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Self-Deception Strategies Bound in Information Processing

Self-deception in a leader is enabled less by confusing, ambiguous information and more by the person’s filtering of known information during the information processing of new data. This means self-deception is a known and chosen strategy to shield oneself from information they don’t want to acknowledge. The information processing mechanism could be at the conscious or subconscious level, but nonetheless, the self-deceiver is at least somewhat aware of what they’re doing at some point between receiving new information and decision-making.

There are two targets that can be harmed from a self-deceptive leader’s actions; the leader themselves and the people they are trying to deceive by employing this strategy. Self-deceptive leaders are selfish and self-centered, often not being fully aware of their ethical duties to others. Their self-deceptive practices and the thought processes that support them can distort a leader’s moral reflection on their actions.[1] When a leader chooses not to recognize their moral obligations to others and continues on a path that makes them feel more comfortable, they seek out the same well-worn circles of enablers to reinforce their perception of reality.[2]

Shielding One’s Self from Derogatory Information

Bias in processing incoming information in the form of shielding oneself from derogatory information is about protecting oneself by ignoring or avoiding information. The self-deceptive person must shield their psyche from harmful information by keeping it from their conscious information processing. They may also choose to distort the encoded data.[3] Either way, their memory system helps them to honestly present false hypotheses to themselves, thus feeding their decision-making process with elements that will support their desired outcome.[4]

Avoiding Evidence

Avoiding bad news is as harmful as falsifying it to protect one’s image of themselves. Avoidance not only filters out unwanted information but also completely blocks its incorporation into the leader’s decision-making process.[5] These leaders avoid evidence that might challenge an existing belief. They do this by internally blocking it or by choosing to associate with like-minded individuals that support their view that the potentially harmful information should be locked away or discarded.[6]

History professor Richard Place showed how expectations from strategic leaders led to disaster in the 1688 war of the League of Augsburg, between the French and the Habsburgs. Louis XIV, king of France, invaded the Rhineland fully expecting the Germans, embroiled in another conflict, to be too weak to fight. Louis’s decision-making calculus was supported by the most extensive intelligence gathering apparatus in Europe. He had a large volume of factually accurate intelligence about his enemy’s armies. This capability mattered little. Louis’s contempt for his enemies and confidence in his armies aided his own forecast of the outcome of hostilities. He reached a judgment before all of his intelligence reports were in, and any reports he received further reinforced his complacency. Louis’ enemies did everything his experts told him they couldn’t, and the war ended disastrously for the French.[7]

Selectively Choosing Confirming Information

During the information collection process, someone deceiving themselves may selectively choose information based on whether it adheres to their current goals and views of themselves. This may not be outright lying to oneself, but resembles failing to tell oneself the whole truth, conveniently leaving bits out.[8] The bits they choose to leave out reflect unwanted realities that could sidetrack their goals and inhibit their motivations. They can either rationalize away information they deem threatening or simply express skepticism about its accuracy.[9]

Data left out of the information-processing sequence in the early stages of a leader’s decision-making calculus reflects a cognitive bias against information they find contradictory to their beliefs. Information is either in support of or in contrast to one’s favorable goals. Both supportive and contradictory news is equally important. Self-deception seeks out the good and discards the bad. This filtering helps them not only persuade themselves but persuade others that their view of the world is consistent with their goals.[10]

It’s Not Due to a Lack of Information

It’s not that the information does not exist or is not readily attainable, especially today. Information is almost too pervasive. A leader can be self-aware if they want. There is plenty of feedback available; they just have to want to use it. The reason they may choose not to acknowledge the vast amount of information available to help them become better leaders is that the feedback may present conflicting clues about their performance, be ambiguous, or be unclear. The leader must choose to take it at face value, investigate deeper, or indolently explain the contradictory data away.[11]

Shielding themselves from derogatory information, selectively choosing the bits that support their views, or outright avoiding it may support a leader’s preferences as to what they feel are the important aspects of leadership. Business leaders must concern themselves with profits and organizational goal attainment. Military leaders must focus on winning the conflict. What these leaders must also concern themselves with are the perceptions of their subordinates. If they are unaware by choice of the perceptions of their followers in their leadership ability, they will hamper their ability to achieve self-awareness.[12]

Bounded Ethicality and Confirmation Bias

For this discussion, there are two psychological concepts that will help the reader understand what’s going on in the mind of a self-deceiving leader: bounded ethicality and confirmation bias. In keeping with the notion that information is available if one wants to use it, the data available can be good or bad, supportive or constricting. One need only look for it. Information is readily available. Bounded ethicality is the notion that someone surrounded by data chooses to capture information that easily answers their question. The information they choose may not be the data that would best answer the question but more easily answers it. The leader limits their analysis to readily available, convenient information that is easy to cognitively connect to the question in need of an answer. They avoid investigating deeper into data that may better answer their inquiry but may be harder to interpret.[13] These easy solutions support one’s self-serving bias to maintain their consistent and positive view of their leadership abilities.[14]

Confirmation bias is another coping mechanism a leader may employ to deal with information that runs counter to their goals and beliefs. They seek out and accept evidence that confirms their desired views and outcomes. This bias inhibits them from raising problems to the needed level of discussion. It also helps them shield themselves from the harm to their ego of admitting mistakes. As a result of this lack of honest reflection, leaders open themselves up to being surprised when problematic events occur.[15] In an interview I conducted with a senior executive for the federal government involved in executive resources and talent management, he stated that a sure sign of self-deception in a leader is when that leader looks for evidence that confirms their ideas rather than considering that their ideas may be wrong.[16]

Alisher Faizullaev showed that diplomats receive and recognize information that brings pride to their state more easily and view derogatory information with resentment and resistance.[17] Richard Place showed how Louis XIV only acknowledged information about his enemies that reinforced his complacency, information that fit neatly into his already-decided conclusions about the campaign.[18] These authors showed that leaders could be selectively skeptical about information they choose to be skeptical about and, as a result, maintain their original beliefs.[19]

In separate peer commentaries to the Von Hippel and Trivers article about the evolution and psychology of self-deception, researchers Albert Bandura and Hugo Mercier believed that confirmation bias is not necessarily self-deception. They believe that people naturally selectively seek out information to confirm their cognitive biases. Their biases can misconstrue events, thus leading them astray to act on deficient knowledge. As harmful as it may potentially be, they don’t necessarily believe this is a cognitive effort to self-deceive, more a natural survival instinct.[20] [21]

The self-deceptive leader may choose to filter information out of their information processing routine. Information intentionally left out of the process affects their decision-making. But leaders cannot, in this day and age, claim that information is not available. They can, however, choose to seek out and accept information that reinforces their already held beliefs.


  • self-deceivers filter information during the information processing phase of data collection

  • self-deceiving leaders choose to avoid information that challenges their existing beliefs

  • cognitive biases, like bounded ethicality and confirmation bias, help self-deceiving leaders choose information that supports their desired views and outcomes

[1] Caldwell (2009) [2] Bok (1989) [3] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [4] Lu and Chang (2011) [5] Bok (1989) [6] Kuntz and Dehlin (2019) [7] Place (1970) [8] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [9] Gorelick and Shackelford (2011) [10] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [11] Taylor (2010) [12] Taylor (2010) [13] Bazerman and Tenbrunsel (2011) [14] Fleming and Zyglidopoulos (2007) [15] Collinson (2012) [16] Federal Government Senior Executive, in discussion with the author (February 2021) [17] Faizullaez (2006) [18] Place (1970) [19] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [20] Bandura (2011) [21] Mercier (2011)

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