

Deceiving the Self to Deceive Others

There seems little reason to go through the mental expense of deceiving oneself for only the satisfaction of proving one can be fooled. Indeed, the ultimate goal of self-deception is to facilitate the deception of others.[4] Humans have developed the ability to self-deceive through natural selection to then help them deceive others. Self-deception is an intentional act that produces a bias in the individual, conscious or unconscious,[5] that helps them deceive someone else.

Returning to Robert Trivers’ petty theft examples, he said that stealing in front of someone gives the thief the impression that they actually have permission to steal. He said he would never steal someone’s favorite pen from their office if they weren’t there. That, to him, was stealing. But if he stole in front of that person (without their seeing him, of course), it’s as though the victim provided some acquiescence.[6] In this sense, the self-deception he generated helped him deceive the owner of the pen by helping him conceal the detection of his theft. The conscious mind, he explained, acts as a social front in the scheme.[7]

Self-Deception Strengthens Deception of Others

Deceiving others is difficult, especially when they are skeptical of one’s motives. To strengthen the veracity of a deceptive act, the perpetrator could deceive themselves first to improve their acting abilities. Self-deception, internal conflict, and fragmentation of memories can help the deceiver in their attempt to dupe their target.[8] However, this added level of complication makes the self-deceiver more vulnerable to discovering deceptions aimed at them.[9] So while self-deception may help a leader to cheat others and not get caught, it also leaves them vulnerable to the deceit of others.

Trying to deceive others adds complications to daily social interactions, so the act must be strengthened. Deception becomes more likely when the truth makes honest communication difficult, ineffective, or counterproductive to goal achievement.[10] When deception is rooted in and supported by self-deception, the lie is strengthened, is more robust, and is more durable in the face of scrutiny.[11]

If one believes a lie themselves, they are better able to sell the lie to others. When someone lies, they often emit verbal and nonverbal cues that they are lying, even if they give these cues unconsciously. The deceiver can help themselves hide these cues if they actually believe what they are saying or doing is true. If a leader is trying to fool members of their organization, it helps if they first deceive themselves into believing their thoughts. If they can achieve this, their follow-on actions will appear more genuine. If they believe their lie, they may avoid sending cues that might reveal their true intent.[12]

Being Both Deceiver and Deceived at the Same Time

If this sounds like a complicated juggling act, it’s because it is. Deceiving oneself and deceiving others at the same time in the same operation is difficult. This person must simultaneously know and ignore the same thing. They have to hide it but remain ignorant of it.[13] A self-deceiver does this through separations of their mental processes. They act both consciously and unconsciously with their memories and attitudes, separating both automatic and controlled cognitive processes.[14]

It’s not only a question of mechanics. One may be able to separate their mental processes to help facilitate self and other deception, but the ability to do this raises other questions. Sissela Bok wondered about the moral problems of choice and responsibility. If there exists in a person the ability to separate themselves into knowing and unknowing parts, then one part must be held responsible. She posed the thought that if one is both deceiver and deceived (self-deception), one part should be considered responsible for the actions they take in a state of self-deception.[15]

It’s Actually Not Possible to be Both Self-Deceiver and Deceiver

Other scholars have argued that it is actually not possible to be both deceiver and deceived at the same time. In their response to the Von Hippel and Trivers article, The Evolution and Psychology of Self-Deception, Albert Bandura of Stanford University and Steven Pinker of Harvard argued that this paradox is not possible.[16] Bandura said it’s not possible for a person to simultaneously know something is false but believe it to be true. The person’s cognitive self has to be aware of the information’s veracity in order to know how to create a lie out of it.[17]

Steven Pinker commented on the Von Hippel and Trivers article with a similar logic as Bandura. He thinks that this reckless notion of self-deception is often applied with too much simplicity to social psychology theory and practice. There is a contradiction present that he cannot resolve. The mental system, he explained, must have two simultaneous representations of the same information, one accurate and one inaccurate. The part of the mind that knows of the information’s accuracy, the self-deceiving part, must have control over the information that the deceived person can access. He also countered the evolutionary idea that natural selection favors inaccurate representations of the world,[18] even if they serve the person benefiting from the self-deception.

Truth-Default Theory

There is one final complicating piece to this idea of being both deceiver and deceived simultaneously. Communications professor Timothy Levine discussed a new theory of deception and deception detection called the Truth-Default Theory (TDT). This theory proposes that when humans communicate with each other, their default is to presume that the other person is being honest. From an evolutionary perspective, the presumption of honesty precludes efficient communication. As a social species, humans rely on each other for individual and collective survival, so coordination, cooperation, and communication within a group is vital.[19]

However, this presumption makes humans vulnerable to occasional deceit.[20] If the automatic response to social interaction is to assume the other person is honest, then the possibility that deception is afoot can slip past the vulnerable target. Add to this the additional enabler of self-deception. If the target wishes to believe the information being presented to them because it benefits them, the deceiver will have an easier time convincing them of what they already want to be convinced of.

The ability to self-deceive evolved out of the ability and need to deceive others to gain an advantage over rivals. People can sometimes deceive themselves and others at the same time, but this adds a great deal of complication to the act. Not all scientists agree that this is even possible.


  • the ultimate goal of self-deception is to deceive others

  • even if a person can separate their psyche into knowing and unknowing parts, one of these parts must be responsible for their malicious actions

  • the human default is to presume that others are being honest

[1] Sirvent et al. (2019) [2] Johansson et al. (2011) [3] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [4] Desai et al. (2018) [5] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [6] Trivers (2006) [7] Trivers (2006) [8] Trivers (2006) [9] Humphrey (2011) [10] Levine (2014) [11] Williams et al. (2009) [12] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [13] Bok (1989) [14] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [15] Bok (1989) [16] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [17] Bandura (2011) [18] Pinker (2011) [19] Levine (2014) [20] Levine (2014)

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