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Lying to Ourselves

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Can we lie to ourselves? If you are the liar, wouldn't you know the truth? In this segment, we explore the confusing and contradictory idea of self-deception. We go back to the early 70s, when psychiatrists Harold Sackeim and Ruben Gur came up with a set of embarrassing questions that they say reveal the lies we tell ourselves. Psychologist Joanna Starek tells us that swimmers who lie to themselves swim faster than those who do not. And we explore the power of self-deception to make us more successful, and happier, people.


Ruben Gur, Harold Sackeim and Joanna Starek

Comments [83]

Brian Yeh

"We're so vulnerable to being hurt that we're given the capacity to distort as a gift."

The above statement just isn't true.

But how do I know that my own belief isn't being distorted by me trying to protect myself from the reality that I'm vulnerable to being hurt?

The irony is, that if you believe this radiolab episode, then you will know that you may be lying to yourself to be happy. In knowing that you are lying to yourself, you expose the lie and lose the ability to be happy. To maintain the lie you must deny the veracity of this episode. Perhaps the denial is in itself another lie. Think about it.

Dec. 30 2015 10:08 PM
Stephen from North Andover, MA

Fascinating stuff! Although I'm not sure the speakers considered all the necessary angles and implications before arriving at their conclusion; that, because it has advantages, it is advisable to counsel deceit. I was reminded of the English essayist, William Hazlitt, whose great distinction, his cursed gift, was not to abandon the revolutionary spirit of his youth, when so many of his contemporaries, Coleridge and Wordsworth among them, had retreated into the dubious shelter of a more conservate complicity.

"The oil which runs the smooth society was not for him. Nor did he ever pretend otheerwise... Weaned on absolutes... Hazlitt inherited a code which lacked all social flexibility... Where and what was compromise?... [He] could not be drawn into any cosy circle. He remained on the edge to remind friends who had done a deal with the establishment of the time when they would have refused to settle... How could they have gone back on all the bright promises? He was unable either to understand or to forgive... His anger was only equaled by his astonishment when, later on, others were to describe similar experiences and the commonsense way they had grown out of them... He had stayed, the rest had retreated... He was often so far ahead that he was fighting evils which his contemporaries simply could not see... [It] became charitable to call him mad... But however deep the wounding, Hazlitt was never changed by it. Society was never to teach him a lesson... [The] essayist allowed nothing to dim or qualify the glory of his twentieth year."
-- Ronald Blithe
(in the Introduction to Hazlitt's Selected Writings)

"Anyone will be almost sure to make money who has no other idea in his head. A college education, or intense study of abstract truth, will not enable a man to drive a bargain... Rules stand in the way of expediency. Many a man has been hindered from pushing his fortune in the world by an early cultivation of his moral sense... A shrewd man said of my father, that he would not send a son of his to school to him on any account, for that by teaching him to speak the truth, he would disqualify him from getting his living in the world!"
-- William Hazlitt

"Hazlitt... is your only good damner, and if ever I am damn'd -- damn me if I shouldn't like him to damn me."
~ John Keats

Sep. 11 2015 07:51 AM
Jerry from San Diego

Listening to old shows on podcast that I have missed. The part in this one about athletes telling themselves that they are the best before a competition got me thinking about what has happened to Tiger Woods. He was just about invincible before his embarassing public incident which led to the split with his wife--especially in cases where he was winning or a good position to win on the last day of a tournament. Apparently he has/had an abundance of this self-deception quality (along with a lot of physical/mental gifts--and hours of practice). He had it prior to his public disgrace, helping him win, and he had it, allowing him to think he wouldnt get caught doing all the scandalous things he was doing. But what really struck me was, Tiger has not been the invincible player he was prior to all of this. Did something happen to his ability to self-deceive when his public disgrace occurred?

I wonder if there are other similar cases out there that could result in a follow on show along these lines?

Anyway--big fans of the show. Thanks

Jun. 28 2014 01:19 PM
Kate from NY, NY

josh skelly from massillon ohio

"If you are raped by someone good looking with a nice body it will probably be less traumatic."

The statement you make is ignorant, horrifying, and absolutely devoid of truth. You have zero idea what you are saying and how many people you have hurt.

Jun. 05 2014 04:26 PM
Ell Jay from Quirk Island

Deception, of self and/or others, is part of the engine that drives performance. Rationalization, positive self-talk, identity formations can all be boiled down to self-deception.

May. 31 2014 05:01 PM
Sarah Jenkins from Austin, TX

When re-airing this story, I wish that you had responded to the criticism offered by listeners, and sited the research you referred to for self-deception leading to happiness or modified your conclusions. At the least you should have added the comments of Joanna Starek. She has defined the issue well.

Joanna Starek from denver, colorado
For some reason, I did not log into this site until now. I was one of the psychologists who conducted this research. I appreciate everyone's comments and thoughtfulness on this issue. One clarification I would like to make is that we never asserted that self-deception was associated with mental health and well being. The purpose of the research was to understand if self-deception aided performance in athletes, not whether their psychological profile was something to aspire to. I agree, the research is disturbing! It insinuates that the qualities many of us aspire to in western society to succeed actually draw us away from our true selves. It is highly probable that the mental set associated with performance in western society is not something to be aspired to if you seek a deeper connection with the core of your being. I also firmly believe that elite performance in sport requires a mental focus and intensity that is different from the way that many others approach tasks. The search of excellence in performance may not be he same as the search for meaning or the search for happiness. Humbly, Joanna Starek

I also question the methodology of the original survey.

May. 29 2014 04:02 PM
Ray from Florida

The link to the questionnaire is broken.

May. 27 2014 12:37 PM
Wayne Thompson

Radiolab guys:

After a day thinking about your program on lying, specifically, lying to oneself, a question arose about the questions asked to access if one lies to oneself: How do the questioners know the right answer to each of their questions? What if a person really has not fantasized about being raped or of raping? Really doesn't enjow a b.m.? Or, with regard to the olympic athletes, what if one has so much confidence in one's abilities, one feels the "flow" before a particular race that saying "I'm wining today" and does win and,so, the saying it beforehand is not a lie? Maybe it is a matter of the personal nature of the questions, they judge one's tendency to introvert while maybe the determinate for being a winner in the outside world is one's leading toward extroversion.
Wayne Thompson

May. 27 2014 10:42 AM
Greg Slater from Earth

“The horror! The horror!” - Mr. Kurtz

Both our self-deceptions to avoid the horror of reality and our guilt and horror that come from seeing reality as it is, are engineering problems resulting from a poor original design. We can fix them, along with the rest of the human condition. The truth is best.

May. 26 2014 11:55 AM
Greg Slater from Earth

@carl rogers
Re: "The question was not whether you wanted to rape another person or be raped. It was whether you ever had a fantasy of raping someone or being raped."

Sorry Carl, but you're lying to yourself:
06:46 :
"Have you wanted to rape or be raped by somebody." - Doesn't say "fantisized". Says, "wanted to". OK?

By the way, are you in fact the famous psychologist who was thought to have died a quarter of a century ago?

May. 26 2014 11:35 AM

This is fascinating particularly because it describes a huge difference between my wife and me. I am the realist, and approach most of my life thinking that every part could be improved in one way or another. My wife is the liar--blunt but true--who really can't accept reality for what it is, and seems to be happier than I am. The problem is that we're trying to run a business together, so when I talk about reality I really need her to be able to identify and accept it, instead of deny it, which is what she usually does. The result has been that I have separated our spheres of responsibility so we don't have to communicate so much to get our jobs done.

The other area of difficulty is that she has a very hard time taking responsibility for her actions. Twice in the last week she has decided to do something, told me about it, and then done the exact opposite. And then blamed me for not stopping her. Lying to herself about her own role in her decision may make her a happier person, but it's sure not good for the marriage.

May. 26 2014 01:34 AM
Carl Rogers

The question was not whether you wanted to rape another person or be raped. It was whether you ever had a fantasy of raping someone or being raped.

May. 25 2014 10:04 PM
Greg Slater

but... how do you know that the people who claim they don't want to rape people actually secretly want to rape people? How do you know that they are lying? Just because Jad (or the two scientists) secretly want to rape people doesn't mean everyone does. Maybe they're just not perverts. And that they are more successful and happy not because they are delusional liars, but because they aren't perverts? They have better functioning brains? Isn't that a possibility?

May. 24 2014 05:07 PM
josh skelly from massillon ohio

If you are raped by someone good looking with a nice body it will probably be less traumatic. If I cheat on my girlfriend with a less attractive person I feel shame not guilt. We our animals driven by sexual desire we are here to consume and reproduce if you can't see that I envy you. The fabric of society is built on lies to be noble is to beleive you are the best and convince others of this through your accomplishments even though your no different than anyone else we all have a gift that can be used to benefit society or at least all of our gifts pertain to how we connect with others. I have noticed that people who are successful dont see other peoples gifts as well they only see themselves they never contrast and compare. I have noticed that being noticed as a critical thinker often gets people into management positions but what is being noticed is their ability to criticize others not there ability to criticize themselves which many times attitude reflects leadership and when the leader is deceiving himself and not willing to take a cold hard look at his own mistakes the real problem never gets resolved. This also goes for society as a whole because our politicians who are supposed to be our leaders are known for being liars that is the only way you get elected is by making people beleive you are the most noble and anything that shows your true humanity even the slightest bit can ruin your chances. This is all a bad sign our society is in denial of truth and truth is what can set us free and it will always reveal itself as the ancient wisdom all over the world have told. It is already happening because in our youth we our being born with the ability to see only truth now and it is making people question themselves because they may not measure up to societies standards which leads to depression which leads to more drug use and suicide. Once all the liars die something new will take over and it is already emerging. A society where our real gifts can shine through.

Mar. 17 2014 08:30 AM

you guys should put a trigger warning in the description for talking about rape in the podcast

Sep. 08 2013 05:53 PM

I think it's pretty presumptuous for anyone to say that those questions must be answered with "yes" or else the person is self-deceiving. How do the researchers know this?

Did it occur to them that the rape question would have harmful effects far beyond simple embarrassment? Besides the triggering of traumatic experiences for rape survivors, by asserting that "secretly everyone has once desired to rape or be raped", they're contributing to a culture that already blames victims and assures rapists that their behavior is inherent in them. That includes men who pressure & obligate women into sex, by the way, not just the stereotypical back-alley attacker.

Also, the question doesn't even make sense logically. Rape is by definition *not wanted*. You can't *want* someone to rape you. At most you may desire a simulation of the act, but that's vastly different.

Feb. 15 2013 12:57 PM
Josh from Auckland, NZ

I don't like the idea that self deception can make you feel happier in life. In fact, it makes me feel sad and I refuse to believe it. Therefore if it's true, I'm happy. Problem solved.

Feb. 11 2013 02:37 PM
Matt from Ohio

So how someone overcome this disadvantage, assuming that the test is correct?

I answered more on the yes side to these questions, therefore I am less likely to do well in life and less likely to be happy.

Any suggestions?

Feb. 10 2013 12:08 AM
Mike A. from Ewing NJ

I remember hearing most of the second half of this in '08, while driving about but never remembered to check this out on line. I'm glad you guys rebroadcast it.

Some of the S-D Qs are disturbing and I wonder of it's TRUE accuracy. That said, the concept that we human deceive ourselves as to how good or evil we are in our daily lives, I find these two philosophical statements to be very useful to my emotional balance.

"Heaven and hell suppose two distinct species of men, the good and the bad.
But the greatest part of mankind float betwixt vice and virtue."
D. Hume

"The line between good and evil, hope and despair, does not divide the world between 'us and them.' It runs down the middle of every one of us."
R. Fulghum

Who knows if I have a perfectly balanced psyche, but when I admit to the possibility of my failure to be perfect and 'good' I find that I tend to work a little harder in my day-to-day attempts to actually become, well, at lest 'good'. As for perfection... We humans are only perfect in the eyes of our dogs.

Feb. 09 2013 06:08 PM
GN from SF

I think lumping in this last part of the program with the first two parts is upsetting to people because the program creators make too much of a leap--it's a specious conclusion. What the athletes are doing is more like "creative visualization". They are creating an imaginary world in their heads in preparation for a real-world event. So they are setting up scenarios and circumstances for something that will happen in the future. And the future is not the past. And I think this distinction is critical in whether or not we can call something a lie. Their scenarios are improbable, but they haven't actually happened yet. So self-deception in this situation doesn't quite seem like quite the right word for what is taking place. I think their stories are closer to what we do in dreams or in going to see a movie. It is a suspension of disbelief.

So if we're making the leap from these athletes to how we live our day-to-day lives, this same past/future potentiality comes into play. The past is not malleable. The future IS malleable. So let's say you are a person who has a pattern of messing something up--it's happened three times in three similar ways. In your thinking surrounding this issue you could choose to say to yourself many things. You could say:
- "I AM a person who messes up." (Causes low self-esteem because you make your past mistakes your identity.)
- "I haven't messed up." (You're lying--this is self-deception, reality doesn't match other people's--not good.)
- "I have messed up." (True, but let's look at where you wish you had made a different choice and move on.)
- "I'm not going to mess up again." (Which is kind of like telling someone not to think about a white elephant--you will probably mess up just because you're thinking about it so're visualizing the negative result).
- "I succeed (at this thing perfectly)." (Now here is where it gets a little tricky. Because this is present tense, but only in your head. It exists between your past screw ups, and the malleable future. I think this is the zone where "truth" gets relative. We can create things in the world that haven't yet existed (or existed in a certain form) by imagining them first. Why not a better self? I think a balance between #3 and #5 is a human being's best shot at a better tomorrow.

Feb. 08 2013 02:24 AM
Paul D Pruitt

Yeah but how's this: "But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience." Luke 8:15 KJV. Jesus is explaining the fourth seed in the parable of the 4 seed. He reports that those who are truly successful in life, the bearers of the fruits of the Spirit, Faith, Hope and Love, must have an honest heart. They must be truthful. That heart of theirs must be good too.

Dec. 12 2012 11:16 PM
J. Patrick Malone from Beaverton, OR

Here is a link to the self-deception survey...

Mar. 15 2012 01:25 PM
wolfram from noxsema

there is room in the brain for both

Mar. 12 2012 09:00 PM

I totally agree, people who seem narcissistic or overly confident frequently contradict themselves which proves they're lying to themselves. However they're also "winners", charming & charismatic. How nice to live a fantasy. Me, I prefer reality!

Feb. 05 2012 06:53 PM
Renee from CT

I think it would be very interesting to look at this self deception survey. Unfortunately the link doesn't seem to work anymore. If there is another way of accessing it I think parts of the theory behind this would be a little easier to understand.

Oct. 17 2011 01:38 PM
Joshua Miller from Syracuse, NY

"People who are the happiest are the ones who lie to themselves more. The people that are more realistic, that see the world as it is, tend to be more depressed than others. They see the world for what it really is. They see all the pain in the world, how horrible people are to each other, they'll tell all their vulnerabilities. The way we help people is to help them to be wrong. We're so vulnerable to being hurt that we're given the capacity to distort it - as a gift"

This gave me goosebumps. This is me.

Sep. 01 2011 08:55 AM

It is interesting that people respond with indignation to the idea of lairs being happier. Some commentators said it was obviously not the case.

Ah, for me the question is rather, what is the pay off for living without self deception?

Could it be self-respect, the ability to appreciate beauty even in a flawed world, resiliency and fortitude, and dare I say it, spiritual maturity?

May. 07 2011 04:52 PM
Sheeri Bornstein

I would really like to see the self deception questionnaire in its entirety, and this link does not seem to work anymore. If anyone could post a link to this questionnaire it would be much appreciated.

Apr. 26 2011 04:48 AM
Chris from ASU

It seems to me that if you know the subjects self deceive then how can you depend on their self-reported subjective measure of happiness?

Perhaps those that self deceive are just the best at deceiving themselves that they are happy.

Apr. 16 2011 04:57 AM
Darrell from canada

perhaps I should clarify from such a bold statement. I would weigh the prison population in the USA alone as one of many points explaining my case. I do not feel that it is fair to think of rape as a crime strictly against women.

Jan. 21 2011 03:54 PM
Darrell from canada

@ Bethany

more men get raped than women.

Jan. 21 2011 03:40 PM

I have to say I find it pretty disturbing that the only person who commented here on the inappropriateness of the "rape" question in Sackeim and Gur's research was a woman who herself had been raped. It really bothered me that this question was included by two men who admitted they were drunk when they came up with this list of questions. As a woman, I find it deeply offensive that not only would this concept (that everyone has a rape fantasy of being violated or violating someone else) be grouped with the other fairly trivial issues, but also that the very way it is set up is to convey to the person who answers "no" that they are simply self-deceiving. I have a hard time believing that any research conducted in this matter was scientifically validated or peer reviewed.

Oct. 25 2010 07:20 PM
Bill from New Hampshire

Gur and Sackiem did not test peoples inherent honesty with themselves, they tested how easily they are embarrassed, many peoples first response to these questions would be no, but they may change there answers when the questions are asked in a less embarrassing fashion, for instance the question "have you ever wanted to kill yourself to make some one else suffer?" were worded as "have you ever thought how much your death would hurt some one who has been taking you for granted?" I'm sure many people would answer the questions differently. I see this test not so much as a test of self deception as it is a test of how polite some one is. Embarrassment is more a sign of ones willingness not to offend others and it is quite understandable that social etiquette would lead to success and less mental anguish.

Jul. 25 2010 04:59 PM
Mike from Oceanside, CA

In response to Bill from Hinsdale, your questions assume 1.) the present state of nature is equivalent to the order in which it was first created, and 2.) man is not suffering negative repercussions for which he is culpable, and 3.) The creator will not hold deceivers accountable at a later date, thus balancing their present deluded happiness with fair reprisals, and rewarding the honest as He sees fit. Whether or not these are so, your questions assume such.

Very interesting program! I agree that in many competitive circumstances, self deceivers may gain the advantage over their equals. However, I suspect the MOST successful, in matters of science, philosophy, and other fields, were competent of their strengths and weakness, and levied that information strategically.

Jul. 10 2010 10:30 PM
Bill from Hinsdale NH

If the people who deceive themselves are more happy and successful then the people who embrace the cold hard truth, what does this say about the nature of the creator and the nature of creation?

If there is a god, doesn't this mean he favors those who deceive themselves about themselves and reality? Wouldn't this make him the lord of lies?

If being able to percieve reality more truthfully, and your place in the world more truthfully, make you more likely to be miserable, then doesn't that mean that the true nature of creation is misery?

I'm glad I'm an atheist, because this strongly implies that if there is a god he is the devil and we are living in Hell.;)

I would be interested in hearing about how people in cultures that do not have guilt based social structures as most western, and eastern cultures tend to have perform in these types of tests, though translation of the questions may be difficult.

Jul. 09 2010 01:44 AM
Jamie from Saint Louis

If people who are better liars say they are happy, how can we believe them? Couldn't they just be lying about being happy and satisfied with life?

Jul. 08 2010 08:48 AM
J from Virginia

Absolutely they are talking about religion. It all goes back to the very first people, Adam and Eve. They were free of any guilt and lies, deception, until they ate from THE tree... which is when immediately they were consumed with guilt. Which ultimately led to much unhappiness and sadness. Lying to yourself is ultimately the selfish way to live. It keeps you from emotionally attaching yourself to anything or anyone. It's easier, and can possibly be the happier route. Less stress, less worrying, less fear, less guilt..all the things that lead to depression.
But, if you keep yourself emotionally unattached, can this truly be fullfilling?

Jul. 02 2010 09:38 AM
Len from Butler, Mo

Fascinating program. As I was listening I suddenly realized, even though it was never mentioned, "They're talking about RELIGION!"

As Mark Twain said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

For years, people have been trying to understand the evolutionary REASON for the existence of religion for years. This sounds like maybe they're on to something.

Jun. 08 2010 07:08 PM
beverly hills Psychologist from Beverly Hills

I would say its common to 'kid' ourselves and sometimes convince ourselves to make oursleves feel better... but 'LYING' seems a bit deeper like a disorder..? that you would need therapy for!

Jun. 04 2010 02:13 PM
Manning from New Hampshire

Disturbing and frustrating. I would much rather be real and present and conscious than live a false life. I believe the body always knows the truth (as you discussed earlier) and I plan on respecting myself enough to listen. For my emotional and physical health. To me, success is not winning the race or having wealth, it is being conscious and real.

May. 02 2010 10:15 AM
Dani Boudrot from Texas

where do I find the answers to the survey? I am doing a presentation on this topic, and the key to this questionnaire would be most helpful. Thank you.

Apr. 10 2010 01:43 PM
Cidalia from New Jersey

This is a very good show. I enjoy listening to these experts relating the topic to real people, asking questions and getting into detail. Instead of just talking in a psychology jargon.

Oct. 25 2009 08:25 PM
Cidalia from New Jersey

Wow this surprised me a bit...

Oct. 25 2009 07:53 PM
KK from PA

This makes sense to me. I work 3rd shift for a large company with a woman who sleeps, talks on the phone, and disappears from her desk for hours at a time. I know if it were me I'd lose my job. People are losing their jobs left and right and this woman just got a raise this year. She thinks she deserves more money and works extremely hard. I don't know why...she just does. I'm glad I caught this show. Finally I know why dumb people make out like bandits and the rest of us are suckers.

Aug. 19 2009 05:31 AM
Joanna Starek from denver, colorado

For some reason, I did not log into this site until now. I was one of the psychologists who conducted this research. I appreciate everyone's comments and thoughtfulness on this issue. One clarification I would like to make is that we never asserted that self-deception was associated with mental health and well being. The purpose of the research was to understand if self-deception aided performance in athletes, not whether their psychological profile was something to aspire to. I agree, the research is disturbing! It insinuates that the qualities many of us aspire to in western society to succeed actually draw us away from our true selves. It is highly probable that the mental set associated with performance in western society is not something to be aspired to if you seek a deeper connection with the core of your being. I also firmly believe that elite performance in sport requires a mental focus and intensity that is different from the way that many others approach tasks. The search of excellence in performance may not be he same as the search for meaning or the search for happiness. Humbly, Joanna Starek

Aug. 04 2009 08:30 PM
Martha Adamson from Northville, MI

I've seen people become very successful in the business world because of their ability to self-deceive. Their positive attitude and confidence often cloaks their lack of competence, but they can go far if their subordinates perform well and make them look good. Even in situations where they fail, they are more likely to bounce back quickly because they do not dwell on failures and, in fact, do not even recognize they have failed, even if they are fired. It's fascinating to watch, and for me, frustrating, because I do not have this trait and too often question my abilities and dwell on setbacks too much.

Mar. 11 2009 02:07 PM
Chris from Chicago, IL

I got a kick out of reading the above comments. Jad and Robert aren't drawing scientific conclusions - the scientists are, and with good reason. A quick Google search of "self-deception" provides links to all the studies that verify the claims made in the show. People who engage in self-deception (however you define it) tend to be happier on average and they tend to be more successful (in whatever it is they're doing).

That relates *purely* to self deception, though, and it doesn't have any broader connection to "lying" like you would do to another person. The studies aren't evaluating honesty in dealing with other people, just when dealing with yourself.

The causal link is scarcely discussed in the show, and it may just be a broader correlative relationship, but nevertheless the facts stand for themselves.

Good show, guys. I'm going to pass this questionnaire around my friends. I wish I had a way to "evaluate" the results, though.

Jan. 27 2009 09:09 AM
Lauren from Beverly Hills

This was a very good show; although, I still disagree with my self deception test results. If these are universal truths, then I didn't do so well - ok, actually my results were pretty bad. See I am on the truth-wagon already ;)

As for the deception studies, I would be very interested to see what the childhood was like of pathological liars. Are there any similarities? Abused children? Alcoholic parent(s)? Genetics?

Jan. 20 2009 08:34 PM
Sam from Springfield, Missouri

Once, in a phase in my life when I was a hardcore drinker that was too old and too responsible to continue to use LSD like I did in my youth, I heard Dr. Drew say on Love Line, to another reformed acid-head, that he could expect a long period of depression. He advised the young man, who was about my age, that he should seek medication and expect to use it for a long time.

LSD, for me (I truly believe every drug affects everyone differently, according to their intelligence and outlook) enabled my mind to quickly “rewire” to be better equipped for social perception, or as I eventually started to call it, “bullsh*t detecting.” It’s depressing to see the world as it really is, and it’s doubly depressing to see myself as the weak and misguided fool I am, like most everyone else is, which is an impressive but crippling abililty that is shared by few.

When I reached the end the end of this broadcast, and there was a dramatic pause during the consideration of how self-deceived people perform compared to people like me, I said aloud with the greatest confidence I’ve had all week, “better,” followed by the echo of this exact word from my stereo speakers.

Jan. 17 2009 09:34 AM
Nate Worcester from Lewisville, Texas

I believe you can see the ugly, naked truth of the world and still smile. The mind is a very powerful force and your perception completely shapes your experience. Once your eyes are open to the suffering of existence, you can't close them. So what are you going to do about it?

Jan. 09 2009 08:42 PM
Beverly Rainforth from Binghamton NY

The show resonated with my experiences. I was much happier when I was oblivious to a lot of what I have since discovered. The discoveries were sometimes painful, usually disconcerting. Now I am always seeing conflicts, limitations, and even others self-deception, and I am not happy about it. Aren't the in-your-face conflicts between delusion and reality the reason we have mid-life crises? Oh to be so blissfully naive again!

Jul. 10 2008 07:04 PM
AK from Baltimore, MD

The story of religious myths, really. You act as if they were obviously true, because they are reassuring, whereas the prolematic aspect of their truth is precisely what you are supposed to be concerned about.

I have anecdotal evidence that people who lie to themselves are happier and more successful--at least when they do it well. (Unless you have a very special brain, I guess doing it well takes some breeding, such as through religion, or at least some habit.) They lie to themselves precisely to instill self-confidence and reassurance (as the athletes do). But I don't think there is a necessary relation here. I think this "uberman" who is happy without lies is still possible.

Jul. 04 2008 02:32 PM

I'd rather be smart and sad than deluded and happy. I bet the more realistic people are better intellectuals, better scientists, better philosophers, and ideas are what are important to me.

And I don't know about the universality of those embarrassing questions. Assumptions aren't science.

May. 26 2008 09:58 PM
Miguel Marcos from Madrid, Spain

I found this episode as stimulating as any other in the series.

That said, I also find myself in the group of people who feel that the positive light shed on self deception was odd, perhaps disturbing, especially the implied relationship between "happiness" and self-deception.

A previous commenter I think was right regarding the athletes, though. They self-deceive perhaps in a positive way. The first thing that popped into my mind, however, when I started mulling over the above was the example of Buddhist monks. The first of the 4 noble truths in Buddhism is that life is suffering. Buddhism suggests one confront this reality and the reality of one's death head on. Yet these monks are neurologically (and presumably spiritually) happy.

I wouldn't expect this program to try to argue that self-deception and happiness are *not* related because it appears immoral. This program was on deception and that's that. I don't expect RadioLab to moralize for me. There might be material for another program, though, somewhere in there on the thicker issues about self-deception and happiness.

I also don't think Jad and Robert are to blame for trying to convince anyone that what was presented is the ultimate truth or wise or anything else. Keep the good programming coming, RadioLab team.

May. 20 2008 11:46 AM
Doug Jerdee from San Diego

I lie to myself when I am working on a project. I will say, "I am just going to do this little bit, and then I will rest." After doing the little bit, I then repeat the lie and do more. I continue on until the project is complete. I always believe myself when I say it, knowing that I am lying to myself.

May. 09 2008 06:19 PM
Daniel from United States

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change ... Dr. Wayne Dyer

May. 09 2008 02:00 PM
phil from Annapolis

Jad & Robert,

Given your conclusions about self-deception, it follows that telling people about it is harmful. With your radio show you've hurt people.

I can only assume that would've known this would be harmful. So, did you have any qualms about telling people?

Seriously, how did you justify broadcasting this?

Apr. 27 2008 10:23 AM
phil from illinois

where do i find the key to the self-deception test? the test is not all that useful w/out it.

Apr. 08 2008 09:19 PM

Just wanted to say that the last part of this episode on self-deception really touched me. I almost started crying at work - and as someone who rarely cries, "almost" crying counts!

I see why some people are having trouble swallowing the argument, but maybe instead of seeing it as LYING to yourself, maybe it's more like the ability to overlook the negative aspects of oneself and concentrate on the positive ones? Like the athlete said, it's about going out there and thinking you're the best that helps you succeed. That's how I took it anyway, and as someone who is definitely not able to do that, it really touched me.

Thanks, Radio Lab.

Apr. 04 2008 08:53 PM
Lane Richards from Texas

Unfortunately, from the standpoint of my own happiness, I am a “painfully” honest person: often too self-conscious to perform well, too aware of all the possible consequences to make quick decisions on my own behalf, and often shunned for my “bad-attitude” and “unpopular beliefs”.


Obviously “honest” people constitute a segment of the population large enough to be measured.

What is the ratio of “painfully honest” to “self-deceivers”?

What evolutionary niche did we fill, that allowed us to not completely die off of our own depression or be killed off by annoyed “self-deceivers”?


When you identify that niche please make a show highlighting our value. We could use some positive press. Although we seem to dwell in the same category in “normal” people’s minds as broccoli and regular flossing, I have to believe the world could benefit from regular doses of our input.

Mar. 27 2008 11:48 AM

I also felt sad by the conclusion of this episode and I'm heartened to find out that so many people felt the same way. As someone who values truth almost above everything, it is horrible to think that only self-deluded people can be successful.

I try very hard to be honest with myself and others. However, many times I've realized that my lack of hubris has made me less likely to believe I'm "the best" at something and therefore less able to sell myself.

But still, I wish Radio Lab could have presented an argument in favor of truth. Surely there must be benefits to be realistic about yourself and reality.

Not to mention being able to admit that you enjoy bowel movements. ;)

Mar. 26 2008 06:03 PM
Dan from Savannah, GA

Like others, I was also disturbed by the last segment of this show on self-deception. I was disappointed to see that you only told half the story, and framed it in such a positive light. I don't disagree that self-deception helps athletes and businessmen. I do disagree that it translates into happiness. Self-deception produces "excellent performance" in a competitive environment. I'm sure self-deception makes better soldiers, as well. I'm sure those who deceive themselves are better at massacres and genocide. This kind of "excellent performance" and the accolades that accompany may make the ego proud, but it is not one that produces long term happiness. If, on the other hand, the parameters of "excellent performance" are based on cooperation and peace, which is the key to happiness according to all spiritualities I know of, then self-awareness and appreciating our interdependency with other people and our environment will prove more useful. For a show that claims to be scientifically based, I am disappointed that you relied on an experiment that did not control for society and culture when making a universal claim about happiness. In the end the experiment, and this segment of the show, simply justified the ego-centric, dog-eat-dog culture in which we live. One, mind you, that is ruining our ability to survive on this planet. One, that is not leading to a happy result unless we STOP deceiving ourselves.

Mar. 19 2008 05:59 PM
Ron from Rochester, NY

is there a key for deciphering the answers to the survey?

i have often suspected people who are depressed have a more realistic view of the world

Mar. 19 2008 11:41 AM

Even if the measure of swimming prowess in the study was objective, are 40 swimmers really enough to identify cognitive behaviors that boost performance? I'm somewhat skeptical that the notion of self-deception has been sufficiently defined and that there is some causal relationship between the sort of deception measured by SDQ and athletic success. Is the SDQ recognizing similar sorts of self-deception as the negative connotation word filtering?

There was a study I heard recently on public radio that identified a relationship between suspected habitual liars and brain structure. I would be even more interested to learn if the liars in that study were more happy or successful than the control group?

Anyway, intriguing and provocative show, if not a little unsettling and frustrating.

Mar. 19 2008 07:45 AM
Charlotte B from Naples, FL

I found this program very disturbing. It sounded as if the researchers found "liars" to be better in some way, than those who do not habitualy lie. Perhaps "self-deception" and "denial" is really what was being tested. I agree, these people frequently are more successful. They also tend to be manipulative, and therefore not always easy to respect.

The questionnaire bothered me. If one answers yes to all the questions, then where is respect for others? The rape question was very troubling. I have been raped -- both date-raped, and broken into and raped. I am NOT lying when I say I would not want to rape another person. I know what it does to one. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

And what is the validation of going to the bathroom?

It seem like a very distorted questionnaire.

Mar. 18 2008 02:07 PM
Rose from Bangladesh

Very entertaining but scientifically assured I am not so sure. I read a comment my husbands philandering grandfather wrote in a book of verse; "the love that lies in a women's eyes lies and lies and lies." What a sad line of comment to leave in your wake. I suspect he would have answered yes to the full questionnaire and yet he was up there with the big deceivers. Not sure I can call the conclusions conclusive. Where does the great sin of arrogance come in. The ones who will freely admit with deadly honesty their sins to the world and don't give a damn. Would love to hear further debate on the topic.

Mar. 18 2008 12:54 PM
frank the yank from pittsburgh, pa, usa

Every single comment is opposed to idea that self deception is a virtue. What could that mean?

The people who lie to themselves don't know it and are just as outraged as those who don't lie, or

The people who lie to themselves are also lying to themselves and saying the show was fine as is, or

The happy and successful people who lie to themselves don't listen to radio lab, or

The unsuccessful and unhappy people who don't lie to themselves could be right and radio lab is wrong.

I have a feeling there are even more possibilities out there but it's late and I'm tired.

Mar. 18 2008 12:22 AM
Steven F

I just looked at the so-called self-deception survey. This looks like a wonderful example of bad science. Are they claiming that an honest person ought to answer "7" to all of the questions? Or that someone who answers 6 is more honest than someone who answers 3? While it may be true that everyone has had thoughts about killing someone, certainly it's not the case that we all have such thoughts to the same extent. How, then, are we to measure the degree of self-deception in a person's answers? Someone please revoke these "scientists'" grants! I want a refund.

Mar. 17 2008 01:41 PM
Steven F

It's extraordinarily hard to judge the implied connection without a statistical analysis of the connections. Even then, every logician (and every honest scientist) will warn you of the fallacy of inferring a causal connection from a statistical connection. Jean-Paul Sartre's analysis of "bad faith" seems more insightful. At the very least I hear Jack Nicholson yelling, "The truth!? You can't handle the truth!" -- with its origins in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Mar. 17 2008 11:28 AM

Woah. "We're so vulnerable to being hurt, that we're given the capacity to distort as a gift." That shook me up a bit.

Mar. 15 2008 12:42 PM
frank the yank from pittsburgh, pa, usa

I was very upset when I heard this show on deception. Your shows always give me lots to think over and usually require a second hearing.

But, this business about the glories of self deception really hit me hard. Had I been fooling myself all these years (i'm 55)? My personal goal to be completely sincere and honest with myself and everyone around me, would lead to a better life for me and those I care for. Could I have been wrong?

My foolish self deception was reinforced by the the great thinks through history:

"This above all else to thine own self be true"

"Truth is beauty and beauty is truth, that is all you know, that is all you need to know"

"And, the Truth will set you free"

Then I realized that without telling us you dropped us into the middle of the island of Liars and Truth tellers. Of course, they will say self decievers are more successful and happy. Of course, they'll say people who don't lie to themselves are depressed and loosers.

You interviewed one of the liars. In all fairnes you should try and interview one of the truth tellers too.

Mar. 14 2008 09:22 PM
leen from Aubertin, France

I'm an American living in France, and I'm always trying to get over all the small cultural differences. One of the things that you show really seemed to point out to me, is that Americans might tend to lie to themselves more. When you run into a friend you'll say, "Hey! How's it going?" and the friend, more often than not will say, "good, how are you..." and the conversation will go on. The friend might not be "good", but they'll say it anyways instead of diving into a whole list of things that aren't going well. The French, however, (it seems to me) will not automatically say "good" they'll say, "oh, I've got a cold" or "I'm super depressed, this weather really brings me down..." etc etc. They won't lie to you and themselves but tell you how things really are. Which makes me wonder, could this be why the French aren't know for being incredible business people, very super sporty, etc, and are more well known for their food. It is of course all very delicious and comforting food...

Mar. 10 2008 05:42 AM
Dennis Condon from Brooklyn,NY

Maybe I missed something but after you take the test where is the information provided to tell you what your score means?

Mar. 10 2008 01:41 AM
matthew from Chicago

It makes sense that self-deception does, in fact, make individuals more successful. When Trivers (see video) says "people that have a low opinion of themselves, that's a sexual and romantic turn-off," he's obviously right... but why? Have we developed a connection between confidence and success when it comes to sexual attraction?

Mar. 06 2008 05:54 PM
rekz from CA

I'm limited to 1500 characters, so 2nd post:

Denial of the truth may possibly lead to a partial happiness in the short term, but it also leads to internal pain, anguish, and long term diseases. Should the self-deception comes to light, it can shatter a person's sense of themselves -- or worse.

Lastly, while the data presented COULD be shaped to argue that athletes who lie to themselves and that helps them succeed, without changing your data I'd say those athletes consciously form beliefs which help them secure success. Perhaps they have awareness that some aspects are not completely true, but the power of their beliefs helps them.

I would've appreciated a few more angles on the data, such as comments from psychologists (who help people deal with uncomfortable buried truths), rather than what, in my opinion, was a lopsided and invalid analysis of this information.

Mar. 05 2008 02:04 AM
rekz from CA

Radiolab, I found this particular radio show very disturbing, and the final conclusion absurd and an example of flawed logic.

To paraphrase, 'people who lie to themselves feel better, are more successful in life, sports, and business, and are happier... People who see the big picture, who see the truly bad things in the world clearly and accurately, more likely suffer from depression.'

I would have appreciated some bad examples of people who lie to themselves and are resultingly happy about it, ie George Bush Jr, because he frequently makes bold-faced lies (which I wonder if he believes), such warped concepts like torturing prisoners of war to protect American freedom and way of life, or USA killing Iraqis and taking over their country to help them gain democracy.

Mar. 05 2008 02:03 AM
Alex T. from New York, NY

I have the BEST Teacher. His name is Fred Brito. Whenever I have a question on to trick someone, I call him. He is so good, even DATELINE NBC and Dr. Phil have spent a full hour talking about him. Now he is going to be on Oprah and 60 Minutes. He is the best!

Check him out.

This guy has one very amazing story.

Mar. 01 2008 12:23 PM
Gabriel from Seattle, WA

What is the source of the audio clip towards the end of this segment speaking of depressed individuals and honesty?

Feb. 23 2008 12:02 AM
TBD from Fremont, CA

Even if these are not Universal Truths, excellent performance seems to be correlated with answering yes to them.

Listen at:

Not sure how prx is pronounced...

Feb. 16 2008 09:47 PM
Annette Hartsock from Flagstaff, AZ

OOps. "Universal truths"?

Feb. 16 2008 07:26 PM
Annette Hartsock from Flagstaff, AZ

I just wanted to know who did the research to decide that the answer yes to the self-deception questions were, what I believe you said, "univeral truths".

And how the research was performed.

Feb. 16 2008 07:23 PM
Kurt West from Santa Rosa CA

I am interested in the relation of this topic to the area of Faith especially the New Thought movement, "Change one's life by changing one's mind". Does self-deception make us more faithful or loving? Is there a state of mind where an individual is not self deceiving yet is functioning at their full potential? When does self deception become self knowing?

I am curious if there is a tape or transcript of the program available?

Feb. 11 2008 12:00 PM
Robert Goldmann from San Francisco

I'm curious whether there is any work that explores whether self-esteem (or similar qualities) modifies the relationship between performance and self deception discussed in the Starek Keating paper.

Feb. 09 2008 06:56 PM

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