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Charlie Sheen Science: Self-Delusion Is Easier Than You Think

Last Updated Mar 11, 2011 3:46 AM EST

Between Charlie Sheen and Muammar Qaddafi, the headlines have offered plenty of examples of destructive self-delusion lately. It's tempting to look on as these figures destroy their lives or their countries and wonder if it is really possible that they just don't get it. But science suggests it's easier for people to lie to themselves than you might think.

Recently Discover blog highlighted work from Zoe Chance at Harvard Business School that looks into people's capacity for rationalization. The research came to some fairly frightening conclusions. Summarizing the results, Discover suggests that humans are champions when it comes to sustaining delusional thinking:
Using experiments where people could cheat on a test, Chance has found that cheaters not only deceive themselves, but are largely oblivious to their own lies. Their ruse is so potent that they'll continue to overestimate their abilities in the future, even if they suffer for it. Cheaters continue to prosper in their own heads, even if they fail in reality.
To test our capacity for self-deception, Chance set up a scenario where research subjects were tempted to cheat on a math test by an easily visible answer key. She then asked both cheaters and honest test takers to guess how they would score on a second, longer test where cheating wouldn't be possible. You'd think cheaters would remember their deception and estimate their future results based on their actual abilities rather than their fraudulent earlier grade. But they didn't. The cheaters expected the same high marks on the second test despite knowing their original score was only the result of peeking.

Even after Chance offered students $20 to accurately predict their second test score, cheaters continued to inflate their expected scores and lose the cash. Think it couldn't get any worse? In the final experiment, Chance gave cheaters a "certificate of achievement" for their high mark. What was the result of being recognized for a lie? The self-deluding students inflated their predicted grades even more.

Chance concludes, "our findings show that people not only fail to judge themselves harshly for unethical behavior, but can even use the positive results of such behavior to see themselves as better than ever." Do these results make you wonder what, if anything, you've been deceiving yourself about, and how we can all make sure we stay away from Sheen territory and remain (relatively) free of self-delusion?

Read More on BNET: (Image courtesy of Flickr user card karma, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.