Timothy Campbell


This conversation is closed.

Do You Ever Lie to Yourself?

Some people have told me that it is impossible to lie to one's self because according to their definition a lie is a conscious act and we cannot simultaneously know and NOT know something. Fair enough, but let us consider those self-deceptions we sneak under our own radar.

Have you ever lied to yourself? If so, how long did it take to catch the lie? What motivated the lie in the first place? What motivated the discovery of the lie?

If we can indeed lie to ourselves, what does this say about us? If one part of us is deceiving another then can either part be considered the true self?

  • thumb
    Sep 6 2011: Lies can absolutely NOT be conscious. That's the big problem. Lies can happen so fast, our consciousness only fleetlingly glimpses it as a blur. A number of virtues such as faith, hope and trust can mask a lot of self lying because there are things we just don't want to believe can happen. For example, the current economic meltdown has all the earmarks of driving civilization as we know it off a cliff, yet we pretend it's being fixed. The tension between Israel and Iran could easily trigger nuclear war between the super powers, yet we desperately want to wish the crisis away. Stuff like that. It takes courage to face reality. Most self-lying comes from a lack of courage.
    • thumb
      Sep 6 2011: You raise an interesting distinction. Internal lies can be a matter of falsehood ("A is B") or blindness ("There is no A").
      • thumb
        Sep 7 2011: Yes, sins of commission and sins of omission. Sometimes lying to ourselves can be positive, get us through a difficult situation as in solace during grieving by believing in heaven and sometimes lying to ourselves can be deadly as with people in codependent relationships.

        The overarching idea is that humans need to model external reality accurately in order to survive, particularly when modeling forward in trying to predict outcomes from various courses of action. This is made really hard if our previous conclusions, our interpretive framework, are composed of too much fantasy, too much filling in of blanks with wish scenarios.
        • thumb
          Sep 7 2011: I think we can all think of examples where somebody's model of reality caused them and others to NOT survive. We can find examples in religion, ideology and engineering, to name just three.

          Of course with very few exceptions we cannot fix somebody else's brain. That's one reason why I started a thread asking us to consider when we lie to ourselves. This is not the first time I've asked people about this online. It's interesting to see how people react. It's also interesting to guess whether or not there is some self-deception in their reaction.
    • thumb
      Sep 7 2011: Very good remarks. Years before the financial crisis it was forecasted and spelled out by some people. I heard someone testify that he was aware of it at the time and understood it well but wished it away for everything was going well. This works the same for other major problems ahead.
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      Sep 6 2011: I can think of one case where people who work with deception DO lie to themselves — or (to be charitable) misconstrue what they are doing. I refer to so-called "psychics". In their industry, the term "shut eye" is used to denote a person who has convinced him- or herself that the powers are real. This may arise as a result of wishful thinking, or it may be a misinterpretation of the results. Whatever the reason, it seems to me that there must be a certain amount of wilful blindness.

      For more about this phenomenon vis-a-vis psychics, I can recommend the book "The Psychic Mafia" by M. Lamar Keene.

      I wonder about con-artists in general. They must somehow justify their actions to themselves. It has been my observation that such people seldom say, "I do it because I'm selfish" (or whatever happens to be the actual motivation).
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Sep 6 2011: As you noted, magicians are experts in deception and learn to spot it so they can understand the principles used by other magicians. It is hardly surprising that magicians are strongly represented in the Skeptics' community.

          As for psychics, they learn to deceive people for social reasons or as way of earning cash. As Keene points out in his book ("The Psychic Mafia"), the better they are at deceiving, the more money they can make. However, they often discover an emotional cost to living a life of deceit. Some psychics solve it by drinking away their guilt, while others convince themselves that they're doing something that is either good or neutral. Because the money's good, few top-notch psychics will risk admitting the entire truth to themselves.

          Keene was an exception. At some point in his very successful career he realized that he could not tolerate the internal duplicity. So he wrote his book and gave up the life.

          It must have been hard to give it up; he was surrounded by people who could encourage him to stick with it. In that regard, it was like my departure from the religion of my upbringing. The people around me would have helped me conquer my doubts, In the end, though, I had to admit that I was avoiding the tough questions. Lying to myself, in other words. Once I saw that, escape was simply a matter of time.
  • thumb
    Sep 7 2011: Well as Kurt Vonnegut said

    "Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder, 'Why, why, why?' Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand."

    Evertime I think I understand what is going on I'm most like deluding myself.
  • thumb
    Sep 6 2011: No.

    By which I mean, "Yes."

    I should clarify. We all lie to ourselves.

    We tell ourselves about our limits. We tell ourselves about our abilities. We tell ourselves that we can do this thing, just once, and it won't matter in the long run. We tell ourselves that one chair (throne) is more desirable than the one at our kitchen table.

    We tell ourselves that it is important that we get up and do the same thing we did yesterday, that we play our part, that we're holding up our end of something bigger than ourselves.

    The whole social contract is a series of lies we tell ourselves.

    We lie to ourselves every time we refuse to believe that it can't be different, that it can't be better than this.
    • thumb
      Sep 6 2011: I can agree that "the whole social contract is a series of lies" that we share amongst ourselves. It's intriguing how a concensus fiction can function so smoothly for years and years.

      As for our limits, we certainly do imagine limits that are not there. I wonder, though, how often those are our imaginings rather than somebody else's? For example, a kid who is told, "You're stupid!" throughout school may believe a lie, but it could be argued that he is not lying to himself but merely parroting a falsehood internally. Yet it's still him who is doing the parroting, isn't it?

      It's because of situations like this that the whole topic of lying to ourselves casts doubt on what the "self" is. If one part lies to another, which part is the "real" self, if there is such a thing?
      • thumb
        Sep 6 2011: It's much like Xeno's paradoxes: the arrow hits the wall, the runner crosses the finish line, and we lie to ourselves.

        We should not get so caught up in the mechanics that we ignore the basic truth.
  • thumb
    Sep 7 2011: Silvia, I also have noticed that different people define "lie" differently. In fact, the issue is obscured by our language's gradations: White Lie, Fib, Stretching the Truth, Exaggeration, Spin, Omission and so on.

    I wonder if it would be possible to come up with a definition of "lie" that would satisfy everyone? Perhaps not. I do know this, though: there is a certain feeling I have inside when I know that I have been less than completely honest. When that happens and I am merely talking to myself, well, I guess I've lied to myself, haven't I?
    • thumb
      Sep 8 2011: Thanks for your honesty, Timothy! I hope that we will lie less to ourselves in the future. :)
    • thumb
      Sep 8 2011: Considering our entire civilization is predicated on a giant underlying set of lies, probably not ;-)
      • thumb
        Sep 9 2011: That is a good point, Gisela! But considering that we lie more to ourselves than others ('cause we care about their opinion but we can always make up excuses for ourselves) the set of lies may not be that big. :)
  • thumb
    Sep 7 2011: Excellent insights. Yes, facing truth requires courage, the ability to confront rather than flee.
  • thumb
    Sep 7 2011: Yes, I did it almost everyday.

    I think it's influenced by circumstance.
    I have a self-image that I want to, but the all surroundings brings me another way.
    So, I always say "It's all right, no problem, I'm in right way,or I am happy man"
    but It's a lie.
    Honestly, I am almost always anxious to everything.
    And when I sense to this anxiety, my heart is beating very fast..

    I apologize for my poor English.
    I am Korean and I'm not good at English.
    It's very hard work for me that explain my opinion in English. T-T
    • Comment deleted

      • thumb
        Sep 8 2011: Dear Birdia.

        Thanks for your worry about me.
        But I'm not in terrible condition..
        I am normal person, I think.
        My expression was so poor.
        Sorry about that, but thanks again your worry about me.
      • thumb
        Sep 9 2011: Dear Birdia.

        Thanks for your opinion.
        I agreed with your thinking about how to live well and be happy.
        I really think that as same as you.
        And I think if when I counsel to other people,maybe I will advice in same way.
        But I think it's quite difficult to find out what makes me happy and to do the right thing.

        Nowadays, I'm seeking employment..But I don't know what exactly I want to.
        There's so many factor's to think about. For instance, payment, future, my family's condition, etc..
        I can't decide to what is right choice.
        I major in law in university..but I think it is not to fit my aptitude.
        And in Korea, my country, unemployment problem is very serious, I think.
        There's few company that want law degree, very few.
        And payment is very important problem for me because my family's situations are quite bad.
        And I think my aptitude is IT area, but there's no time to preperate to this.
        And what is my aptitude problem is very difficult and life-long stuff.
        So I mean I will get a job in some areas, but I wonder that will be my best choice.

        In addtion, I have a girlfriend, possibly going to marry.
        I love her but sometimes I am confused about her.
        I mean, sometimes her think or opinion are so different from me in important fields I think.
        I think she has some obsession to something..
        Her parents had divorced when she was young,
        maybe that incident has influenced to her,I think.
        So sometimes I afraid to my future with her. Maybe I might can't tolerate her in future.
        But generally, she is kind and beautiful for me.

        Marriage is very important especially in East, in Korea ,divorce is evil thing,
        so I worried about it, some seriously.

        I am trying to get a job diligently, and trying to get along with my girlfriend.
        But it's not easy to find right way.

        But I am normal person likewise you.
        I think the other peoples are have some similar worrys that I have.

        That's my opinion, but I wonder it conveys to you.

        Again, sorry about my poor English and rough expression.
        • thumb
          Sep 10 2011: Hi JangI fully support Birdia what she posted above. Neither being coach or mentor just as fellow human being like suggest to do that.

          Another point to consider , don't try to control everything in life. No one can do that, ignore uncotrollable things of life and focus only what you can control. Do what you love to do. May be you are trying already , try more of those.

          Life is beautiful but that doesn't mean it's a bed of roses. Challenges and happiness in life makes it beautiful. Enjoy your all happy moments how big or small it si doesn't matter, try to find more and more happy moments, face challenges with a intention that you can't influence everything so focus what you can.
    • thumb
      Sep 7 2011: You explained your opinion very well, Jang hun.

      I think it is common for people to lie to themselves to preserve their self-image — their picture of what they are (or usually are). For example, if somebody thinks they are "a good person" and they are tempted to do something bad, they might come up with all kinds of excuses that lets them do it. But none of those excuses will challenge their belief that they are "a good person". It might sound like one of these:

      "Yes, I insulted my friend, but I needed to show her how much she had insulted ME."
      "Yes, I stole that chocolate bar from the store, but that store charges too much."
      "Yes, I punched that man in the face, but he needed to be taught a lesson."

      Imagine how the world would be different if we could avoid this kind of self-deception.
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Sep 8 2011: You may be right, though I can't tell because of the partial language barrier.

          I agree that if somebody has anxiety problems that distraction is not the answer. I speak from experience!
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Sep 8 2011: (1) Jang hun said that his English was poor. It's MUCH better than my Korean, which is limited to the word "Kimchi". In any case, since he is having some trouble with English it's possible I misunderstood him.

          (2) I have suffered from panic disorder for most of my life. It is no longer the crippling problem it was a few decades ago, but even now it occasionally causes difficulties.
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Sep 9 2011: When panic disorder triggers, it overrides almost everything else in one's awareness. To illustrate: would you be thinking about your plans for tomorrow if you were being chased by a tiger?

          Even when the disorder is not fully active there is the fear that the tiger might show up at any moment. This secondary fear cripples the sufferer. Some people end up living a life of isolation and terror. Learning to cope with that fear meant that I was able to once again live a normal life.

          How did I learn to cope? By studying and disarming the cognitive distortions, gradual desensitization, and getting on with life even when it sucked. Oh, and I took up drinking for about 10 years!

          Drinking eventually became as bad a problem as the panic disorder. After I quit that I discovered that having some benzodiazaepenes handy helped. And I do mean having them "handy". Taking them too often could have led to addiction, but merely the knowledge that they were there (and could de-fang the tiger) made them quite effective even while in the bottle!

          Now, after some 32 years of suffering, the disorder is merely a mild inconvenience. I don't have to carry the pills with me when I go out. Still, I do not know if it'll ever go away altogether. Probably it will be with me as long as I have a working hippocampus.
      • thumb
        Sep 8 2011: Dear Timothy!

        You're comment is exactly accord with my opinion!
        That's what i mean.
        You explained my rough idea very well! Thanks! :)
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      Sep 6 2011: "To thine own self be true" raises a bit of a problem: what is the "self" to which we are being true? Is it something intrinsic or something conditioned?

      For example, a man might be raised by his father to be a staunch Democrat (or Republican, or theist, or football fan — whatever) and will take pride in standing up for "his" position. But it isn't actually "his" position except to the extent that he considers it so.

      "Your football team sucks!"
      "No, they're just having a bad year!"
      "They've had a bad year for the past decade!"
      "That's because the referees are biased!"

      The above example shows somebody lying to himself for something that doesn't really matter. But it could be say that he's being "true to himself" (for some values of "himself") because, dang it, he's standing up for his team!
      • thumb
        Sep 7 2011: We are illustrating here the difficulty in adopting hard and fast rules for anything. The best we can do is to arrange them to act in a statistically relevant way and opt for a "most case scenario". But that's grist for the criminal sociopath's rationale who detects hypocrisy in any deviation from the rule by others and that justifies wholesale abandonment of social mores by him. The other dilemma is that the closer you inspect (magnify) any phenomenon, the more indistinct its borders become, the more ambivalence or entropy enters the picture. My take is that it is important to both zoom in and zoom out to acquire a range of gestalts on any topic. Absolutes need to be mitigated by statistics in reality. Of course the absolute worst offenders is the absolute of the every day noun and our belief in the efficacy of single word descriptors.
        • thumb
          Sep 7 2011: Yes, it could be argued that the very words we speak are lies. I assume you know about E-Prime — that certainly showed me how false equations can dog my every utterance.

          In any case, this thread is about lying to ourselves. If I tell myself something and some part of me detects a falsehood or a significant omission, then it probably doesn't matter how the world defines a lie. What intrigues me about this process is not that there was a lie but that one part of my self is exposing another part. This makes my conventional conception of "self" look like a lie. What are the implications of that?
  • thumb
    Sep 6 2011: never
    • thumb
      Sep 6 2011: When you say "Never", do you mean "I have never in entire my life lied to myself"? Or do you mean "I never lie to myself these days (though I once did)"?
      • thumb
        Sep 7 2011: never did, never will
        • thumb
          Sep 7 2011: Does it surprise you to see some people in this conversation saying that they have lied to themselves? Do you think they are mistaken? Or do you think they actually do lie to themselves? If that's the case, how have you avoided the mistake that they have made?
      • thumb
        Sep 7 2011: how do you know i've avoided?
        • thumb
          Sep 7 2011: Perhaps you've misunderstood me.

          Many people here (including myself) say we have lied to ourselves. But you said that you never have and never will lie to yourself.

          So my question is: Why are you more honest than the rest of us?
  • thumb
    Sep 6 2011: Yes I have.

    I would add 'unfortunately' after saying that, but I have to admit that it is hard to not lie. I strive to raise my consciousness, and after I learnt that to do so I have to restrain myself from lying, and just accept the truth. So every time I tell a little lie here and there, I am aware of it. The problem is, do I want to be honest to disappoint? or lie to please? That is the issue with lying I think. But fortunately, my annoying habit of lying is gradually fading out. I found being honest benefits everyone in the end, no matter what the issue was.
    • thumb
      Sep 6 2011: That's an interesting observation: sometimes we lie to ourselves simply to please others.

      "I must be enjoying this meal because so-and-so worked so hard making it" or
      "I'll treat my doubts about so-and-so's opinion as false because otherwise they'd be angry"

      The second example is a big part of peer pressure.

      I have my doubts that the liar is always as conscious of the lies as the sentences make it appear.
      • thumb
        Sep 7 2011: I agree that the liar is not always conscious about their lies. I'm not sure how I became conscious about my little lies, but it has helped me to not lie majority of the time.Most of the time, I am aware when I'm about to tell a lie, but for some reason my mouth just keeps talking. Sometimes it makes me think that not lying is an impossible task?!
        • thumb
          Sep 7 2011: An interesting problem, Hakana. "Not lying, ever" might be an impossible goal. For one thing, how would I know when I've achieved it?

          I would suggest, though, that there are certain modes of cognition that are more susceptible. When I am spontaneous I am (as far as I can tell) more honest. When I'm self-conscious I'm less honest. If I'm uncritical I'm less likely to lie than if I'm judgemental.

          I wonder if anybody has ever done fMRI scans of people's brains when they are lying — particularly when they are evading uncomfortable questions about their world-view. I will make a wild guess that there'd be more activity in the left hemisphere than the right.
  • thumb
    Sep 7 2011: First of all I consider it to be different what every person accepts as a lie. To me that is a broken promise and I naively believe that everyone has broken a promise they had made to themselves. No matter if it was a simple plan or "not getting that second chocolate" it was still a broken promise! SO they didn't stay true to themselves.
  • thumb
    Sep 7 2011: Can self deception be described as a conscious act?
    • thumb
      Sep 7 2011: That depends on what you consider "conscious". Is it like an on-off switch, or more like a dimmer switch?

      There are degrees of awareness about self-deception. In my experience, even deep self-deception can be interrupted by brief flashes of stark lucidity. On other occasions I might have a sneaking suspicion that I'm speaking rubbish, but I won't pursue the suspicion because it feels more pleasant to allow the rubbish to remain unexamined.

      It's often the case that the level of awareness of self-deception is proportional to how much the truth would hurt. If, for example, facing the truth would mean giving up a life-long belief, one might be willing to be blind to huge amounts of self-deception to stave off an agonizing insight. (Does this remind you of anybody you know?)

      Of course, the foregoing discusses only self-deception that has already begun. If you are asking about the actual initiation of self-deception, that's another issue. In many cases the self-deception is actually an INHERITED deception. If your parents told you that Santa Claus was real, you might have struggled mightily to keep your belief alive when you began to suspect it wasn't true. But the initial deception did not come from you; it came from your culture.
  • thumb
    Sep 7 2011: I don't know about "every" time, Anthony. I daresay you could use calculus to predict how a ball will travel when tossed into the air. But perhaps you were talking about the really big picture. In that case I can agree. If somebody tells me he "knows" where the universe came from, I suspect he's deluding himself (and may want to delude me).

    I suppose the leap from "suspect" to "know" often involves a lie one tells to one's self.
  • thumb
    Sep 6 2011: No never.
    People thinks breaking self commitment is lying which I can't agree, rather it's lack of self control. One can lie only with past not with future (self commitment is more futuristic but to other people can give false commitment though but that's not the subject here). One can decieve anyone but not his/her ownself.
    • thumb
      Sep 6 2011: Salim, you said that somebody can deceive somebody else, but not his/her own self. I am curious, then, how you describe a scientist who ignores data that would prove his favorite theory wrong. Surely you've heard of this: the scientist will come up with silly reasons why the data is bad, or will simply forget that it was there. In other words, he gets rid of the data he doesn't like, but does not admit to himself that he is doing that.

      Have you heard of this kind of selective attention to detail? If so, would you not say that they are lying to themselves?
      • thumb
        Sep 7 2011: Hi Timothy
        Thanks for your curiosity & thought provocating question and example.
        My perspective is when scientist is getting rid of data that is not supporting her/his theory , s/he does it not to be proven wrong to others. While s/he herself difinitely knows s/he is wrong , so actually s/he can't decieve with her/his ownself.

        Unfortunately that kind of deception is not uncommon in our intelletual community.
        • thumb
          Sep 7 2011: Salim, scientists can indeed "fudge" (fake) data. In some cases they absolutely DO know they are doing it. In other cases, though, they may not be fully aware.

          You can try a little experiment: proof-read a long post you have written. Since you know what it is SUPPOSED to say, you might miss a few mistakes. In such cases your mind sees what SHOULD be there rather than what IS. That is to say, your mind figures it KNOWS what is there, and that (false) knowledge over-rides what the senses are reporting.

          Have you ever had a discussion with people who say they "know" what is true and then ignore or conveniently forget evidence that proves them wrong? If so, do you not think that they feel at least a momentary discomfort before they get rid of the inconvenient information?
      • thumb
        Sep 8 2011: Hi Timothy

        Yes scientist can do and some of them they do fake the data. But that doesn't mean all scietist do that. That does not mean they are faking or lying with themselves , they are just lying with others. But beauty of science is that other scientist immediately or any other time can proof them they are fake they are wrong.

        I might be wrong , from your above post it seems finger is pointed only to scientist, defintely you know if one point 1 fiunger to someone , atleast 3 other fingers point towards whom? Dishonesty can't be genralized to any profession, even if it can be there some more professions where it can be generalised at ease as in those profession there is no / lees need of evidence/ proof but science is proof / evidence/ reasoning / logic based. None is prophet in science. There is nothing called absolut in scince so scope challenge is always there, that's science.

        Howerver the discussion was about whether one can lie with her/himself or not. My point is no one can't do that. From your post I don't see any reasoning or logic to disprove my hypothesis , please come up with that instead of just focusing one or other profession. I want to learn from your viewpoint.
        • thumb
          Sep 8 2011: Actually, I think he explained it quite well with the proof-reading example.

          It seems like you got stuck on reading it as an accusation and missed what he said. Maybe read it again without that filter - particularly the proofreading bit.
        • thumb
          Sep 9 2011: Salim, you're right that some scientists are better than others. Some will deliberately fake data; some will compromise their data by mistake; some will get false results because of wishful thinking; and some very good scientists will get only high-quality data that everybody accepts! And, as you said, it's not just scientists.

          But this thread raised questions about LYING, not making mistakes, and lying to OURSELVES, not other people. Does it happen? I say it does because I've done it myself, and other people here have reported that they've done it, too.

          There are many different types of self-deceptions. In addition to the ones already described in this thread we can add "the placebo effect". For example, somebody might take a pill for a headache and NOT know that it's just a sugar pill. But it will still cure the headache. Is that a self-deception? Maybe. Maybe not. But some part of that person's brain is misrepresenting reality.

          This is, I think, the second time I've asked, in an online forum, "Do you lie to yourself?" In both cases I've seen people say, "Yes, I've done that!" and also people who say, "I have never, ever done that!" A contradictory result, perhaps. Can you blame me for wondering if somebody's brain is misrepresenting reality?
      • thumb
        Sep 9 2011: Timothy, sorry if you percieved that I am blaming you that's the fault of poor communication skill in english being second language. I didn't not blame you or have that intent............

        Well asnwer to your main premise depend on perspective.
        My perspective is when I am lying to someone else that someone believes it to be ture but that's not... so that's the way one can lie to someone else......
        From logical point my perspective is self lying is not possible , becaue oneself will never take it as truth as from the very begining s/he know what reality is.

        Placebo effects actually happens more when people don't know that it's a placbo, in lot of trials which are double blind placbo control, placebo gives much better result then that a open trial where both doctor & patients /healthy volunteers knows what they are actually getting......

        Brain is really unpredictable that what I can say with my poor knowledge in neurology and psychiatry ..............

        Thanks for your good discussion
  • thumb
    Sep 6 2011: Some time I do that, because when i look for peace I have to do.
  • thumb
    Sep 5 2011: "I'll only eat one cookie."

    That's my most common lie, with "I'll only hit snooze one more time" at a close second.
    • thumb
      Sep 5 2011: I have the same problem video games, just one more try. Have you noticed that when we lie to ourselves, we often say it out loud?
    • thumb
      Sep 6 2011: Those could be considered lies, but we might also say that they are inaccurate predictions. I cannot count the number of times my intent did not align with my eventual actions.

      Still, there appears to be some wilful blindness there. It might be more accurate — more honest, perhaps — to say, "This time I will ATTEMPT to eat only one cookie."