The Science of Self-delusion

Common wisdom sees self-delusion as a flaw. One of the worse things you can say to a person is they are delusional, meaning they either don’t see reality as it is or they have a distorted view of themselves. However, the frontier between delusion and self-confidence is blurry at best. Let’s say you are an aspiring writer or artist. If you are like me, you probably live in constant self-doubt. You keep analyzing your work and wondering: is it good enough? Should anyone care? Every now and then, you will have the feeling that your efforts are futile, that you never had the talent or luck and that you should just stop wasting your time and devote yourself to some other form of entertainment.


Delusion (Photo credit: FLASHFLOOD®)

Of course, from time to time you will see somebody else’s work that sucks much more than yours become an instant success and wonder: why not me? As it turns out, self-confidence is closely linked to both self-deception and success. Self-confidence is necessary to be able to sell yourself to your audience, to a magazine or simply to a fellow blog. It is necessary to have the guts to go to a publishing company and insist like a madman until they buy your book. It is essential, in fact, to your well-being and your sanity. But a crude look at the facts of your life or your persona will not help you to get there. In order to reach the blissful state of self-confidence, you first need to let go of truth. The mechanics of self-deception have been studied extensively by psychologists. A great summary of the current state of affairs can be found in Cordelia Fine’s A mind of its own, a book which explores the myriad ways in which humans deceive themselves and analyzes the reasons why we do so. The book reaches two important conclusions: first, the vast majority of humans lie to themselves. They think they are better drivers than average, better workers than average and better people than average. They justify their actions even when these are unjustifiable. They always find a mental scenario which depicts them as the hero in the story.


truth (Photo credit: Erick-Pardus)

The second conclusion is a little more shocking: self-deception is actually necessary. As Fine bluntly puts it, there is a group of people who are capable of seeing themselves and their surroundings as they truly are. We call them “clinically depressed.” So lying to yourself is not such a bad idea. It actually seems fundamental for leading a healthy, happy life. For feeling confident that you are great at what you do, despite all evidence to the contrary. For believing you are a good person and the world would be worse off without you. We need our little everyday lies, because without them reality would be a harsh, brutal place that most people just wouldn’t be able to bear. Because staring at the facts in the face is something the majority of the population is just not prepared to do. And they probably shouldn’t. The self-deception theory explains many things. For example, in my limited existence I have found a lot more depressive atheists than religious people. This could happen because religion makes you happy, but it could also stem from the fact that religious people are obviously more capable of self-deception. I don’t think I need to explain why. It may also shed some light on the fact that so many scientists and mathematicians have struggled with similar ailments: by definition, people who search manically for the truth are good candidates at feeling the weight of reality upon their shoulders.


Reality (Photo credit: Beatnic)

So next time you’re looking in the mirror and telling yourself some hard truths, you may want to reconsider. Be kind to yourself. Believe in something magical. Because, no matter what they told you in school, being true to yourself doesn’t pay off. And, in the end, it’s just a matter of choice. You can choose lies and bliss. Or you can choose truth. And misery.

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29 thoughts on “The Science of Self-delusion

  1. silvioprezzolini

    Happy or Awake
    Hedonism or Consciousness

    Hell of a choice, can anyone actively choose the former over the latter, or by merely considering the question have your proven yourself doomed with the latter….

  2. helenvalentina

    Fascinating! It’s probably good,in any case, that there are positives to self-deception because it would be so hard to know when you were doing it, if you were doing it well. 🙂

    Your blog is fascinating too, by the way, so that’s something you don’t need to worry if you are deluding yourself about! 🙂

  3. patriciaopheliacross

    Great post. Actually have been discussing this with a friend relatively recently, so I will be linking this to her.

    I can say first-hand that this is very accurate. I historically have switched from delusionally happy and confidant, to realistically minded and depressed. For the most part however, it has been a journey. As I have become more aware of my own delusions and ego as opposed to reality, I did tend to get far more depressed.

    There is a catch, however. A point of change.

    Where you can have a realistic view of your abilities and the world around you, and simply not care. That is for the most part where I have reached.

    When I was younger ; I used to share everything I had and thought I was brilliant. As I became older and wiser I became more critical of my work and downright creatively crippled. Why bother?

    And again recently I find my confidence returning and sharing my work again. Am I deluded again? No. I know realistically that real success is statistically unlikely. I just ceased to care about recognition or reward. I simply enjoy making music and enjoy writing. I also enjoy sharing it. I no longer seek to be the best there is, and simply just the best I can be.

    While ignorance is bliss for most people, and a lack of ignorance can be depressing ; I think true confidence comes from a very firm grasp of reality.

    1. David Yerle Post author

      Yes, it takes quite an effort to “not care” but it is certainly possible if you try enough. I wish you the best of luck with your music! I also make music (I’ve been playing the piano since I was 6) but in this case I’m pretty sure I should stick to writing… though it’s a really important part of my life and it’s something that I’ll definitely keep doing until I die.

      1. William Terry

        As a lifelong persuer of truth, I have found that the realization of truth can be shocking and depressing at first. However, once a person grasps it and accepts it, following where it leads, this painful truth becomes quite comforting. The problem is that the vast majority of people are unwilling to deal with that initial discomfort so they prefer to delude themselves. Its much more comfortable that way, but in the end what is believing in a lie really worth? I also agree that it religious people can have a propensity towards self delusion , just like non-religious people can but that doesn’t by any means indicate that all religion is delusional. To quote Basil of Caesarea “Truth is a quarry hard to hunt, and therefore we must look everywhere for its tracks.”

  4. Indigo Sage

    Well, self delusion can be a great tool as you said. i use it frequently. I tell myself I am hot shit because it motivates me to do more and not get hung up on my shortcomings. Because you get chewed up if you only concentrate on all the ways you come short.

    Hell, deluding yourself into thinking you’re the best in the world motivates you to make real moves to make that delusion real. It keeps self doubt off of your shoulders and it allows you to move about more freely.

    “Fake it til you make it” is a skill I learned over the years and it helps. When I first moved out on my own, I deluded myself into thinking I could take anything the world threw at me and that faking gave me the energy to keep fighting on and beating the odds.

    Being a ambitious shittalker who self deludes themselves regularly, you want live up to your own bullshit you feed yourself and make the bullshit into reality

  5. The Diesel-Electric Elephant Company

    I’m with the patrician Patricia (see above) on this too.

    Most folk, I think, trundle through life avoiding thought at all costs, but how much more fun to have thought, to have seen bare reality and then given it a chin-flick, the kiss-off, not a fig, the finger eh?

    Reality is always pacing up and down outside my mind like a wolf, anxious to get in and spoil my day.

    1. David Yerle Post author

      I guess I’m with you too. By the way, you have an extremely poetic way of expressing your thoughts without losing any intelligibility. Quite a remarkable ability.

  6. simonandfinn

    This was an interesting and well-written post – I found myself nodding throughout in recognition and agreement i.e. “As Fine bluntly puts it, there is a group of people who are capable of seeing themselves and their surroundings as they truly are. We call them “clinically depressed.” ” I wonder if self delusion is also proxy for creating meaning in one’s life – and that perhaps “reality” is proxy for nihilism. Maybe these constructs are products of a world that places increasing emphasis on scientific fact and truth over mystery and magic.

    1. David Yerle Post author

      I sometimes also think along these lines. I find myself longing for the time where explorers had something to explore and the world was full of mystery. Science and availability of information have somehow taken the magic from our lives.

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  9. Carey

    I just had to comment on this. Lately I’ve had a curiosity in self-deception aroused in me and I’ve been doing all that I can to figure it out for myself. In response to this person’s post, I have to disagree with the “religious people are obviously more capable of self-deception” statement. Just because believers and followers of Christ appear happier does not mean we are being deceived. I am a new Christian, and it wasn’t until I started reading and studying the Bible, as well as getting all the information I can on Christianity and Jesus Christ was I “conscious” enough to face reality. This writer believes that once we face the harsh truths about reality, it will depress us. I believe the opposite is true. In knowing God’s word and the truth about Jesus Christ, that is the basis for my hope and joy. I have always been a honest-to-a-fault kind of person. What I’ve since realized is, it’s harder to take a hard look at yourself as to why you do the things you do and how it affects others. Once I did this, my life changed. I was able to let go of my preconceived notions of people and the world around me and take responsibility for my part in everything. Stop blaming the world for my challenges and situations and just look to Jesus for my beacon of light in the distance. Insodoing, I live a much happier, freer life than many of those I know. And what I’ve deduced is, if they were to do the same, they would be able to experience true joy and freedom as well. If you are at all curious and want to experience greater joy in your life, I encourage you to study the bible after accepting Jesus into your life. John 8:32 Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.

    1. David Yerle Post author

      Hi Carey,
      Thanks for your comment. I have indeed studied the Bible, indeed I’ve read it twice. Unfortunately, the truth was not revealed to me and thus I was not set free. So I guess the enlightenment only works for some. Maybe I wasn’t worthy.

  10. rccl

    My search for an article on self delusion led me here…I needed a convincing article to help me understand that deluding myself in a positive light isnt too bad after all. I was getting depressed when I deducted that part out of my life. I was happier when I was ignorantly deluded and became ai lil depressed when I reach the age of reason and had to face reality as it is. You are also right, atheist tend to be more depressed in some sense. They dont have a happy place to.

    1. John Paul Braswell

      I’m not sure can agree entirely with the conclusion that, just because we recognize reality for what it is, all of the ‘magic’ is gone and there is no room for beauty and meaning to be found in, say, art, literature, the findings and method of science, poetry, music, competitive athletics, or even the “consolations of philosophy” as Boethius writes about. There is also love, human solidarity and uplift, the refinement of our intellectual and moral courage, and the future exploration of new worlds (yes, there is still much to explore, much we still do not know). Availing yourself to the mysteries that still lie in front of us, there is still much awe and joy in the contemplation and wonder at what awaits us. In that sense, there is still plenty of ‘magic’ to be found, and all this without needing to delude ourselves in order to appreciate it. I do not need to believe that the beneficence of the universe, or God, or gods, provides me with some hitherto untapped meaning or quality of life otherwise unavailable. Delusion is not a requisite to happiness. And I do not think that ‘having confidence in yourself’ should automatically consign me to accusations of self delusion. I don’t think it’s hard to acknowledge that we can realize our shortcomings while also working towards a goal. I do not have to be a self centered egotist to make headway in my goals, in life, in love. If people feel that is the case, then it is only because other people are not willing to admit their own shortcomings and so cannot abide them in the people that admit to them. There is a distinction between true modesty and the modesty that affords people to use ignorance as some sort of exalted state. But who knows, perhaps I am deluding myself? By the way, I am not at all meaning this as an attack or vitriolic condemnation of the article. I thought it well written, well intentioned, and intellectually honest. But, as Bertrand Russell would say, “gloom is a useless emotion”. We do not have to stare at the abyss all of the time.

  11. Paul

    What a fantastic post. There is a good discussion of the mechanics of self deception in Pinker’s ‘Blank Slate’ which you might enjoy.

  12. Todd

    I would argue that it is the materialist, the atheist, who manifestly excels in self-deception, not the religious. Ironically, it requires a great deal of faith to discount spiritual and eternal realities, which, by definition, are not open to inspection by are physical senses.

    If you think I exaggerate, try this: Draw a circle on a piece of paper, the size of a softball, say. Let this circle represent the entirety of what there is to know about our universe— all known knowledge, all that we “know we don’t know”, and all that we don’t know we don’t know. Now within that circle draw another circle. Let this second circle represent the cumulative knowledge of mankind. If you’re humble and honest you’ll make this second circle extremely tiny. Now, do you honestly believe that in all the rest of that larger circle, representing every byte and bit of possible knowledge about the universe (including it’s extra dimensions scientists believe exist yet are not open to us!) that there is no room for religious truth (e.g. the existence of a Creator God)? To answer in the affirmative, I would submit, is the height of arrogance and self-deception. At the very least, the honest, clear-thinking answer must be that the possibility exists.

    1. León

      I agree that “it requires a great deal of faith to discount spiritual and eternal realities”, but you then proceed to contrast atheism with agnosticism, not religion.

  13. Azazel

    Or the other alternative is that atheists are not only self-deluded but also incredibly arrogant. Given that your theories include immortality there’s also the possibility for a primary immortal intelligence that exists according to different rules of physics but can also interact with our reality constructively (or destructively for that matter). In fact there seems to be nothing in physics that entirely discounts what people would call “supernatural” phenomenon. To say that there is 0 evidence for such phenomenon is a lie, simply the fact that people claim to experience such phenomenon and their experiences are roughly similar is evidence for it. Psychological explanations are actually anti-skeptical as psychology is not actually science, its simply easier to to say someone is simply “seeing things” (aren’t we all seeing things?) than to suggest there is reality to their so-called delusions.

  14. cgalbsgoagains

    Hmmm. I don’t think this is as profound as you think it is. Certainly, much of religion is irrational, but atheism has its own amount of irrationality. Much of the human race falls into the category of agnosticism. I think there is plenty of room for rational doubt between utter belief and utter disbelief. In fact, many “believers” understand that doubt is a part of faith. I think atheists sometimes flatter themselves too much. Of course there are foolish people who believe their religion blindly, but there are also foolish atheists.

    Yes, most people can understand that a certain amount of self deception happens in life, but I think it’s a vast oversimplification to suggest that it is a mere choice between happiness and honesty. There is a lot of good in the world, in addition to the staggering amount of things that are bad and depressing.

    1. David Yerle Post author

      Sorry, I don’t recall even mentioning atheism in this post. The idea was that humans, all humans (atheists and believers alike) will lie to themselves about their abilities, physical beauty, etc. simply to make life more bearable. It also seems to be great for your health. For example, I can tell myself that I am a great blogger, whereas in truth I am probably average-ish. But, if I believed that, I wouldn’t even bother starting to write. The idea is that self-deception is necessary for our mental health and survival.
      I agree with you that there is a middle ground and that, in a lot of respects, there is plenty to be happy about. However, Fine’s research does show that the person with the most balanced view of themselves (not the world) tend to be clinically depressed.

  15. David Floren

    As long as we are talking about deception vs reality, let’s not leave out the vast majority of human thoughts and actions that correspond well with objective reality (e.g., swerving around debris in the road rather than driving directly into it knowing that if if we hit the object it may cause us to get into a fatal car accident. We don’t simply just delude ourselves into thinking we’re just so fantastic and all-powerful that we can drive right through the metal filing cabinet unharmed and laughing all the way to the loony bin).

    Of course when we’re talking about self delusion in the sense of sitting at home in one’s recliner thinking about how great we are without there being any objective activity or interaction with the material world at that precise moment, well then that’s when the mind just runs off into its own little parade of wild thoughts and imaginings. But isn’t this state of mind kind of imaginary to begin with? We’re talking about identity. The concept of identity. The notion of what one is. That’s not to say that identify is a pure fiction. It most certainly is informed by countless data inputs from objective reality and from those memory cells that are storing effectively true bits of history of that individual. And of course there are other memory cells that have slightly different versions of reality. Heather memory sounds that actually don’t even work anymore and other memories that have long since vanished from the brain and are in a sense irrecoverable. In this hazy amalgam, true and imagined memories live an admixture of self-deception and acceptance of objective reality. This is where a strong narrative that defines oneself comes into play and can be a game changer. You literally write your own story of Who You Are. Then you go out and live that story. Sure, it might be a dream at first but when like a plan it is deployed and put into practice it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy


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