Behavioral and Brain Sciences

The evolution and psychology of self-deception

William von Hippela1 and Robert Triversa2

a1 School of Psychology, University of Queensland, St Lucia, QLD 4072, Australia.

a2 Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08901.


In this article we argue that self-deception evolved to facilitate interpersonal deception by allowing people to avoid the cues to conscious deception that might reveal deceptive intent. Self-deception has two additional advantages: It eliminates the costly cognitive load that is typically associated with deceiving, and it can minimize retribution if the deception is discovered. Beyond its role in specific acts of deception, self-deceptive self-enhancement also allows people to display more confidence than is warranted, which has a host of social advantages. The question then arises of how the self can be both deceiver and deceived. We propose that this is achieved through dissociations of mental processes, including conscious versus unconscious memories, conscious versus unconscious attitudes, and automatic versus controlled processes. Given the variety of methods for deceiving others, it should come as no surprise that self-deception manifests itself in a number of different psychological processes, and we discuss various types of self-deception. We then discuss the interpersonal versus intrapersonal nature of self-deception before considering the levels of consciousness at which the self can be deceived. Finally, we contrast our evolutionary approach to self-deception with current theories and debates in psychology and consider some of the costs associated with self-deception.


  • deception;
  • evolutionary psychology;
  • motivated cognition;
  • self-deception;
  • social psychology

William von Hippel, professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, Australia, conducts research in social cognition and evolutionary psychology.

Robert Trivers, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, is best known for his theories of reciprocal altruism, parental investment and sexual selection, parental control of offspring sex ratio, and parent–offspring conflict. Trivers is recipient of the Crafoord Prize for “his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict and cooperation.”