Honest liars — the psychology of self-deception: Cortney Warren at TEDxUNLV


Translator: Adrienne Lin
Reviewer: Reiko Bovee Humans are masters of self-deception. We fool ourselves into
believing things that are false and we refuse to believe
things that are true. I was in graduate school when I really started
delving into the topic of self-deception. And it rocked my world. I saw it everywhere, in everyone. We lie to ourselves
about the smallest details, such as how much we really ate today, and why we didn’t list
our actual height and weight on our driver’s license. (Laughter) We lie to reflect our aspirational goals: “I’ll only have
one glass of wine tonight,” – when I know I’m drinking
at least three. (Laughter) We lie to uphold social ideals: “I never have sexual thoughts
with anyone except my spouse,” because that wouldn’t be acceptable. We lie about
our most important life choices, such as why we married who we did,
or chose our given career path. Unfortunately,
for all the romantics out there, love is rarely the full motivation
for those choices. Nowhere was self-deception more obvious
than in my romantic relationships. I was terrified of being left. My fear of abandonment
led me to act in ways that are still hard for me to admit – anxiously awaiting a phone call, driving to see if he was
where he said he would be, asking repeatedly if he loved me. At the time,
I couldn’t have told you any of that, because I wouldn’t have been able to
admit it to myself. At the core, we lie to ourselves because we don’t have enough
psychological strength to admit the truth and deal with the consequences
that will follow. That said, understanding
our self-deception is the most effective way
to live a fulfilling life. For when we admit who we really are, we have the opportunity to change. It’s hard to look at this photo and think, “Liars!” (Laughter) But our self-deceptive tendencies
start here. From a very early age we start observing and making conclusions about ourselves
and our environment. Right or wrong, the conclusions we made
affected our identity. As adults, we will most want to lie about how psychologically painful realities
experienced as children affected who we are today. Perhaps you were raised
in a single parent home, in which you were neglected
by your father. You learned
that something was wrong with you – you weren’t smart enough,
attractive enough, athletic enough. You concluded
that to make people love you, you need to be perfect. As an adult, when someone
points out your imperfections, you feel tremendous anxiety
but deny where it comes from. Perhaps you felt ugly as a child because
you were teased for your appearance. You learned to eat
in response to emotional pain. As an adult, you struggle
to maintain a stable weight, because your eating
has very little to do with hunger. Perhaps you watched your parents fight. You learned to avoid conflict. Now, you struggle to admit even
feeling negative emotion. Although each of our specific
childhood learnings will be unique, what we learned will be exemplified
in the lies we tell ourselves as adults. Psychological theories of human nature
can help us understand our self-deception. Sigmund Freud first described lying
through ego-defense mechanisms: Psychological strategies
that protect our egos – our core sense of self – from information that would hurt us. Denial: Refusing to believe
that something is true, even though it is. “I don’t have a problem with alcohol,” – even though I drink everyday. “I’m not jealous,” – even though I secretly check
my partner’s email. Rationalization: Creating a reason to excuse ourselves. “I wouldn’t have yelled at you
if you hadn’t treated me so unfairly,” thereby justifying my yelling. “I know that smoking
isn’t good for my health, but it helps me relax,” thereby justifying my smoking. Projection: Taking an undesirable aspect of ourselves
and ascribing it to someone else. “I’m not like that. You’re like that.” When dating someone
you’ve lost interest in, you say things like, “You’re not ready for this relationship,” when, in fact,
you’re not ready for this relationship and never will be! Pioneers in the cognitive-behavioral
realms describe how our thoughts deceive us through cognitive distortions –
irrational ways we think. Polarized Thinking:
Thinking in extremes. “I will either eat no cookies
or an entire box, because if I eat one cookie, I’ve already blown my diet,
so I might as well keep eating.” Emotional Reasoning: Thinking that our feelings
accurately reflect reality. “I feel hurt; so you must have
done something bad to me.” “I feel stupid;
consequently I am stupid.” Overgeneralization: Taking a single negative event
as an infinite spiral of defeat. After going through a bad breakup,
you think, “I am always going to be alone.” After getting denied a promotion
at work, you think, “I am never going to be successful
in my career.” From an existential perspective, we deceive ourselves
to avoid the Givens of Life – the fundamental realities
of “being human” that we must face. Death – we’re all going to die; Ultimate aloneness – we were born as a single person housed
in a solitary physical body; Meaninglessness – our lives are inherently meaningless
unless we give them meaning; and Freedom – we are responsible for ourselves
because we have the freedom of choice. To avoid confronting these realities,
we frequently lie to ourselves: “I am this way
because of my upbringing;” – thereby deferring responsibility
for my choices. “The bad things on the news
would never happen to me;” – because I am somehow special,
and uniquely protected from harm. “I won’t write a will. I am young.
I’m not going to die anyway;” – thereby denying our mortality. Multicultural and feminist psychologists describe how internalization
of cultural norms affect us. Here, we deceive ourselves by believing what we were culturally conditioned
to believe is true, instead of deciding
what we actually believe is true. Do you compromise yourself
to meet cultural norms? Do you think you need
to look a certain way, be a certain weight, earn a certain income, get married, have children, be religious because you are supposed to or because you believe
that it’s right for you? All of these theories of human nature
help us understand how we deceive ourselves on a daily basis. Why should you care? Self-deception leads to
massive amounts of pain and regret. To avoid being honest, we frequently make choices
with harmful consequences to ourselves and others – we may use drugs, alcohol, eat,
shop, gamble, steal, lie, leave people or pass our emotional baggage down
to those we love the most. Or, we may choose not to change even when we are miserable or causing profound harm
to those around us. Looking back at life with regret
is incredibly painful, because you can’t change
your choices in the past. As I shared earlier, I struggled greatly
in my romantic relationships. I knew that I didn’t feel safe, but I believed
it was my boyfriend’s fault – if he just called me more,
told me he loved me more, then I would feel safe. The truth was there was nothing he could do
to make me feel safe, because my feelings
had nothing to do with him. The reason I didn’t feel safe
is that I learned as a child that people would always leave me, and I lived my life making choices
consistent with that belief. When we don’t take full responsibility
for who we are, we hurt ourselves
and everyone around us. Now what? How do we start acknowledging the lies
we tell ourselves? How do we start
becoming more honest liars? The first step is self-awareness – we become observers of ourselves. When you have a strong
emotional reaction to something, pause. When what you say
doesn’t match how you act, pause. When you’re thinking irrational thoughts, pause. Ask yourself: What does this say about me? Similarly, most of us spend
a tremendous amount of energy trying to get over someone or something
that happened to us. And we generally avoid examining
our contribution to conflict in our lives. When you are unresolved
about something or someone, pause. Ask yourself: What does my reaction to this situation
say about me? As we become more honest and aware, we also become more responsible
for our choices. If we admit that we are insecure
about something – which we all are – we’re now confronted with a choice: to work on our insecurity or not. Whatever we decide, we are now more responsible
for the consequences of our insecurity, because we know better. Not changing when confronted
with the truth is a choice. Although we can’t control
many circumstances we encounter in life, we are responsible
for our reactions to all of them. In that vein, one of the best ways to confront our self-deception is psychotherapy. It is probably the only relationship that you will ever have
in your entire life that exists solely to benefit you. Yet, a great deal of stigma
exists around therapy. People frequently say things like, “I don’t need therapy. It’s only for crazy or weak people
who can’t help themselves.” The truth is, it takes tremendous courage to be completely vulnerable
to another human being. Therapy is truly a gift
if you are courageous enough to accept it. Confronting our self-deception
is a lifelong journey. We change and the world offers us
new opportunities to understand ourselves. There is always more to learn. I was on the perfect path
to be a successful academic. I received tenure
here at UNLV, two years ago. And in about six weeks,
I will be unemployed, because I resigned. Getting tenure and then quitting is about the last thing anyone
would expect from a faculty member. Especially me. I love psychology! I love teaching. I love research.
I love my department. I had an amazing experience at UNLV. But the truth is,
my passion isn’t in academia anymore. To admit that to myself
was brutally painful! Because I had to confront all of my self-deceptive tendencies
and insecurities. “What if I disappoint people? What will my family say? What am I going to do?
What if I can’t support myself? Who am I if I am not a professor? What if my whole life changes!? What if my whole life doesn’t change?” If I had chosen to stay in academia, I would have paid
a huge psychological price. I would have to admit
that I was not strong enough to make different choices for myself
when confronted with the truth. Be more honest liars. Choose to become more honest
about the lies you tell yourself. Use the truth to live
the most fulfilling life for you, because you’ve only got one. (Applause)

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