Self-Deception: Adopting False Beliefs for a Favorable Self-View

56 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2020 Last revised: 11 Jan 2021

Date Written: September 27, 2020


This paper demonstrates how people deceive themselves into thinking of themselves as altruistic. I present a lab experiment in which subjects need to decide whether to behave altruistically or selfishly in an ambiguous environment. Due to the nature of ambiguity in this environment, those who are pessimistic have a legitimate reason to behave selfishly, even if they are inherently altruistic. For people who are inherently selfish but like to think of themselves as altruistic, this environment can serve as a scapegoat for selfish behavior. That is, by falsely claiming to be pessimistic, individuals can behave selfishly without damaging their self-image of being altruistic. Through two seemingly unrelated experimental tasks, I elicit subjects’ adopted beliefs and true beliefs about the same probability. I find that selfish subjects adopt beliefs that are systematically more pessimistic beliefs than their true beliefs, whereas altruistic subjects adopt beliefs that are in alignment with their true beliefs. The most plausible explanation for why only selfish subjects manipulate their beliefs is that selfish behavior damages their self-image and belief manipulation helps them mitigate that damage; altruistic subjects, by contrast, have no such need for belief manipulation because their behavior does not damage their self-image.

Keywords: Self-deception, Self-image, Motivated Beliefs, Charitable Giving

JEL Classification: C25, C91, D64, D81, D82, D83, D84, D91, Y40

Suggested Citation

Samad, Zeeshan, Self-Deception: Adopting False Beliefs for a Favorable Self-View (September 27, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Zeeshan Samad (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University ( email )

Box 1819 Station B
Nashville, TN 37235
United States

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