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The Mental Toll of Self-Deception

A self-deceptive leader hides the truth from themselves to affect their relationships with colleagues. They also do it to protect themselves from ego-damaging information. When leaders deceive themselves, they are protecting themselves from truths they cannot or wish not to face.[1] There is, however, a mental cost to employing such a strategy. Deception in any form brings with it a cognitive cost.[2] The organization and all of the people who serve it suffer when a leader is dishonest for self-gain.

The Increased Cognitive Load of Deceiving

One of the problems with lying is that the liar must keep track of the details they have falsified or omitted. This gets a little complicated because they may have to invent memories that do not exist. Deception requires mental architecture. Deceivers must construct the reality they want others to believe. Self-deception adds a layer of complexity to a story, as the target of the deception is the very mechanism used to remember truths or construct fabrications. This construction in the mental landscape has attendant costs.[3]

Simply choosing not to remember certain details is not easy either. Self-deception involves specific deviations from learned and established mental strategies and processes honed over a lifetime. This departure from known and proven processes that give a person comfort and security requires an additional self-regulatory effort.[4] Mental processes are complicated. Manipulating these processes and distorting information held in them has cognitive costs.

The Resulting Stress

Think of the stress involved in high-stakes business, or running a government agency, or executing a military campaign. There is a lot on the line: lives, livelihoods, all depending on the strategic leader to make decisions that will have great ramifications. The temptations to deviate from the pressure and complexity involved when the stakes are high can increase one’s propensity for deception and self-deception.[5]

Exemplary leaders are self-aware. They are in tune with their surroundings and are aware of the social happenings that affect the inner workings of an organization. Great leaders act with clarity and focus. They’re intentional, not whimsical. But even acting with integrity and ethicality can be stressful. The comfort of knowing that one’s decisions are backed by what’s good and right still comes with a cost. The stress associated with such weighty decisions can be exhausting to a strategic leader as humans are not equipped to cope with modern day-to-day stressors.[6] Add inauthenticity and ill-intent to this mix, and the leader faces increased stress. This inability or unwillingness to act with integrity has a negative effect on one’s psyche. It deviates from one’s normal and efficient mental behavior and adds emotional labor to an already difficult existence.[7]

Minimizing the Cost

It makes sense then that a leader, with much riding on their decisions, would try and minimize the mental costs associated with governing at the strategic level to protect their sanity. Self-deception is no way to minimize this emotional and mental drain. A leader may choose to deceive themselves to diminish the cognitive efforts associated with running a large entity. They may deceive themselves to help minimize the stress involved when their people, their adversaries, or situations challenge their held beliefs.[8] However, self-deception has a side effect in that it increases the cognitive load.

Self-deception may provide a fleeting and temporary relief from the stress involved in leading. Lying to oneself may not always be intentional to avoid an unwanted truth, but could happen as a result of cognitive malfunctioning.[9] This notion suggests a mental disorder or pathological deviation from normal mental processes. Self-deceptive behavior could just indicate a transitory scheme. A person distorts their memory in favor of a self-deceptive goal only to revert back to the accurate information once the deception is no longer needed. Once all is returned to normal, the costs associated with the stress of self-deception is minimized.[10]

Self-Deception as a Defensive Act

Self-deception may be less about harming someone else than it is about protecting oneself. A strategic leader, faced with astonishing stressors, may employ self-deceptive strategies to avoid some of the anxieties associated with a high-stress work environment.[11] They may use it intuitively as a way to avoid becoming overwhelmed.[12] When viewed in this light, self-deception seems less devious and more a self-preservation mechanism.

At high levels, leaders must concern themselves with the image they project. Maintaining a positive internal image helps them project a positive outward image. Self-deception portrays a tendency towards positive self-bias. This positive self-bias minimizes inner conflicts over decisions about what is right and what is wrong, thus decreasing anxiety. After all, if the leader believes they are ethical and acts as such, then they will have high confidence that their decisions are just and moral, fortifying their positive sense of identity.[13] To get to this state, the strategic leader may employ self-preservation strategies that legitimize, in their minds, deviant behavior and reduce the associated stress.[14]

Self-deception may serve a leader’s short-term desire to decrease the stress associated with leading others in a turbulent environment. But self-deception adds other stressors. It adds layers of complexity and confusion to an already strained psyche. Leaders can work within a self-deceptive mind-state and try and reduce the stress, or they can avoid self-deception all together and take that out of the equation.


  • self-deception adds the complicating factor of the target of the deception being that person’s memory recall protocol

  • the stress of making important decisions is confounded when the leader chooses to self-deceive

  • self-deception provides only temporary relief of decision-making stress

[1] Bok (1989) [2] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [3] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [4] Frankish (2011) [5] Tenbrunsel (1998) [6] Boyatzis and McKee (2006) [7] Metin et al. (2016) [8] Lauria et al. (2016) [9] Preti and Miotto (2011) [10] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [11] Grover (1993) [12] Diane and Dean (2020) [13] Bachkirova (2015) [14] Williams at al. (2009)

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