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The Self-Deception Process

One who lies to themselves must basically convince themselves that something that they know or suspect is not true, is in fact, true. This lie typically meets some personal needs. There are nuances of differences between cognitive biases, errors in thinking and judging, and outright self-deception. Research has shown the importance of distinguishing between these methods.[1]

The process of self-deception includes many steps. Three such steps in sequence include using a biased filter to recall information that may not fit preconceived notions, sticking to a decision based on inaccurate or false information after the decision is made, then rationalizing away anything that does not support that person’s narrative. These steps may help a leader incorporate threatening information into their decision calculus or at lessen the harm of the information.[2]

Recall Bias

Notwithstanding some of the incoming information biases that self-deceivers employ to protect themselves from harmful or threatening data, once the data is encoded in the psyche, there are ways of dealing with it. The intent of a self-deceiving leader in distorting certain information is to protect their ego from harm and boost their self-image. Once the information makes it into the psyche, that person must decide how to deal with it when they have to recall it to help in their decision-making process or to justify their actions taken from a decision already made.

Acquiring information and encoding it is the foundation of the recall process that comes later. If the data is stored as accurate and is recalled in its entirety, all of it can contribute to one’s decision-making. When certain pieces of evidence are discarded during the acquisition and storing processes because the user is unmotivated to see the information for what it is, then when they recall the information to contribute to their thought process, their powers as a decision-maker are at a loss. Selectively choosing to dig out of those memory bins information that supports the inner self, limits a leader’s ability to functionally deal with outstanding problems.[3] By misremembering the past in self-serving ways, leaders can rationalize their decisions and convince themselves of their veracity.[4]

This biased recall process affects a leader’s objectivity. By letting their biases distort the information that they recall when the time comes to take executive action, the leader moves further away from accurate self-assessment. One’s deficits can be explained away, and positive outcomes can be attributed to the leader’s actions, whether justified or not.[5] Even if a person accurately encodes potentially ego-damaging information when it is received, that person can choose to reconstruct or rationalize their original motives behind the behavior to make it more acceptable to peers and direct reports.[6]

Anchoring to a Decision

Data is received from observations and conversations. The data is then stored in memory to be recalled later when needed to support an action or inform a decision. Once the leader decides, it is up to the organization to run with it and the leader to monitor the results, adjusting as needed. However, not all decisions go the leader’s way. Some even backfire.

Decisions that go badly can hurt a leader’s self-image and erode the confidence that others place in them. A leader who is not self-aware and is not confident in their abilities may have a hard time admitting to mistakes and then making the necessary corrections to avoid throwing good money after bad just to avoid accepting defeat. They may avoid this by rationalizing to themselves that their course of action was the best possible and try to convince others that the outcomes are actually positive in their favor.[7] The decision-maker may take some information from memory that supports their reasoning and ignore others. This selected information supports their argument in the face of questioning.[8]


The biases mentioned in information processing and reasoning are all part of the self-deceiving process.[9] Self-deception is a key component of rationalization. One usually rationalizes their thinking about information they do not believe to be beneficial to their goals or information that conflicts with previously held notions supported by previous gains.[10] Anthony Pratkanis said that when observing someone who is self-deceiving, they may rationalize and make excuses about their behavior. Self-deceivers diffuse criticism and put buffers between themselves and other people when they are self-deceiving.[11]

If a leader discovers a truth that supports their beliefs, there is no need to do anything other than accept the information at face value. If a leader receives negative feedback about a decision they made and the action they took, this feedback may be inconsistent with their perception of themselves as a leader and will have to be rationalized.[12] It can be taken for what it is, constructive criticism, or seen as a threat to one’s position. The leader then may choose to deal with the perceived threat by justifying their behavior irrespective of rationality, credibility, or truthfulness.[13] They try to convince others of their fortitude while also convincing themselves.

Information is observed, received, then analyzed. Once analyzed it is stored for later recall when the information will be needed to inform a leader’s decision. If the information is corrupted at any stage in the process then the resulting decision could be tainted. A self-deceptive leader may inhibit proper storage and recollection of information if that distortion helps feed their self-deception.


  • intentionally corrupting information while collecting and storing the information will lead to distorted thought processes when the person must recall that information to make a decision

  • leaders may anchor new decisions to previous bad decisions to convince themselves and others that the outcomes are actually positive

  • self-deceiving leaders rationalize negative feedback to match with previously held notions

[1] Pinker (2011) [2] Bok (1989) [3] Kenrick and White (2011) [4] Trivers (2006) [5] Karpen (2018) [6] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [7] Trivers (2006) [8] Frankish (2011) [9] Frankish (2011) [10] Desai et al. (2018) [11] Pratkanis, A., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [12] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [13] Desai et al. (2018)

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