Self-deceit and Success | Would you rather? 002

10min read | Day 9 of 100

This year I have started to pick up books on Stoicism. It's core values resonate with me, and has a basis in some historical great thinkers. What's not to like! Discussing with a friend about his recent blog post, we agreed that there is probably a modern-day gap for guided morals and philosophy. For me currently, Stoicism helps fill some of that void.

A core value from the Stoics is to deal in truths. Understanding what is within or without your sphere of influence requires a level of self-honesty. Another core virtue it to:

live this life out truthfully and honestly – Marcus Aurelius

In understanding what is true and what is not helps not only to provide the clarity to solve or reframe problems on their path to resolution, but also aids introspective evaluation on the path to betterment.

Whilst I (and I hope most others!) believe that everyone should live truthfully, I have since stumbled across some studies which would suggest that in areas of competition, the opposite strategy would be most effective. To self-deceive would better aid success.

Self-deceit could be defined in a number of ways. In 1979, Ruben Gur and Harold Sackheim, in their study Self-Deception: A Concept in Search of a Phenomenon defined it based on four criteria:

An individual is considered to be self-deceiving if...

  1. They hold two contradictory beliefs.
  2. These beliefs are held simultaneously.
  3. They are not aware of holding one of these beliefs.
  4. There is an act that shows them 'being aware' of holding one of these beliefs, and is a motivated act. i.e. There is a reason why they would choose to side with one of the beliefs.

There are a few experiments throughout the study, but the interesting one for me was the self-deception questionnaire, as this is still used as a measure of self-deception today.

The questionnaire consisted of twenty quite probing questions, designed to be 'psychologically threatening'. Questions like “Have you ever doubted your sexual adequacy?” and “Have you ever enjoyed your bowel movements?” among other questions which are a bit more brutal. The questions were answered on a 1-7 Likert scale, 1 representing “no I have never doubted my sexual adequacy” and 7 representing “yes I have very much doubted my sexual adequacy”. With self-deceivers rating a 1 or 2 on individual questions more often than none self-deceivers.

This same questionnaire was used 12 years later in Joanna Starek and Caroline Keating's study, Self-Deception and Its Relationship to Success in Competition. This is where it gets juicy. In the Gur Sackheim study, they were looking to define and identify self-deceit and self-deceivers. Starek and Keating's study looks to see whether winners are also self-deceivers (by correlation only).

Starek and Keating did this by assessing a group of collegiate swimmers of roughly the same swimming aptitude on the Gur Sackheim self-deception questionnaire, but also on a binocular rivalry test. This is a test where two words of similar structure, but different meaning, are presented to each eye. For example, the word 'cast' to the left eye and the word 'last' to the right eye. The swimmers were then asked to report what they saw. The idea being that self-deceivers have an aversion to the more negative word. In the cast/last scenario, 'cast' would be neutral and 'last' would be negative. So self-deceivers would be more likely to report seeing the word 'cast' and ignoring the word 'last', which they also would have seen.

At the end of the swimming season, the swimmers all entered a competition to qualify for a national swimming championship. Swimming is a great competition to choose here due to it's individuality. Starek and Keating hypothesized that the more successful swimmers (those who qualified for the national championship) would both; deny the probing questions on the questionnaire, and also report seeing less negative words during the binocular rivalry test. Both of which turned out to be true!

I appreciate that the connection between self-deceit and success in competition here is only a correlation. But that does not stop me from thinking of a few more questions here; Is success and self-deceit only correlated in swimming? If not, why is there a link? What is the trend of deceit and success over time? Is self-deceit a pre-requisite for being successful in competition or does success in competition fuel the likelihood of self-deceit? The list could go on! My mind is racing with questions.

Starek and Keating suggested that in sport there are mental and physical barriers which may be significantly reduced with this self-deception. Or should we call it lying to yourself? Or should we call it positive affirmations? Or should we refer to it as Keith Bell does, 'championship thinking'. The barriers though can include; the physical pain and fatigue of training or competing and the doubt that can arise when predicting performance or assessing competitors. All of which can supposedly be dulled by self-deception. Though focussing on yourself and your individual performance, as opposed to your competitors, is somewhat aligned to the stoic view of concentrating yourself and what you can influence, not that which you cannot.

How often do we hear about successful athletes 'believing in themselves' and 'envisioning the win' to provide some sort of 'edge' in their performance? When in the physical, all their competitors train just as hard and probably have the same 'beliefs' too. Is it possible to quantify this self-deceit on top of just labelling it? To determine who has the greatest 'mental edge' in competition. If we could, what kind of impact would that have on sport, business or anything that contains an element of 'healthy competition'?

Back to the Stoicism though. I think this discovery opposes some stoic virtues more than it aligns. The principle misalignment being, understanding the truth and conveying it, but also being honest with yourself and others. Confronting yourself. Self-confrontation, from the academic perspective, in these studies being; to be honest with yourself about your flaws. Perhaps to admit that at times you had actually doubted your sexual adequacy etc. But also the observation of the negative with the positive, the 'last' along with the 'cast', the bad in hand with the good. From a more pragmatic perspective this would be; to be honest about your introspection (after all you are only doing it for yourself) recognising strengths along with all the weaknesses.

Though perhaps there is hope for the self-deceivers to find their truth. Mentioned in the Gur Sackheim paper after a literature review of other studies;

The results of these studies indicate that after experiences of negative feedback, self-esteem is lowered, and confrontation with the self becomes more aversive. On the other hand, positive feedback enhances self-esteem and makes self-confrontation less aversive

In their current state, self-deceivers that are doing so in an attempt to achieve their successes might be doing so through low self-esteem. Thus, the introspection does not come easily as there are components of themselves that displease them. However should they achieve their goal or successes and are then faced with an opportunity of introspection, they will be seeing themselves in a new light. A light of heightened self-esteem that is willing (or prepared?) to challenge and assess the self.

This is reinforced by other findings in the same Gur Sackheim study. Check it out! Give an old academic paper a read! Or let me do it for you...

So as we're in the academic frame of mind, and have covered a few proven hypothesis, let me pose this week's question. If the link between self-deceit and success is more than just correlative, Would you rather: Lie to yourself to achieve your goals sooner, OR Be honest with yourself but your goals are further from reach and harder to achieve? For the non-privacy focussed, vote on this Twitter poll to let me know.

#wouldyourather #100daywritingchallenge


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