Why We Take the Path of Least Resistance

Pic by Nicole Mason


“The truth may hurt for a little while but a lie hurts forever.” — Anonymous

I feel lost with the current political conversation: it has shaken up our relationship with the truth.

The truth no longer seems singular, there are multiple versions of it. I feel that the line between truth and lies seems more blurred than ever.

I hate being lied to. Not just because I don’t accept an alternative truth, but because it distances me from the actual truth.

Being lied to makes us feel vulnerable and disrespected. Lies make us feel betrayed.

So, what happens when we become victims of our own lies?

We are wired to take the path of least resistance

A recent study indicates that the effort required to act on a decision can influence the decision itself.

Our decisions, contrary to popular belief, are not based on logic but on emotions, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s research proved a couple of years ago. At the point of decision, emotions are critical for choosing. Even with what we believe are logical decisions, the final choice is mostly based on emotions.

That’s why we lie to ourselves. To take the path of least resistance. To rationalize our emotional desire to avoid tension.

But lying to yourself creates a false version of reality that distances you from your true self.

The Easier it Feels, the More Painful it Will Be

“If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: never lie to yourself.” — Paulo Coelho

We all lie, but not everyone is a liar.

What is a lie? A beautified version of the truth? An alternative truth? Or simply avoiding the truth to escape reality?

“Lie”: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.

A white lie might help us get out of an uncomfortable situation. But when we make a habit of lying, we are not just avoiding a situation: we might be avoiding feeling uncomfortable at any expense.

When I lie to myself, the only person I’m deceiving is me. I keep that present. To challenge myself. To avoid fooling myself.

Self-deception is one of the most popular ways to escape from something we don’t want to face. Self-deception is the foundation of frustration, procrastination and unhappiness.

Only when I stretch beyond my comfort zone, I can grow. I know that. And personal growth requires me to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

When we lie to ourselves, what are we trying to avoid? The truth or our true self?

Lying Might Not Always Be Bad

“The truth hurts and is often uncomfortable, which means that admitting what is real can be impossible for some people”. — Flow Psychology

Lying to yourself -or self-deception- is not right or wrong, you need to find the line, according to Dr. Michael Norton, professor at Harvard Business School. For him “a little bit of self-deception isn’t an unhealthy thing, a lot is an extremely unhealthy thing.”

We can benefit from self-deception, research shows, when we simply block out negative memories, envision ourselves achieving future successes or have a more optimistic view of our own skills. Altogether it can definitely improve our future performance.

Motivation: research has shown that “optimists” work harder to achieve their goals, they benefit from exaggerating. I personally have benefited from an overly-positive visualization of myself when starting something new. It definitely impacts my actual performance.

Cope with pain: a life circumstance can be too harsh to remember. To avoid reliving the pain or feeling scary, self-deception can help block-off those painful emotions by indulging in denial like it happened with sexual-abuse victims of the Sai Baba cult.

Confidence booster: in one set of studies, students had an opportunity to cheat by looking at an answer key prior to taking a test. They then systematically over-performed on future tests, they felt more confidence about how much they knew rather than attributing it to having the answer key.

As with other behaviors, the issue is not what we do but to which extent. If we -purposefully or not- turn self-deception into a habit, we will simply be running away from our true self.

Why We Lie to Ourselves

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.” 
 ― Rudyard Kipling

When we feel an uncomfortable tension between our beliefs of who we are and how we are behaving, we experience what psychologists call “Cognitive Dissonance”. We cannot solve for that tension. And that’s one of the main reasons why we lie to ourselves.

Let me give you an example. I like animals. I wouldn’t ever hurt one or, least to say, kill one. Yet, I love to cook. And I love cooking duck or lamb. My cognitive dissonance is that I disconnect the slaughtering with seeing the meat in the butcher ready for me to purchase. I avoid thinking where it came from.

The jury is still out on what drives the need for self-deception. Even though there’s a lot of research, the scientific community hasn’t arrived to a clear verdict of why we lie to ourselves.

These are some of the most frequent reasons why we choose the path of self-deception, based on various studies.

  1. Our Need to Win: Robert Trivers, researcher and author of “Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others”, identifies an archetype whom he calls “I”. Who is a compulsive thief who can’t go into a room without coming away with a trophy.
  2. To Manipulate Others: Robert Frank discusses in “Passions within Reason”, how people often have emotions for strategic social reasons is what he calls “false emotions”. We may cry because we genuinely need help. But crying can also turn into a way of manipulating others to follow one’s will.
  3. Our Need for Self-assurance: we all need to feel confident about who we are. Self-inflation bias, the notion of thinking that we are better than other people without rigorous evidence, is not necessarily motivated by insecurity. It can simply be an ego-booster or a playful tactic.
  4. Have a hard time accepting who we are: lying is part of living in denial. We are trying to hold on to our own perceptions of reality, when in fact, we are avoiding truth. Like Eleanor Roosevelt said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

At the end of the day, regardless of the specific reason, self-deception might feel easy but actually can hurt us in the long run.

As Steve Maraboli, behavioral scientist and author said: “Stop lying to yourself. When we deny our own truth, we deny our own potential.”

The Vicious Cycle: Lies and Repetition

“The most dangerous lies are the lies you believe about yourself.” — Anonymous

Repetition builds reinforcement.

The mastermind of the Russian communist revolution, Vladimir Lenin, said it best: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth”.

Propaganda and advertising fuel of repetition to drive awareness. Ongoing self-deception has exactly the same toxic impact.

Lies are an easy way out.

Ongoing lies will only drain my energy and passion.

Lying to yourself can make you forget the problem but won’t eliminate the problem.

Self-deception will only get you stuck.

Be more aware.

The danger about lying to yourself is to no longer believe a lie is a lie. And start denying and lose clarity and perspective. Challenge yourself. Get out of the self-deception trap.

  1. Be aware of your self-talk. We all like to be the hero of our own stories but that doesn’t mean believing your own heroified version at the extent of believing our own lies.
  2. Value who you are. I learned that if I accept all my dimensions, especially my flaws, there are less reasons to lie to myself.
  3. Avoid winning at any price. Is better to stay truthful to yourself than to achieve something at the expense of self-deception.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Stop being your worst critic. By being less harsh with myself, I don’t need to compensate by lying. I still push myself out of the comfort zone but with kindness.

We cannot avoid being lied to but we can avoid lying to ourselves.

Back to the headline of this piece. The worst lie I can tell myself is the lie that I end up believing.

What about you?

Gustavo Razzetti is a change instigator who makes your culture move you forward — not backward. He advises, writes, and speaks on team development and culture transformation.

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