“Lying,” Sam Harris defines, “is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.”
From the white lies we tell to spare someone’s feelings to more serious breaches of trust, we’re surrounded by levels of dishonesty. In her engaging TED talk, Pamela Meyer cites research that says we’re lied to anywhere between 10 and 200 times per day.
And for anyone who’s followed recent political budget talks, that upper bound actually might seem low.
But between the ridiculous fabrications of your average conservative grandstanding to the useless feedback of your gutless manager, none of these represent the most harmful untruths we hear on a daily basis.
That privilege is reserved for the lies we tell ourselves.
Don’t Trust that Person in the Mirror
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman, 1974 Caltech commencement address, Cargo Cult Science.
In his timeless speech, The Psychology of Human Misjudgment, Charlie Munger discusses the criminals in Tolstoy’s novels and their respective self-deceptions. He breaks their defense mechanisms into two main types – they’re either in denial of committing the crime at all or they justify it based on their hardships.
Each of these villains – characters the rest of us see as evil – mentally protect their own identities through a series of denials and rationalizations. And while our own transgressions may not compare with theirs, we’re all guilty of spinning our own behaviors to align with our preferred self-image.
We tell external lies to put a boundary between the truth that we’re living and the version that others see, for concern of their judgment. Our internal dishonesty follows this same pattern – except we deny this very truth from ourselves. As Adrienne Rich describes this impact in her 1975 speech-turned-essay Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,
“We deny the importance of an event, or a person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith even within our own lives.”
Psychology has long referred to this behavior as cognitive dissonance – that mental discomfort that occurs when we’re faced with conflicting evidence. And like many other biases, it becomes especially problematic when it threatens our self-identity. In these instances, we’re particularly motivated to quiet the disconfirming evidence through whatever rationalization is most handy.
We spend our lives constructing a positive self-image of ourselves. It would be a shame to let something trivial like reality jeopardize that.
We credit our success to skill and determination while our failures are attributed to factors outside of our control. We’re always the protagonist in our own story and we routinely believe ourselves to be better than average, regardless of the discipline or evidence.
So it shouldn’t be surprising if our default reaction to this dissonance is one of rationalization and denial.
Yet it’s easy to see how this quickly develops into a vicious cycle. As we continue to self-justify our actions we further align ourselves to a particular self-image. One that we’re now even more committed to justify against conflicting evidence.
Our choices continue to reinforce themselves and foreshadow future behavior, pushing us toward increasingly extreme positions. Sam Harris’s description of this rabbit hole of dishonesty applies just as aptly to our internal self-rationalizations,
“Lies beget other lies. Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality.”
Our rationalizations and denials protect our self-image, but at the cost of actually achieving it. Without the understanding that our external behaviors don’t match our internal aspirations, we lack any motivation to change. And we doom ourselves to repeat the same mistakes.
The alternative, of course, is to recognize this tendency. And counteract it.
Protect Yourself from Your Own Lies
“When you combine the science of recognizing deception with the art of looking, listening, you exempt yourself from collaborating in a lie. You start up that path of being just a little bit more explicit, because you signal to everyone around you, you say, ‘Hey, my world, our world, it’s going to be an honest one. My world is going to be one where truth is strengthened and falsehood is recognized and marginalized.’” – Pamela Meyer, Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception
The good news is that we’re not destined to repeat this cycle of self-justification. We always have the power to recognize and correct it.
The first step is simply recognizing this tendency and being vigilant. While we may never banish these biases from our mind, we can question our intuition and consider whether we’re being honest with ourselves.
I know, much easier said than done.While lies about inauguration attendance are easy to spot, full and total honesty is much less clear. There is rarely ever just one truth – regardless of what that cult down the street tells you. As Adrienne Rich described in words far better than I’ll ever manage,
“There is no ‘the truth,’ ‘a truth’ — truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.”
Given the ambiguity and interconnectedness of our thoughts and actions, it becomes all the more critical to be mindful and vigilant against our internal deceit. And while Noah Zandan and TED Ed put out a good short animation on common traits of liars, and Pamela Meyer’s Liespotting is an interesting read, there are no universal signals.
The answer lies in our own introspection. It’s about taking the time to reflect on our daily actions and consider when we’ve self-justified poor behavior to the detriment of our future growth.
And recognizing the triggers and patterns that typically bring about this behavior in each of us. Once we better appreciate the environments and causes for our own self-justifications, we’re better able to counteract them.
And for some people, this knowledge came from changing the question they asked themselves.
Introspect on the What, Not Just the Why
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
With the wave of meditation, journaling, reflection, thinking time, root cause analysis, critiques, lessons learned, postmortems, premortems, and after-action reviews filling our time, you’d think introspection is at an all-time high.
And maybe it is.
But in a study by Tasha Eurich of Harvard Business Review, her team found that all of this introspection isn’t helping us to be more self-aware. It’s not that introspection isn’t an effective tool – it’s just that most people aren’t using it effectively.
Eurich found that most people focus on asking “why” questions during periods of introspection. Which is understandable – we’re trying to determine the basis for our emotions and behaviors which lends itself to reflecting on our motives. Yet they also found that these questions lead less to self-aware understanding as to immediate answers and embellished negative stories.
Alternatively, the study found that those who ask themselves “what” questions demonstrate greater self-awareness and are better aligned between their internal and external behaviors. Instead of asking why something happened, they focus on what caused them to behave a certain way and what they’ll do differently next time.
This keeps people objective and future-focused while providing actionable changes going forward.
It also keeps us grounded in reality and opens up more future options. Which, if we actually want to make changes, is really the whole point.
Choose the Hard Choices
“Choices are the hinges of destiny.” – Edwin Markham
All of the introspection and resulting self-awareness in the world is for naught if we don’t use it to make better decisions going forward. Which mostly comes down to a method of framing our options.
The function of a lie is usually singular – to make things simpler for the liar than they ought to be.
So one of the first steps in counteracting our internal rationalizations is to recognize when we’re stretching to make things simpler for ourselves than they should be. In the advice of poet and weight-lifting champion Jerzy Gregorek, who recognizes that a fulfilling life is only gained through hard choices,
“In every difficult moment ask yourself, ‘What is a hard choice and what is an easy choice?’ and you will know instantly what is right.”
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely suggests a similar mentality when evaluating future decisions. In a podcast discussion with Shane Parrish of The Knowledge Project, he suggests three strategies to consider when faced with difficult decisions:
- Consider yourself as an external advisor instead of the person making the decision. We’re almost always able to solve other peoples’ problems because we see them from a more rational viewpoint.
- Consider that you’re making this decision as a long-term rule instead of one-time instance. When we associate today’s decision with long-term behaviors/habits/impacts/trends, we’re more likely to act responsibly.
- Consider whether your decision would be consistent if it was a major event or a minor one. We tend to make exceptions for minor events yet it’s the minor events that add up to define our long-term standards.
Regardless of the method that works best for you, how we frame our decisions can determine whether it’s our intuition or our rational self making the final call.
Cultivate Self-Esteem over Pride
“To become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are,” wrote Bruce Lee in an essay called The Passionate State of Mind. “Yet it is remarkable that the very people who are most self-dissatisfied and crave most for a new identity have the least self-awareness. They have turned away from an unwanted self and hence never had a good look at it. The result is that those most dissatisfied can neither dissimulate nor attain a real change of heart. They are transparent, and their unwanted qualities persist through all attempts at self-dramatization and self-transformation.”
We lie to ourselves to preserve a self-image that isn’t consistent with reality. But this version exists only in our heads. The rest of the world continues to see a different version. And insulated in our own self-justifications, we never address those shortcomings which differentiate the two.
Lee would cite this defining motivation as one of pride – a sense of self-worth that’s derived from external rather than internal factors. When we lack self-awareness, we look to others to tell us who we are. And we open ourselves to the pull of conformity and rationalization.
The alternative then is an intrinsic source of motivation – not pride but self-esteem. As Lee wrote,
“Pride is a sense of worth derived from something that is not part of us, while self-esteem derives from the potentialities and achievements of self.”
We all have this ability. It comes from being honest with ourselves and making the difficult choices. It comes from recognizing when our first reaction is to make things easy and counteracting that to do what’s right. And it comes from day-in and day-out, choosing to embrace reality instead of self-justifications.
Start today. Because as Bruce Lee would tell us, “The maintenance of self-esteem is a continuous task that taxes all of the individual’s power and inner resources. We have to prove our worth and justify our existence anew each day.”