One of the ideas I’ve been working on for my various lectures and papers on honesty is that deception of others promotes deception of the self. Here are some thoughts:
Most habitual liars are also habitual self-deceivers. People usually believe their own lies. (Some people enjoy the thrill of lying, but I suspect those are a minority.) Is this connection between other-deception and self-deception merely the result of self-deceivers repeating their lies to others? Or does deception of others somehow pave the way for deception of the self?
Certainly, self-deception makes lies to others more plausible and consistent. Believing your own lies immerses you into the networks of details and logical implications of the lie. So you have answers (although perhaps transparently pathetic ones to outsiders) for the likely questions and objections. You don’t stammer and stutter when your friend says, “But how could you have known about the hole in the roof if you didn’t see Mary before I saw Jim?” You also are much less likely to act like a liar by looking at your feet, hesitating, and so forth. But I seriously doubt that these purely practical considerations could motivate self-deception. They are merely reasons to spend more time and effort planning and scheming deceptions.
So what might motivate self-deception?
Guilt. A person might feel guilty about lying, about the harm their lie caused, or about the facts concealed by the lie. By falsely convincing himself that he actually told the truth, the liar’s acute feelings of guilt and shame may dissipate. A woman who feels terrible for having said some nasty things about a co-worker might deny ever having said those things or having meant what people took her to mean.
A person might also self-deceive by rationalizing the lie as justified for some bogus reason. She might deny having said these terrible things to others, while telling herself that the false denial was necessary to preserve her well-deserved reputation. People don’t want to feel bad, so they deceive themselves about what they have done. (This is a bad but common strategy.)
How might we convince ourselves of our own lies?
The process of constructing and maintaining plausible lies requires us to focus upon the facts which seem to support the lie, while ignoring or explaining away the facts which contradict the lie. So a student who mostly copied his math homework from his roommate might pay attention to only the problems that he did solve, glossing over those he merely copied in explaining the similarity between the homeworks to the professor. Over time, the student might convince himself of this lie, because he is presenting the same skewed evidence to himself that he is presenting to others. By being lax, by passively allowing himself to accept that skewed data, the lie to others paves the way for the lie to the self.
Also, a person with a impoverished sense of the standards of proof may regard other people’s acceptance of the lie as evidence of its validity. So a teenage boy might be helped in his own self-deceptions about whether he beat up the new kid at school or just shoved him around a bit if his mother believes his explanation. The delusion of others serves “social proof” in one’s own self-deceptions.
Whatever the process to meld other-deception into self-deception, the motivation must be something very strong, like powerful negative emotions or a threatened sense of self-image. The people who are in the most danger, interestingly enough, are people who are generally committed to the principle of honesty. They have so much more reason to self-deceive because of their moral failure to be honest. Self-deception placates that cognitive dissonance of “I am an honest person” and “I just lied.” But of course, self-deception is the most dangerous and least fruitful method of coping with moral failure.