The Case for Self-deception

“Knock on my door when you’re going for a walk. I’d like to go with you,” said my neighbor, Sue.

I was baffled. I didn’t know how to respond.

Ninety-one-year-old Sue struggles to shuffle slowly behind her walker. Me, I get out there and stride along rapidly and purposefully.

“Doesn’t she see the difference between us?” I thought to myself. “However would the two of us walk together? We’re not comparable or compatible. She’s in denial about her ability!”

But then I realized I was over-thinking this way too much. It’s not about walking; she just wants us to spend time together. Being outside is beneficial in so many ways, being with another person also beneficial in so many ways. She’s wise. It’s not about walking.

And, to be honest, aren’t I also in denial, deceiving myself when I describe myself as striding rapidly and purposefully? In my dreams maybe!

“All people deceive themselves and quite frequently at that,” said a scientist who has studied the subject.

We mislead ourselves all day long.

We tell ourselves we’re smarter and better looking than our friends, that our political party can do no wrong, that we’re never too busy to help someone in need. We overestimate our good qualities and minimize our less desirable qualities.

This quote from author Margaret Halsey tells it like it is: “Whenever I dwell for any length of time on my own shortcomings, they gradually begin to seem mild, harmless, rather engaging little things, not at all like the glaring defects of other people.”

Lying to yourself — or self-deception, as psychologists like this Edmonton Therapist call it — actually has benefits. People with an optimistic, over confident view of themselves and of life are the happiest and healthiest.

“Happiness is grounded in radical self-delusion,” said Raymond Belliotti in his book “Happiness is Overrated.” “The happiest people have unrealistically positive views of themselves.”

Most of us think we’re better looking than we really are. When people are asked to choose the most accurate photo of themselves from an array of images that are either accurate, or altered to make them look up to more or less attractive, most choose the photo that looks 20% better than reality, research shows.

The benefit is simple. If you think you’re handsome, you project a better looking you.

Overconfidence works not just on looks but in other categories.

When I worked as a supervisor doing annual evaluations of professionals, I read something that made a big influence on me. It said that 80% of people think they’re above average at work. 80% of employees believe themselves to be superior to others. Of course, this doesn’t compute, but I used it. I assumed the person I was evaluating believed himself to be better than others and led the evaluation as though I believed it also.

I addressed any problem areas from that perspective. It never failed to make the person happy and motivated to work better.

People tolerate horrific circumstances by deceiving themselves. Like when a friend, 54-year-old Doug Hauck of Santa Ana, California, was diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea. He was absolutely certain that the doctors were wrong. He refused to believe he has a disease that will destroy his ability to function and then rob him of his life.

I can see him decline. I’ve tried to help him accept that he has a serious disease and make plans for his future.

But he is utterly certain that I have no reason to be concerned. He goes on as he always has, tinkering on his sports cars, working as a carpenter. He can’t live with the reality, so he refuses to accept it.

According to several experts, he’s right. The healthy mind is a self-deceptive one. “At every turn, it construes events in a manner that promotes benign fiction about one’s self, the world, and the future.” said Shelley Taylor in her book, “Positive Illusions.”

“The mind is adaptive, oriented towards overcoming, rather than succumbing, to the adverse events of life,” she added.

We don’t believe we’ll be in a serious auto accident. Why else would otherwise intelligent people tailgate at 80 miles per hour? We believe it’s the other guy who will die, not us.

Feeling pessimistic and helpless, thinking about how helpless you are to do anything about your illness, weakens your immune system. In other words, believing that you have an illness that you can’t do anything about will make that illness worse.

So, for good health and good mental health, continue to have those positive illusions about yourself. If you’re relentlessly realistic, learn to cultivate positive illusions. It will be good for your health.

Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at