The Eagan High School class of ’96 has produced its share of accomplished and articulate alumni, one pride-inspiring example of which is Dr. Cortney Warren. Warren is a clinical psychologist and researcher in the field of eating disorders and body image. She has recently published her first book, Lies We Tell Ourselves: The Psychology of Self-Deception. She will shortly be giving a TEDx talk on the subject.
[Classic] self-deception is a belief that we maintain, usually unconsciously, despite logical reasoning and/or a wealth of evidence to the contrary. We’ve spoken on this topic in a previous article on “Shadow Beliefs.”
These beliefs tend to result in irrational behavior. This can be as benign as a research subject performing better on endurance test because he was told that he had a “medically superior class of heart.” Or it can be as destructive as staying in an abusive relationship because we have secretly convinced ourselves that the abuser is “not really a bad person.” It is the culprit behind a lot of destructiveness in relationships and in self-image.
Warren bravely begins her narrative by speaking openly and honestly about the ways in which she has exhibited self-deceptive traits in the past. She has made dramatic changes to her lifestyle and career as a result of her reflections on personal honesty. One gets the sense that the very writing of this book may have been an important part of the author’s own development. It’s a hard topic to write about without immediately reflecting on one’s own self-deceptive habits. I can’t help but admit that I have my own checkered history with acting out based on beliefs like these. I get the sense that many people might.
Self-deception is a psychological topic that attracts a lot of interest, but about which there is surprisingly little new research done. Many of the ideas on self-deception still come from the ego-defense ideas of Freud. Much of the current literature on the topic comes either from philosophy (e.g. Alfred Mele, Florida State University), or self-help (e.g. Daniel Goleman, Tony Robbins, etc.).
One of the great outstanding questions about self-deception is why we do it, or why we keep doing it once we become aware of the underlying belief. Not just the immediate contextual goal (e.g. upholding social appropriateness, allowing ourselves to indulge when we know we shouldn’t, etc.), but the evolutionary source of the tendency. Warren seems to indicate that the need springs from false beliefs that we learned in childhood that may have helped us avoid certain emotional outcomes. She gives examples like:
- Editing yourself from talking about your step-family in front of your birth parent
- Presenting a Stepford-like family image to the public
- Learned self-devaluing thinking based on physical appearance
- Glossing-over others’ bad behavior to avoid confrontation
Our brains value precedent, so we tend to squeeze observed evidence into our preexisting models rather than challenging our models in the face of compelling new evidence. This is called Confirmation Bias. the effects of this bias would be even strong if we have created concrete emotion-laden beliefs about the world in our childhood or adolescence.
Warren goes on to discuss the consequences of self-deception. One of her most jarring quotes from the book reads, “Never forget that there are people in the world trying to get over what you did to them, just as you are trying to get over what they did to you.” That’s a splash of ice-water to the face. She’s not saying that there’s someone out there who took your break-up too hard and can’t get over it. She’s saying that we need to wake up to the damage we are constantly causing, no matter how inadvertently, by lack of cognizance and/or maturity in this area.
How do we start achieving clarity about beliefs that we may not even know exist? Warren encourages us to ask questions of ourselves, particularly in areas of our lives where we feel frustrated or disjointed. The process begins with increased awareness of our own emotions, behaviors and thoughts. If we act towards others irrationally or without integrity, we have to be very honest with ourselves about what that kind of reaction says about us. Finally, as our beliefs evolve and we see where we have placed ourselves in damaging or frustrating situations, we must resolve either to change the situation or accept it without negativity.
Dr. Warren’s book is available from iTunes, or from Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. Her TEDx Talk will be on April 11, 2014 from UNLV. Link to the live stream of TEDx UNLV here. If you enjoy TED talks, please share Ms. Warren’s link with your friends.
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