The Art of Self-Deception

The Art of Self-Deception

Last update: 16 November, 2017

The art of self-deception refers to situations where we are lying to ourselves. It is actually our mind playing tricks on us. Self-deception occurs when we convince ourselves that something is true when it isn’t, but we do it unconsciously.

The difference between lying and self-deception is that, with lies, the person is aware that he is not telling the truth. While with self-deception, people unconsciously convince themselves that a lie is actually the truth.

In other words, the self-deceived person doesn’t realize he is doing it, or at least he doesn’t always realize it, and that is precisely where the power of self-deception lies. As long as we aren’t realising it, then self-deception will display its power; in its own silent, disguised way.

There are different types of self-deception, some being more frequent than others. In addition, each of them has different psychological effects. We are going to explain the four most frequent types of self-deception and their main psychological effects.

1. The art of self-deception: Functional Self-Deception

We observe functional self-deception in situations where the person lies and tries to convince himself that his decision is correct. The best known example of functional self-deception is found in the Fable of the Fox and the Grapes.

In this fable, the fox, characterized by its cunning, is attracted to a succulent bunch of grapes and tries to reach it by jumping up repeatedly. After a few unsuccessful attempts, the fox stops trying and copes with her frustration by deceiving herself. She convinces herself that she no longer wants the grapes anyway, and that they weren’t ripe enough.

The self-deception described in the fable of the fox and the grapes is called functional self-deception. This has a very clear function (hence its name): the act of lying to herself is useful for the fox, because it avoids the annoyance that comes from the failure of not having reached those grapes.

art of self deception

The problems of functional self-deception

Short-term functional self-deception can serve a purpose, but in the long term it is neither positive nor beneficial. The psychological effect is achieved because the person decides to transform a truth (not being able to reach a goal) into a lie that reassures him (the goal is not worth it).

According to the psychologist Giorgio Nardone, any good intention, if it is repeated too much, becomes negative and counterproductive. In other words, everything that is functional, if it is prolonged too much or taken in large doses, produces the opposite effect to the desired one.

In this way, the person who uses functional self-deception is never challenged and stays within his comfort zone constantly. Because, instead of training himself to try and get the necessary skills to achieve his goal, he continues to lie to himself. He convinces himself that what he wanted is actually not so important after all, or that it is not worth all the effort that was required of him to reach his goal.

“Lying is a language game that needs to be learned just like any other game”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

2. Value and Believe

The self-deception called “value and believe” arises from the need to end a conflict of desires. This type of self-deception is characterized by the conviction that if something costs a lot of money, time or effort then it is worth more than something we haven’t paid so much for. For example, we value belonging to a group that was difficult for us to get into more than another group that wasn’t.

In situations where a person has to work hard to achieve a goal, whether the goal is attractive or not, their attention selectively directs them towards everything that confirms that their goal is valuable. They end up believing the goal is valuable in order to justify the investment they’ve made in it. If not, then the conflict of desires we mentioned above will rear its ugly head.

Where does this self-deception come from?

Because we, as human beings, can’t psychologically maintain the inconsistency between our cognitive system (beliefs, thoughts and ideas) and our behavioral system (actions, behaviors) for very long, the “value and believe” self-deception emerges as a way to resolve the paradox.

The main psychological effect of this self-deception is that the person is struggling to reach an objective that often doesn’t fit in with their system of principles and values. It is a self-deception that has an expiration date because its effect does not last forever. In the long term, the person usually ends up being aware of this deception and feeling disappointed.

3. Consolatory self-deception

Consolatory self-deception is the cleverest one of the lot and is observed very often in jealous people. Consolatory lying is observed in situations where the person blames something or someone else for their situation, in order to feel sorry for themselves.

Some examples of consolatory self-deception would be to think that you have a phobia because your mother “made you scared of dogs” or to think that “I’m a very jealous person because my partner gives me reasons to be like that”. These are thoughts that a person frequently entertains in order to find comfort.

man self-deception

In this way, consolatory self-deception protects our self-esteem and ego. It makes us believe that nothing is ever our fault and that we are always the victim. In one sense this is positive, since in many situations we are not 100% responsible for the circumstances we find ourselves in. But on the other hand, resorting to past causes and external factors makes us resist the changes we need to make in our lives.

The pitfalls of consolatory self-deception

Consolatory lying protects us. The problem with any sort of prolonged protection is that it prevents us from growing psychologically. The psychological effect of this self-deception is that it prevents us from facing the problems that make us feel bad and assures us that it is impossible to overcome them.

4. Lying to others to convince yourself

One of the most subtle ways to deceive yourself is to lie to others and, in doing so, to lie to yourself. These are situations where the person conveys stories, situations and perceptions that are distorted. At first you are aware of this small distortion of the truth, but little by little the person ends up being absorbed by their story and the characters involved.

“He who tells a lie doesn’t know just what a task he has set himself, because he will be forced to invent twenty more in order to sustain the validity of the first one “

-Alexander Pope-

If this mechanism of lying to others is repeated several times, the lie becomes the truth – even for those who created it. A possible explanation for this phenomenon is that the brain adapts to dishonesty and the lie is lived as a reality. It is as if the person has forgotten they have made it all up. Even in the light of clear evidence that it’s a lie, these individuals manage to continue denying reality, not because of a lack of honesty, but because of self-deception.

No one is immune from this type of deception. It is a very frequent psychological phenomenon and, to a certain extent, quite normal. Freeing yourself from your own lies requires much personal reflection. Looking inside yourself, and understanding your own values, ideals and desires is the first step towards protecting yourself from any self-deception and directing yourself towards goals that you would really like to achieve.


This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.