The Evolutionary Value of Self-Deception

It might be hard to comprehend that self-deception has provided evolutionary value as a survival mechanism for the human species. Both deception of others and self-deception have, in fact, helps the species survive and thrive. People have used self-deception as a defense against external threats.[1] This behavior has helped leaders shape their behavior to match what is expected of them from their organization while projecting confidence in their leadership ability.[2] It has also, however, led to dangerous, irrational thought.[3]

Deception as an Adaptive Survival Mechanism

Deception, either self-deception or deception of others, can be thought of as a means of evolutionary survival in humans. From this perspective, our ancestors, and indeed modern humans, have been selected for survival based on their ability to deceive their rivals. Natural selection pressures throughout human history have favored the individuals within the species who can manipulate their rivals through deception.[4] In the evolutionary struggle for survival, selection has favored both the deceived developing means of detecting deception from rivals and the deceiver evolving means to deceive others to get an advantage.[5]

This idea does not just apply to our ancestors. Modern humans are shaped by what their ancestors did for millennia to survive in the cold, cruel ancient world. They acted in ways that increased their chances of survival, not just what made them feel good. Their actions were instinctual, not intentional efforts at seeking material pleasure.[6] Deception of others and self-deception are adaptive psychological mechanisms passed down for generations to ensure well-being, a sense of identity, and social advancement.[7]

Defense Against Threats

In addition to the manipulation of others to help one survive, deception can serve as a defense mechanism against real or perceived threats to one’s existence. In a soon to be published qualitative study on the theory of unconscious response, Elizabeth Diane and Debra Dean discussed the natural autonomous actions of individuals that ensures the survival of the unique identity of each and every person. They explained that there exists an intrinsic motivation in the human psyche to act according to a unique worldview that pertains to that specific individual. When a threat to one’s perception of themselves negatively impacts their self-confidence, an automatic, unconscious response is triggered to protect and preserve self-identity.[8] The great danger in resorting to the deception of others and self-deception to defend against threats is that the perpetrator may develop inaccurate self-schemas that shift their priorities to goals that are aligned with their self-views. In an effort to thrive, they may emphasize inaccurate, even counterfactual information that is self-enhancing to avoid a perceived threat.[9]

Shaping One’s Identity to Align with Their Environment

Humans may have developed a desire to manipulate their sense of identity to join with their environment and ensure survival. The adaptive nature of the human mind has allowed individuals to shape their identity to align with their environment. This imitation may give individuals a false sense that they are more similar to those around them than they really are.[10] The ability to shape one’s inner sense of self has been passed down from generation to generation throughout human history because manipulation has benefited the species. The cultural tools that humans have used to deceive themselves and others may have been refined and encoded in human genetics.[11]

The aspect of deception that is of more importance for this study is self-deception. Self-deception is an adaptive trait that facilitates one’s ability to adjust their identity to fit with their environment.[12] Perceived congruence between how one views themselves and how others view them is a reassuring and calming feeling. Self-deception, therefore, helps one sustain a positive emotional self-state. The self-deceiver can internally justify their manipulative behaviors because it helps them protect themselves and enhance their self-image.[13]

Projecting Confidence

Self-deception can benefit anyone, especially leaders. Strategic-level leaders must be concerned with their public image if they are to maintain power and influence over an organization. Self-deception can serve them as an act that allays their fears and concerns about their abilities to lead. It helps them by giving them the reassurance that they can project confidence to their constituents.[14]

This projection of confidence helps a leader in a confrontation with rivals or with elements within their organization. By projecting confidence, even if it is unsubstantiated, they can induce doubt in their opponent as to the outcome of a skirmish, causing the challenger to retreat prematurely.[15] Self-confidence and the appearance of autonomy are defenses of one’s ego.[16] The problem with self-confidence when it is excessive and unsupported by actual ability is that the strategic leader may not feel the need to seek out negative feedback that would help snap them back to reality.

Irrational Thought

If self-deception seems irrational and self-detrimental even though it helps preserve one’s sense of confidence and chances of survival, it’s because it is, in fact, irrational. Self-deception, narrowing of focus to conform to already-held beliefs, and cognitive avoidance tactics lead an individual to irrational thought. These coping mechanisms are the hallmarks of a lack of leader self-awareness.[17]

Spanish researchers showed that self-deception is a mechanism for maintaining one’s addictive personality. For a leader, an addictive personality could represent an addiction to power, influence, or a positive self-image. These scientists showed this by testing the reliability and validity of a self-deception questionnaire using alcoholics and drug addicts under treatment. They first acknowledged that lying is an adaptive and necessary psychological concept necessary in modern society. In their experiment, they found that self-deception was more prevalent in addicts than in the general population. One of their findings was that self-deceptive individuals, in this case, alcohol and drug addicts, were more likely to experience shorter periods of abstinence from their compulsions during treatment.[18] One might conclude from this study that self-deceptive leaders are less likely to engage in self-corrective measures even when they are exposed to the truth through negative feedback.

Self-deception in humans has provided for some evolutionary survival value. Deceptive capabilities have helped people survive in struggle over rivals. The problem is that self-deception may lead to overconfidence in one’s abilities conveying to them a false reality and irrational thought.


  • deceiving rivals and self-deception to protect and preserve one’s self-identity have had evolutionary value

  • self-deception is an adaptive trait that helps one adjust their identity to fit with their environment

  • narrowing one’s focus to information supporting already-held beliefs leads to irrational thought

[1] Jordan and Audia (2012) [2] Humphrey et al. (2015) [3] Hinkle (2018) [4] Gorelick and Shackelton (2011) [5] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [6] Kendrick and White (2011) [7] Kuntz and Dehlin (2019) [8] Diane and Dean (2020) [9] Jordan and Audia (2012) [10] Humphrey et al. (2015) [11] Gorelick and Shackelford (2011) [12] Hewlin et al. (2015) [13] Kuntz and Dehlin (2019) [14] Gray and Densten (2007) [15] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [16] Ashford (1989) [17] Hinkle (2018) [18] Sirvent et al. (2019)

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