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Success, Happiness and the Art of Self-Deception

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This inaugural Hippo Reads piece on The Huffington Post presents the topic of self-deception in the Hippo Reads style: curatorial (providing a glimpse of deeper pieces to be read at one's leisure), concise and with an academic slant. Enjoy!

"The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others." -- Friedrich Nietzsche

Plato once said, "Those who tell the stories rule society." We need only look at the modern marketing machine or the influence of political propaganda to see this wisdom still applies. The readings we present today provide a different and more interesting flavor of the types of stories we tell ourselves and why.

RadioLab's 2008 story "Lying to Ourselves" examines the self-deceiver and the benefits of lying to oneself. The piece looks at Ruben Gur and Harold Sackeim's experiments, including a fascinating study illustrating how embarrassing questions can force subjects to lie to themselves and how these same people tend not to recognize their own voices when played back in recordings. RadioLab's host, Jad Abumrad notes:

It turns out how you answer those questions predicts some very surprising things about the kind of person you are, about the course of your whole life. It just so happens that the people who were very bad at the voice test, they were the very same people who did very badly on the embarrassing questionnaire test. They didn't want to admit to stuff.


And it turns out these self-deceivers do a whole lot better on a lot of stuff in life, especially sports.

Psychologist Joanna Starek's 1991 study, "Self-Deception and its Relationship to Success in Competition," looks at college-aged competitive swimmers and how a measure of self-deception may help them win more often. Recent studies and stories on Lance Armstrong's brand of "aggressive narcissism," like this piece in The Atlantic, may also coincide with a form of self-deception leading to professional athletic success.

Aside from sports, where else do we see self-deception? In this Seed magazine video, Professors Noam Chomsky (of MIT) and Robert Trivers (of Rutgers) discuss how institutionalized deception has become the norm, from public relations and marketing to politics. Chomsky notes that self-deceit is more prevalent among educated, power-proximate classes. He also discusses how human beings' capabilities for language allows for self-deception. Trivers speculates that a display of over-confidence, for example, in two male gorillas angling for power, benefits species other than humans to keep up a false front -- and this may be where the benefits of self-deception arose in our own species.

In the political realm, self-deception is often used to justify national security culture. In James Peck's Washington's China: The National Security World, the Cold War, and the Origins of Globalism, an analysis of US-China relations shows just this.

Self-deception has clearly played a role in humankind's personal, political and economic histories. It even plays a dramatic role in fiction, such as in John Cheever's short story, "The Swimmer," in which protagonist Neddy's ability to lie to himself ultimately forces a dramatic reckoning.

But what does all this self-deception mean? As RadioLab's story and the works of Starek, Chomsky, Peck, and even Cheever suggest, the self-deceivers are not only more successful, but often happier. Go figure.

Additional Reading:
-- The Self-Deception Survey by Sackheim and Gur: Take it here.
-- The Seed magazine Chomsky video interview text.
-- "Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy: Truth, Lies and Self-Deception" by Stephen Diamond in Psychology Today partially examines the role of self-deception in the Casey Anthony case.

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