Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach and York Hagmayer

Self-deception requires vagueness


The paper sets out to reveal conditions enabling diagnostic self-deception, peopleʼs tendency to deceive themselves about the diagnostic value of their own actions. We characterize different types of self-deception in terms of the distinction between intervention and observation in causal reasoning. One type arises when people intervene but choose to view their actions as observations in order to find support for a self-serving diagnosis. We hypothesized that such self-deception depends on imprecision in the environment that allows leeway to represent oneʼs own actions as either observations or interventions. Four experiments tested this idea using a dot-tracking task. Participants were told to go as quickly as they could and that going fast indicated either above-average or below-average intelligence. Precision was manipulated by varying the vagueness in feedback about performance. As predicted, self-deception was observed only when feedback on the task used vague terms rather than precise values. The diagnosticity of the feedback did not matter. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)

Sponsor: National Science Foundation. Grant: 0518147. Recipients: No recipient indicated