The Key to Success May Be Lying to Yourself

Aren't we supposed to be honest with ourselves, and with others? Maybe we're "supposed" to be, but a lot of new research indicates that most of us are lying to ourselves "at least some of the time." And maybe that's great! 

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In the wake of a big media lie, Sue Shellenbarger has a piece in the Wall Street Journal which makes "The Case for Lying to Yourself." She's not talking about Jonah Lehrer, though. She's talking about actual self-deception, in the parlance of psychologists, and how it can be good for you. It sounds weird, the opposite of everything we thought we knew: Aren't we supposed to be honest with ourselves, and with others? Aren't we supposed to look in the mirror and see our own flaws and love ourselves anyway? Perhaps, but a lot of new research indicates that we don't, and in fact, most of us are lying to ourselves "at least some of the time." The new self-help angle on this is, maybe it's actually O.K. Maybe it's great! Let's assume no one's lying for a moment.

So, what is this "self-deception," exactly? It's "deeper and more complicated" than lying, according to Del Paulhus, a psychology professor at University of British Columbia, explains Shellenbarger. It involves "strong psychological forces that keep us from acknowledging a threatening truth about ourselves." Such threatening truths might be that we are terrible at public speaking, that we fear we're not really that smart, that we actually don't have what it takes to model professionally regardless of what our mom says, or that we can't do those amazing twists and turns and jumps and acts of balance that Olympic gymnasts manage and that we simply haven't attempted yet. Such threatening truths can be paralyzing.

But if we believe we're smarter or more talented, sometimes we sort of are, say the scientists. Not that we're going to be out there doing a floor routine anytime soon, but when we tell ourselves we're good at something, we gain confidence, and then we may get better at doing that very thing, winning friends and influencing people, or so goes the reasoning. It's akin to waking up in the morning and looking at oneself in the mirror and repeating, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" or some other Stuart Smalley-ism.

Seems like plain old positive thinking in some ways, but there's also a lot of mystery to this lying to ourselves we do, which is likely why researchers are so fascinated. Sometimes it's to help us cope, sometimes it appears to be "an inborn personality trait." There are a series of illustrations in the Journal to help us distinguish the bad kind of self-lie from the O.K. kind—it's bad, for instance, to say that you can simply do without sleep because you are superhuman; it's fine to say that you didn't get enough sleep last night but you'll get through it, you know you will—though if you're really lying to yourself you may not pay much attention to such instructions.

Also fascinating: This sort of imagining yourself as somehow better starts in kids as young as three years old, researchers have found. The plus side is that the "positivity bias" extends to others, too: We have a propensity to not only think that we're good and smart and likable and pretty, but also, we exaggerate positive traits in others. We forget about the negative, literally, and focus on the positive. That sounds nice! Did we tell you that you're gorgeous, and so are we? "When people are asked to choose the most accurate photo of themselves from an array of images that are either accurate, or altered to make them look up to 50% more or less attractive, most choose the photo that looks 20% better than reality, research shows," writes Shellenbarger. I mean, why would you not?

The problem, she points out, comes in when the lies become a reason not to do things: Saying you look fine when you really should exercise and probably, while you're at it, skip the French fries; saying you're killing it at work when really you haven't even gotten out of bed yet. The apparent sweet spot of self-deception is to accentuate the positive and "block out" the negative—don't listen to the insults; haters gonna hate!—while, at the same time, not letting yourself spiral out of control into thinking you don't actually need to do anything, you're perfect just the way you are. Because unfortunately, no one is perfect. I mean, we're all fabulous, but we can also be better, right? Well, except this writer. Self-deception, you are a wonderful thing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.