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Where Deception Hides in the Levels of Consciousness

If self-awareness is a goal in the development of an exemplary leader, then their organization must find ways to help them see themselves for who they are and avoid their desire to hide their flaws. After all, the consequence of self-deception in a leader is the loss of one’s identity. The self-deceiving leader denies truth and creates an alternate reality that will probably be detrimental to the leader and the people they serve. They erode relationships with peers and subordinates and ultimately lessen the quality of their life.[1]

It is essential that self-deceiving leaders acknowledge these tendencies if there is any hope that they will achieve self-awareness. Alfred Mele, professor of philosophy and author of Self-Deception Unmasked, decreed that leaders must consciously examine their motives, behaviors, and assumptions to identify the traps set by the unconscious, self-deceiving mind.[2] To confront self-deception, strategic leaders must first raise the issue from the sub-conscious levels to their consciousness.

Surface Level: Consciousness

The challenge lies in discovering where self-deception lies so one can expose it by bringing it to the surface. Science is hardly in agreement as to where these lies settle; at the unconscious, subconscious, or conscious level. Getting back to the debate between von Hippel and Trivers and their academic colleagues exhibited in the article, The Evolution and Psychology of Self-Deception, there is disagreement as to where self-deception sits. Information that is disassociated between the conscious and unconscious memories may present greater difficulties to the individual when they seek to retrieve it. Therefore, one who is seeking self-awareness must first discover where in their psyche the corrupted information is hiding. Von Hippel and Trivers believe that deceptive information resides in the conscious memory, while truthful, accurate information is in the unconscious memory.[3]

Not all scientists agree. In responses to von Hippel and Trivers’ article, some colleagues expressed contradictory assessments. Albert Bandura believed that truth is harbored in the conscious mind, not the unconscious mind, where von Hippel and Trivers believe it resides. Bandura believed that truth exists at the conscious level, where it is easily retrieved by the individual.[4] It seems that Nicholas Humphrey would agree with Bandura in that he believed that people know how they truly felt and thought in a given situation.[5]

In von Hippel and Trivers’ response to their colleagues, they flat out reject those claims. This argument shows how difficult it is for organizations to help their leaders improve and grow by working towards self-awareness.[6] If those who research this topic for a living can argue such points, then people going about their everyday lives are operating behind the curve.

Subsurface Level: Subconsciousness

Achieving self-awareness and correcting self-deception can be difficult for anyone. Self-monitoring stress, anxiety, and assumptions about reality are challenging when self-deception occurs on the unconscious level.[7] Strategic leaders are constantly bombarded by the complexities of situations and relationships. Such complexity makes it difficult for leaders to fully remember all of the facts presented to them. They must organize this barrage of information in their memory for ease of recall or risk selectively remembering incomplete data.[8]

Unconscious activities may operate independently from conscious activities as a way of self-preserving oneself. Preserving one’s life is intrinsic in nature. Such actions are performed without any conscious effort and may occur in contradiction to unconscious preferences.[9]

Renown anthropologist, Robert Trivers, acknowledged that he is a petty thief, on the unconscious level, of course. He gives a couple of examples of the differences between unconscious modules of deceptive behavior. A university professor like himself, whose dominant activity is lecturing, would do so honestly and with integrity. They would deliver truths to their students, acknowledge the brilliance of others’ work, and differentiate between opinion and hard, scientific fact. Minor activities, on the other hand, may be directed by unconscious modules that favor natural selection. Such activities are meant to surreptitiously deny objects or information to competitors. Like, for instance, stealing the blackboard chalk, or pencils or pens or post-it pads. Such activities operate on the unconscious level before, during, and after the action.[10]

Therein lies the rub. If the activity is not a conscious activity, then the actor might miss it. The lie is hidden subconsciously, and the actor is lying to themselves, even if they do not realize it. Lies hidden below the conscious layer are all the more difficult to uncover by the individual. What compounds this is when the individual is deceiving themselves. They hide the lie on a less-than-conscious layer. For the perpetrator, however, this makes lying to others or to themselves easier. It is easier to hide self-deceptive behavior if one’s awareness of that behavior is hidden subconsciously or unconsciously.[11]

As if it wasn’t difficult enough, information may travel back and forth between layers. In response to von Hippel and Trivers, Keith Frankish explained that the deception might alternate between layers, making it all the more difficult to pin down. He said the lie could begin at the conscious level and sink to the unconscious level, making any unconscious signals of deceptive intent invisible to an observer.[12] So, if the activity occurs below a conscious level, obscuring any signals of the dishonest activity, then strategies to address such behavior is not likely to succeed.[13] Organizations and individuals will have a difficult time curing self-deceptive conduct if they cannot raise the behavior to the surface.

Conflict Within and Between the Levels

With all of this movement of accurate and inaccurate information between layers and the individual’s desire to recall certain information over other information, there is bound to be an internal conflict. A self-deceptive person may believe two contradictory beliefs about some data at the same time. They may wish to suppress some of it or recall some of it at times that will benefit them most. The self-deceptive person may not even acknowledge that there is a conflict in this selective memory. [14]

Opposing forces are at work suppressing negative traits and maintaining these traits, or at least the acknowledgment of them. The internal conflict manifests itself when a leader tries to suppress the negative attributes that they know exist.[15] These negative traits harm one’s opinion of themselves. They are inconsistent with their espoused goals of being great, effective, and caring leaders. The result is an inability to focus rationally on what they want to achieve as leaders.[16]

Where self-deception lies, at the conscious or sub-conscious level, can affect how a leader confronts this damaging practice. If a leader pushes information they do not wish to acknowledge about themselves or a situation to a sub-conscious level, they may succeed in removing that information from their decision-making calculus. Ultimately, if a leader wishes to correct self-deceptive behavior, they must raise their awareness of its existence.


  • strategic leaders constantly face complex situations and relationships

  • whether the truth lies at the conscious or subconscious level, it is important that leaders can recall it for future decision-making

[1] Mele (2001) [2] Mele (2001) [3] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [4] Bandura (2011) [5] Humphrey (2011) [6] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [7] Mele (2001) [8] Trivers (2006) [9] Diane and Dean (2020) [10] Trivers (2006) [11] Williams et al. (2009) [12] Frankish (2011) [13] Karpen (2018) [14] Mele (2001) [15] Trivers (2006) [16] Mele (2001)

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