As a teacher, I often observed that students always have their reasons ready for their incomplete homework or their bad behaviour in classrooms. We, teachers, know that almost all these reasons and excuses are nothing but small lies generated in a specific mind frame of students. Interestingly the case is similar to us adults as well. We often, or almost all the time, give excuses to our bad behaviour or bad encounters in our daily lives. However, we often find ourselves defending our lies in front of others and considering it normal behaviour. I called this a motivated false belief wrapped with a fabric of our false hopes and expectations. The question is, why we engage in a practice where we create false promises to ourselves and become part of that drama?
Researchers, like Shahram Heshmat, believes that false beliefs can satisfy critical psychological needs of the individual (e.g., confidence in one’s abilities). Heshmat is an associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield with a PhD in Managerial Economics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. According to him, the following are some of the examples of such lies which we usually tell ourselves and believe it to be true.
- Ignorance is Paradise
One of the most challenging problems in sustaining goals is how to persevere in the face of negative feedback. Strategic ignorance can help to achieve persistence. How? Avoid information sources that could demotivate you (Benabou and Tirole 2002). For example, someone who says “till death do us part” during the marriage ceremony need not be aware of the divorce statistics.
- Denial of Realities
Denial is a psychological defence we all use against external realities to create a false sense of security. Rejection can be a protective defence in the face of unbearable news (e.g., cancer diagnosis). In dissent, people say to themselves, “This is not happening.” For instance, alcoholics insist they have no drinking problem.
Overconfident individuals think that they are blessed, that others will like them, and that they’ll come out on top. (As the bumper stickers state: “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favourite.”) For example, 94 per cent of teachers in high-profile schools believes that they are better than the average teachers. Unrealistic optimism can have significant health consequences. Psychologist Loren Nordgren (2009) found that among a group of people trying to quit smoking, the ones who gave exceptionally high ratings to their willpower were most likely to fail.
This behaviour could be considered the opposite of overconfidence. If a person is uncertain about their actual ability and afraid to find out what their real strength is, they might refrain from doing the work that might reveal them as having a low capacity. In such a case, a successful performance could be attributed to skill, while an unsuccessful performance could be externalised as due to the lack of proper preparation.
- How I Like Myself to Be Seen
People like to be perceived favourably, by themselves and by others, but some personality traits that carry a high social value (altruism and fair-mindedness) are not directly observable to outsiders. Our actions, however, offer a window into our personality and tastes (Benabou and Tirole, 2004). For example, giving money to a panhandler, or changing Facebook profile photos to honour the victims of some new tragedy.
- Sour Grapes
In Aesop’s fable, the fox tries hard to get his hands on a tasty vine of grapes, but fails in all of his attempts to acquire the grapes; at which point, the fox convinces himself that he didn’t want those grapes that badly after all. In the presence of dissonance (awareness of different beliefs), the individual feels psychologically uncomfortable and attempts to reduce it. The motive is to maintain a positive self-image.
- Me and Others
Psychologists use the term attributions (or causes) for people’s explanations of the events in their lives. We tend to attribute our success to our enduring character traits, and our failures to unfortunate circumstances. For example, when we say, “You failed because you did not try hard enough; I failed because I had a headache from staying up all night with my son.” An alcoholic may be happy to tell himself he “just cannot help it” to have an excuse for persisting.
The significant aspect of these lies is that people search for evidence in a motivationally partial way. Dishonesty is a bad both ethically and morally. However, it is more harmful is one become dishonest to him/her self. This self-deceptive behaviour makes a person to ignore reality and turning a blind eye to the difficulties and real-life challenges that need real-life solutions. As Voltaire commented long ago, “Illusion is the first of all pleasure.”