I lie to myself daily. We all do. They’re small lies for the most part. We lie to ourselves about how attractive we are, how smart we are, how good or bad we are at the various things we do. An example of this is sometimes how surprised we are about how we look when we see ourselves in a picture. We can even lie to ourselves when we look in the mirror every morning!

“‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually—memory yields.”

— Nietzsche

These lies become quite apparent in the general population when we hear that well over 50% of people believe they have above-average driving skills, intelligence, attractiveness, health, problem-solving skills, etc. These skewed beliefs infiltrate our day-to-day so effectively that we rarely notice we’re doing it. Why can we see them so clearly in others while being blissfully unaware of to them when it comes to our own thoughts and behaviours? Because facing a lie we tell ourselves would mean redefining how we see ourselves.

Depending on the situation, getting real could require us to change our beliefs and or behaviour in ways that feel unbearable. We would have to re-evaluate ourselves in ways that are less than flattering (perpetrator, liar, thief, assailant, lazy, dumb, bigot, ugly, weak, corrupt, bully, undependable, wrong, selfish, greedy, glutton, substance abuser, victim, criminal, cheater) and most of us would feel unable to live with such labels. Playing ostrich is much easier.

Why Do We Lie to Ourselves?

We have a need to make sense of our world, our lives and ourselves. In order to do so, we learn to categorize things in various ways:

  • Good or bad
  • Black or white
  • Right or wrong
  • Attractive or ugly
  • Rich or poor
  • Healthy or sick
  • Smart or dumb
  • Hot or cold
  • Industrious or lazy
  • Legal or illegal
  • Corrupt or upstanding
  • True or false
  • Selfish or generous
  • Courageous or cowardly
  • Pride or shame
  • Happy or sad
  • Heaven or hell
  • Yin or yang
  • Us or them

The list can go on ad nauseum, suffice it to say that in order to successfully categorize everything, we need to apply these binary yes/no determinations to what’s around us.

If you believe this activity to be optional, I dare you to go a single day without using such qualifiers. I doubt you’d be successful because evaluating every single aspect of everyday life in all its complexity would grind all activity to a crawl at best. We’d be paralyzed, unable to act or make decisions because the process of evaluating every detail would require an inordinate amount of mental effort and often the evaluation itself would not render a decision, instead leaving us with more questions than answers (such as: maybe, it depends, I need more information, it’s not clear).

For the most part, quick evaluations are justified and they don’t affect us in a negative way, unless they’re the type that leads us down a path of subsequent decisions that use the previous one(s) as context. It can be a slippery slope and we can all fall prey to it.

Here are some examples:

“How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass? You get him to take one step at a time, and self-justification will do the rest.”

— p. 37, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

“We make an early, apparently inconsequential decision, and then we justify it to reduce the ambiguity of the choice. This starts a process of entrapment—action, justification, further action—that increases our intensity and commitment, and may end up taking us far from our original intentions or principles.”

— p. 33-4, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
  • The sunk cost fallacy: throwing good money after bad because not doing so would mean we have to admit the previous investments made were a mistake.
  • The Diderot effect of having to upgrade many things in our lives to make everything in our lifestyle fit one or more new status objects, as opposed to deciding the new object doesn’t fit with our budget or preferred lifestyle.
  • Delaying a decision indefinitely, despite awareness of the need to act (such as saving or investing).
  • Justifying increasingly bad behaviour on the basis of previous bad behaviour because changing course would mean admitting that the initial decision was wrong: cheating on a test, lying to a spouse, stealing office supplies, spending time on Facebook or Google when we know we should be working, lying about our credentials, affiliations or level of success.
  • Vilifying or dismissing a person we’ve hurt: he had it coming, she made me do it, what did he expect, I tried to warn her but she wouldn’t listen, he’s blowing it out of proportion, she started it, you should see what he did to me.
  • Avoiding personal responsibility: it’s just business, I’m just doing my job, I don’t have a choice, there were extenuating circumstances, I was mislead, I didn’t know.

“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously.”

— p. 2, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

“[S]elf-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing.”

— p. 4, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The above wouldn’t be so insidious if it weren’t for the fact that we often don’t realize we’re justifying our behaviour and that, when we do, we can successfully convince ourselves that we’re not rewriting the script. It’s how we resolve the cognitive dissonance we’re experiencing—by fooling ourselves into thinking or having revisionist memories of why we’re “right”.

What’s more, the higher the stakes (our expected level of expertise, authority, responsibility or the consequences we might face), the more we need to get entrenched in the belief that what we’re doing—or have done—is right and proper, which means we’re less likely to admit we’ve made a mistake*. Scary stuff!

The Upside of Kidding Ourselves

But it’s not all bad news. Being aware that we tell ourselves stories in all aspects of our lives can be powerful. It can help us tune in to the inner dialogue that makes us believe we’re right and acknowledge it for what it is—justification behaviour that enables us to keep our self-perception intact. This awareness can help us identify the thought process and veto it as needed in order to get real about our behaviour and gain the type of clarity an uninterested party would have in evaluating our actions.

When the little white lies make us feel good and they’re objectively not hurting anyone else, there’s no harm in them, at least in the shorter term:

  • I’m healthy/attractive: if we didn’t think that, we would never use our bodies to the fullest, or date!
  • I’m good at my job: a feeling of competence is necessary in being effective at what we do.
  • I didn’t really want that promotion: that belief can help us get over disappointment.
  • I’m happy with my financial situation: feeling good about our money management is far less devastating than feeling we’re lousy at it.
  • I need that new furniture/vehicle/home: the word “need” brings clarity to an unessential choice.
  • I’m above average at most things: how devastating to think we’re below average at most things…unless we identify with the potential upsides of incompetence.
  • I wouldn’t have been successful anyway: powerful for those who are risk-averse or fearful of trying something new.
  • I’m a good person because I’ve never been arrested: the only difference between someone behind bars and anyone walking free is that the one behind bars got caught.
  • I’m the rational one in this relationship: admitting our behaviour towards our spouse is wrong would mean we have to change.
  • I don’t have time: the ultimate cop out not to review whether how we use our time is in line with our values.
  • It can’t happen to me: denial makes it easier not to change bad habits.
  • I’ll do it tomorrow: can make procrastination feel good/right in the moment.
  • I’m the most dependable in the group: thinking we’re pulling more than our fair share is that most of us think when we’re involved in group work because the opposite thought doesn’t feel right for most of us.
  • That was a great/terrible event: for convenience, we remember what fits with our overall story.
  • I don’t spend too much time in front of the TV/computer/tablet/smartphone OR I exercise regularly: actual tracking of these behaviours usually result in realizing we spend more or less time doing certain things than we remember because we like to remember the good and forget the bad.
  • I’ll quit tomorrow: enables us to continue a less-than-optimal behaviour with less guilt…even though we know deep down we’re likely to do it again in the short term (like a new diet starting on a Monday allows us to enjoy the weekend).
  • I’m doing OK by comparison: this thought is nebulous at best because there’s always someone not doing as well in some aspect of life that we can use to make ourselves feel better. That’s why celebrity gossip magazines are so popular.

As you can see from the above-stated examples, if we didn’t justify our behaviour or current state in certain aspects of life, we’d end up feeling inadequate or lousy about everything! It would lead us to set an unrealistically high bar for everything we do—we can’t be the best at everything—and we could start feeling like there’s no point in getting out of bed in the morning!**

We Can Keep Kidding Ourselves: Mitigating The Downside of Self-Justification

Once we’re aware of it, we can’t unlearn the fact that we have a propensity toward self-justification. We can use this new-found information to keep the good it does for us while mitigating some of the downsides that trying to resolve cognitive dissonance can bring about.

Here are some tips to help us succeed:

“We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and hank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.”

— p. 66, p. 37, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
  • When considering an action that will affect others, seek out a trusted friend, spouse or colleague to talk out the situation prior to making a decision.
  • When in a leadership position, surround yourself with people who have no difficulty disagreeing with you. It will lead you to identify potential mistakes before they happen or correct course before much damage is done (it worked for Lincoln).
  • Avoid making a decision when emotions run high. Try to set out a framework for decision-making if you know you’re likely to face a difficult decision in the future (health directives, a will, negotiation parameters that define where you draw the line on certain issues and what you’re willing to concede on).
  • Be aware of self-justification statements such as:
    • But what about…
    • It’s not as bad as…
    • It’s not my fault because…
    • It couldn’t be helped because…
    • It was wrong but…
    • It’s legal…
    • It’s my right…
    • I deserve it because…
    • I was protecting my interests…
    • It’s my job/obligation to…
    • I couldn’t because…
    • They left me no choice because…
  • Be aware of jumping to conclusions before having all the facts. It’s more likely to lead you to get entrenched in your position despite receiving new information.
  • Know that admitting a mistake and changing course early on is easier than later on.
  • Ask yourself the following: How have I contributed to this situation? How can I make it better, no matter who is “rightfully” to blame?
  • A person who admits mistakes and course corrects is regarded with higher esteem than one who is obviously fooling themselves. Keeping this in mind can make it easier to be the bigger person and a better leader.


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