Our Infinite Capacity for Self-Deception


Each of us has a severely debilitating limitation – the desire be right.

My opinion is correct. The candidate I voted for is the better choice. My worldview is accurate. You should heed my advice.

Being right is highly validating. Especially when others acknowledge our acuity.

The challenge with wanting to be right is that we often fall into the trap of self-deception.

How easy is it to deceive ourselves?

Consider this experiment in which participants were measured on the maximum amount of time they could keep their arms in cold water. Once the baseline was established, then each of the participants listened to a short lecture on heart health.

Participants learned that there are two types of hearts, namely Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 is associated with poorer health and higher risk of heart disease whereas Type 2 the exact opposite: better health, longer life expectancy, and reduced risk of heart disease.

Half of the participants learned during the lecture that Type 2 hearts have an increased tolerance to cold water. The other half were told that Type 2 hearts have a decreased tolerance to cold water.

Then all the participants were retested on the maximum time they could keep their arms submerged in the cold water.

Surprise, surprise.

Nearly everyone who heard the lecture that Type 2 hearts can better withstand cold water saw huge increases in the amount of time they could keep their arms submerged.

And nearly everyone who learned the opposite – that Type 2 hearts don’t do so well with cold temperatures – saw a dramatic decrease in the amount of time they could keep their arms under cold water.

When the participants were asked if they intentionally held their arms underwater longer or shorter (whichever aligned better with “positive” health), nearly all of them denied such intentionality. Of the few who did “confess”, they were convinced that the water had changed temperature, thereby leading to their “improved” times. Of course, the water temperature never changed.

The day after the Challenger space shuttle disaster, a psychology professor asked each of his students to write down exactly where they were when they first heard the news. Then 2.5 years later, he asked those students the same question.

Less than 10% of them got the details right.

Even more shocking, nearly all the students were absolutely certain their memories were accurate, even after seeing their original notes!

In the words of Tony Schwartz,

“Each of us has an infinite capacity for self-deception.”

And self-deception keeps us from looking honestly at ourselves.

Which is unfortunate because personal growth is predicated on the willingness to look within and honestly ask ourselves if there might be another way of viewing the particular situation – and ourselves.

If we have a vested interest in being right – and we know we have a vested interest whenever we’re emotionally attached to the outcome – then we can use that as a trigger to say, “Hmm, I am definitely letting this affect me. I’m feeling a need to have my opinion validated. Let me pause and consider if there’s another way of seeing this.”

From such a state of humble openness, extraordinary growth results.