You're lying to yourself (and it's a good thing)

April 14, 2015

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Your brain has a secret plot to make you happier and more successful. To do that it’s lying to you. The problem is, everyone else has this too. In this article we talk about the ‘self-serving bias’, how it infiltrates every part of your life and what happens when it goes wrong.

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Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

What if I told you that every day of your life, you were lying to yourself? If I said that no matter how much you worked on becoming a better person, you could never stop? What if I then told you that that was a good thing? Well, believe it baby because it’s true.

The Lie

A phenomenon thoughtfully named the ‘self-serving bias’ by researchers describes a series of unconscious cognitive distortions we make all the time in order to protect our self-esteem. Think about the last time you did something really good. Maybe it was an exam you did well in or a proposal you put together that got over the net. Maybe it was your success in applying for and getting your latest job. In cases where we achieve in life, we will tend to attribute that success to our strengths and our responsibility for the outcome. We went well in the exam because we studied hard. Our proposal went through because we put our nose to the grindstone and had a brilliant idea. We got that job offer because of our winning interview technique and personality. However, you might notice that if we flip those successes into failures we do something else. If we did badly on an exam, it might have scaled poorly or perhaps the teacher was a joke. If our proposal didn’t go through it might be because our boss was in a foul mood or bloody Tanya didn’t do her part or maybe simply that the funding wasn’t there. If our application was rejected, it was because there were too many applicants or the interview questions were silly.

Now I’ve obviously exaggerated these examples, but I feel as though you’re detecting a kernel of truth here. Empirically speaking (according to the research) when you reflect on most of your successes, you tend to attribute them to you personally and most of your failures tend to get attributed to external sources. If this isn’t the case, you might want to skip to the second last paragraph. So what’s going on here? Well, it’s thought that people are motivated to uphold our self-worth and manage other people’s perceptions of our presentation (i.e. the image we want to convey to people). It’s thought by a number of psychologists that our self-esteem is fundamental to our growth. For example, in Maslow’s rather simplistic model for human growth, the hierarchy of needs, he proposes that without satisfying our need for self-esteem and delivering a satisfying image to others about it we won’t ever move up the hierarchy to achieve our maximum potential (more about that here). Or, in the hugely influential (and exhaustingly ubiquitous) theory of attachment, it’s thought that if we didn’t get enough love from our parents our need for self-esteem will mess with every relationship from here on out (more on that here). So our self-esteem is pretty important and this bias seems to be focused on building that up. The question though, is how often is this happening and is it the same for everyone? The problem is that it’s quite difficult to study, unfortunately. We know it happens at work and in our schools because operationalising what constitutes a good or bad outcome in those situations is fairly easy, but in other situations not so much. There’s evidence that in relationships, people do it less the closer that they are which could mean that the more expertise we have at something the more accurately we can detect the causes of our successes and failures. This could also explain why older people seem to do it less too. We do know that the higher one’s self-esteem, the more one tends to do it. And the more self-aware we are, the more likely we won’t do it but only if we can see a high chance of self-improvement which is interesting.

 But It's A Good Thing

Suffice to say, it’s a fairly prevalent phenomenon. But why is it a good thing?
  1. Well, as I mentioned before, it boosts our self-esteem, which has a big hand in our personal growth.
  2. But more immediately important is the fact that it seems to be very strongly related to negative affect (bad moods).
  3. In fact, those people with clinical depression display significantly less self-serving bias than anyone else! Now, it’s dangerous to assume that if we don’t do this we’ll get depressed even though it seems a pretty obvious conclusion to make; we’ve talked about how people constantly screw everyone around by doing this sort of thing here and here. But I think it’s fair to say that without self-serving bias, we’d probably be a lot worse off as individuals.

So in my (unqualified) opinion, I think we’re better off lying to ourselves sometimes. In fact, humans have many biases that cause us to concentrate on the positive things in life. These things keep us going. They keep us growing. They keep us reaching for success. And in a world that can be as harsh as ours, sometimes it’s nice to know our brains are looking out for us.

For an example of what happens when our brains have a bias that’s not so good, check out our article on why you think everyone is a jerk (and why they probably aren’t). Or maybe you’d like to know how about three hidden things that control our relationships? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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