Content writer: Althea, Headline Diplomat eMagazine
Everyone has a false/deceptive/illusory image and a real image. These do not always agree with each other, and one or both can also differ greatly from reality.
There are people who can admit that they are lying: others, conversely, want to appear completely free from these guilt trippings. Today we are going to reflect on how and why humans like to live a lie.
Our perspective of reality is not objective
Our brain plays tricks on us throughout life. We humans always think we are highly evolved and rational beings. An uncensored look at reality exposes this as a big mistake. In truth, irrationality has defined much of human life and history. “The desire to impose rationality, to make people or society more rational mutates into spectacular outbursts of irrationality,” writes Justin E.H. Smith, philosopher at the University of Paris, as quoted in a Vox interview.
We are still largely instinct-driven and slaves to our emotions. And when the rules of society are overturned – in war, for example – the same vile behaviors that have always been deeply ingrained in human beings come to light. So the human brain is a true master at lying to itself and constantly distorting reality in its favor.
Human perception is always subjective. Science has proven that there is no objective view of anything in this life. An entirely objective view of the world is therefore impossible and usually lies somewhere in the middle of many different perspectives. After all, every person is individual and acts in different ways, for various reasons, and with a unique interpretation. If this were not the case, there would probably be far fewer conflicts and misunderstandings in the world. This subjectivity is why communication is essential in many interpersonal areas – in relationships, for example, in teamwork or a shared apartment. What’s also interesting is that the brain not only “kinda” distorts reality, but it tends to always twist things in its favor and thereby present itself in the best possible light. This explains why we can easily lie to ourselves and others (as we will soon see).
A strategy aimed at lying to others
Believe it or not, everyone lies to themselves. We all have self-denial we nurture, according to Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D. This is because we humans love to present ourselves in the best possible light.
“Denial is a psychological defense we all use against external realities to create a false sense of security. Denial can be a protective defense in the face of unbearable news (e.g., cancer diagnosis,” says Shahram, the associate professor of health economics of addiction at the University of Illinois. “In denial, people say to themselves, ‘This is not happening.’ For instance, alcoholics insist they have no drinking problem.”
Then here’s another example of a scenario that proves how we live in self-denial:
“Actually, everything is fine in my marriage. Yes, we haven’t had sex in ages. But that happens to others too. My wife is getting late from the office more and more often. But she has to work a lot right now.
“Well, I often see her with that one colleague, and sometimes they even hug. But she says yes, she only loves me. She would never cheat on me. She’s the best for me.”
The above is a clear case of “classic self-deception.” The betrayed husband has a strong desire as to what his future and a good life should look like – together with his wife, in an ideal world. This desire seduces him into self-deception because he is confronted with a mountain of evidence that endangers the realization of his wish.
For an outsider, the situation would be clear. But driven by his longing, the husband’s attention shifts. He focuses on the few facts which prove what he likes to believe to be true, even though most of the evidence demonstrates the opposite.
This classic self-deception is often accompanied by inner tension, which should actually show the self-deceiver how much the timbers of his fantasy edifice are crunching. But part of the self-deception is ignoring that queasy feeling.
We often deceive ourselves – and researchers argue whether this self-deception is helpful or harmful. An evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers now puts forward the thesis that we practice self-deception and then use it as an interpersonal strategy to persuade others. That is, we deceive ourselves to be able to lie to others more effectively.
“What’s so interesting is that we seem to intuitively understand that if we can get ourselves to believe something first, we’ll be more effective at getting others to believe it,” says William von Hippel, a psychologist at The University of Queensland, who co-authored the study with Trivers.
Lying means high-performance sport for the mind. It is extremely demanding cognitively because you must process truth and lies simultaneously, explains von Hippel. Those who successfully reduce this cognitive load can unleash a lot more convincingly on their fellow human beings. A good liar knows how to minimize the telltale signals of cognitive overloads, such as direct eye contact or shifting to a higher pitch.
“My Machiavellian advice is this is a tool that works,” he says, as quoted by the Scientific American. “If you need to convince somebody of something; if your career or social success depends on persuasion, then the first person who needs to be [convinced] is yourself.” So, if you’re able to lie to yourself convincingly, then you can build a life on a castle of lies, as many people have successfully done, albeit with the consequent punishment of unhappiness, stress, and mental/health downsides.
Famous people who lived a lie
A magnificent jack-of-all-trades, Ripley, born in 1890, has managed to become one of the most popular personalities in the United States. Founder of Believe It or Not, an ultra-lucrative franchise covering print, television, and radio, as well as plenty of literary publications, Ripley’s story is truly unbelievable. He told thousands of unverifiable stories mixing reality and lies. Anecdotes, travelogues, narrations of miscellaneous facts in the style of Herodotus, Ripley fascinated America for half a century on the sole basis of nonsense. Among the encounters he describes in his publications are cyclops or armless golfers. But the truth didn’t matter so much in terms of entertainment. “I think mine is the only business in which the customer is never right,” Ripley once said. “Being called untruthful is, to me, a compliment. And as long as I continue to receive the lion’s share of this odd form of flattery, I don’t worry about a wolf being at my door.” Ripley believed that “facts, to be interesting, must be very close or very far away,” as quoted by the Vanity Fair.
A one-armed and metaphysical adventurer, Swiss-born Blaise Cendrars has spent his life describing things he only imagined. Traveling on the Trans-Siberian, hunting in Africa, Cendrars didn’t do any of that. He never searched for gold in the Far West or descended the Congo River. Cradled with adventure literature and poetry, Cendrars has striven all his life to maintain ambiguity about his literary production and his life, telling the story, in writing and orally, of wonderful adventures that he had never lived. And it is precisely because he had never experienced them that they become marvelous. After all, they correspond perfectly to the romantic ideal he wanted to instill in them. All the production of Cendrars, because it is a lie, is unique and personal, and it is because of this that he is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Alright yeah. But he left his critics a message in his book Moravagine which has now become one of the most popular quotes on Goodreads:
“What are you looking for? There is no truth. There’s only action, action obeying a million different impulses, ephemeral action, action subjected to every possible and imaginable contingency and contradiction, Life. Life is crime, theft, jealousy, hunger, lies, disgust, stupidity, sickness, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, piles of corpses. What can you do about it, my poor friend?”
Considered the father of history, Herodotus had a somewhat personal conception of it. His stories do not quite marry the reality of the facts and often borrow from exaggeration to correspond to the theses defended – those of Greek greatness. In short, Herodotus is an ultra-contested historiographical figure, which does not prevent him from still being cited as the father of history 2500 years after his death. He’s rightly called the father of history and lies but he’s “a big, fat liar,” according to associate professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), David Bahr, in a review of the historian. “The “Father of History” is a fabulist. He is an embellisher of tales, but also the founder of a genre where one rises and falls by their ability to convey the truth of the past.”
We know the story of Frank Abagnale since it was adapted by Spielberg in Catch Me If You Can. Genius swindler, liar, thief, false pilot at 16, usurped medical supervisor at 18, a lawyer without a diploma, licensed seducer, he ends up being hoodwinked. But this is where his career becomes brilliant because rather than languishing behind bars, Abagnale manages to get hired as a consultant by the FBI on fraud cases. But he would today become a kind of crook figure admired worldwide. He’s known as “one of the world’s most respected authorities on the subjects of forgery, embezzlement and secure documents,” according to his website.
So far, he has been charged with auto larceny, theft, forgery, and fraud. He has spent four months in a French prison, four months in a Swedish prison, three years, three months, and seven days in a US federal prison, and three years in the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in NY between the age of 17 to 20.
A defensive mechanism
Self-deception is widespread, states the philosopher Albert Newen from the University of Bochum. Some try to avoid the bitter realization that they are overwhelmed at work. Many parents acquit their child of wrongdoing, despite incriminating evidence. And haven’t we all seen attempts from popular subjects to polish up inglorious chapters in their biography?
Whether self-deception is really useful is debatable. Many psychologists regard it as a kind of immune system of the soul: It is supposed to protect against the daily dangers that threaten our psyche. According to them, self-deception contributes to our well-being.
Self-deception is an “unconscious psychological defense mechanism” which protects us against painful or intolerable feelings, according to psychotherapist Terri Cole. But it doesn’t always end well. “Some people spend their entire life in self-deception or denial, but the situations or circumstances that we are denying will usually get worse with time,” warns the psychotherapist.
But why do we seek this psychological defense mechanism? Well, maintaining a positive self-image is essential. This includes certain beliefs and ideas: that you are valued by others, that your work is recognized, that your partner loves you. As soon as the values that form part of a person’s self-image are threatened, they tend to interpret the facts differently than they are. Then minor irritations would immediately shake one’s self-image and important social relationships.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty challenging to escape self-deception, says Robert Trivers, the President of the Biosocial Research Foundation and professor at the Rutgers University in New Jersey. It is almost a part of human life as sleep, sex, and food. As an evolutionary biologist, Trivers now comes up with a new thesis on why self-deception is so widespread. If a phenomenon affects human behavior so far-reaching, then, according to Darwinian theory, it must be beneficial.
But according to Van Leeuwen, people who have a strong tendency to self-deception are often not happy and are perceived as being restless and unrelaxed. Self-deception seduces people into remaining unhappy instead of dealing with the cause of their unhappiness – and, if possible, getting rid of it.
Without a dash of self-deception, a person’s life is imaginable. Self-deception is a kind of self-defense mechanism aimed to achieve happiness and fulfilment. But it depends on the dose – like with medicine. Unfortunately, self-deception is usually uncontrollable. You need to tell more lies to cover a single one.
But when the antenna for the facts is lost, self-deception becomes harmful. It often harms the individual and takes away their reputation. No study has been able to prove that it makes people happy. Conversely, the consequences can be stress, unhappiness, or serious health problems, according to researchers.
Featured photo by Erik Mclean, Pexels