Katherine Watson

You may be lying to yourself and not even realize it.

A new study from Yale, Duke and Harvard shows that people who cheat on tests are likely to overestimate their ability to perform on future tests, and only relinquish their overinflated self views after repeated exposure to contrary evidence. The findings from the study, which came out this August in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, suggest that humans are more receptive to information that allows them to craft higher self-opinion and less receptive to information to the contrary.

“I looked at the answer and then I got it right, and I can either say, ‘I cheated,’ or I could say, ‘I would have gotten it anyway because I’m so smart,’” said Michael Norton, study co-author and professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. “We had a hunch that people, on balance, would go less with the ‘I cheated’ and more with the self-deceptive idea of ‘I actually must be a genius.’”

In the study, subjects were presented with the opportunity to cheat with answer keys on a general knowledge test. Researchers then asked them to predict their scores for a second test, for which they would not be given an answer key. Subjects’ predictions of their scores were significantly higher than their actual scores on tests where they did not have the ability to cheat. It took another two tests without answer keys for subjects’ predicted scores to match their actual performance.

The study was inspired by observing people who used the answer key to help them solve crossword puzzles and then attributed the completion of the puzzle to their own knowledge.

“If there’s a chance for you to enhance how good you think you are at something, you will take it,” said Matthew Jordan GRD ’19, a doctoral candidate in psychology.

The study, he added, is currently one of the best for observing self-deception at work.

In a second study, subjects were given answer keys for the first test they took, but not the second. On the third test, subjects were again given the opportunity to use an answer key. Their predictions for the fourth test, for which they were not given an answer key, rose again, indicating that self-deception is quick to make a comeback even after receiving unbiased feedback.

Among experts in the field, the idea of self-deception is controversial. Philip Fernbach, a professor of marketing in the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, has a slightly different interpretation of the study’s results.

“I think that the results they have are really interesting, but it’s not obvious that they’re true cases of self-deception,” said Fernbach, who defines self-deception as simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs. “The person doing these tests might just think that they’re better. The results are definitely interesting; they show a certain kind of motivated reasoning, but it’s not obvious that they show a true self-deception.”

For something to be classified as self-deception, the self-deceiver must be unaware that the deception is taking place, said Norton. The next step for those in the field, Jordan said, should be to show that, in addition to believing something that does not fit with reality, a person also holds a belief about that same event that does square with reality. In this study, for instance, it would mean proving that a subject believes that their performance on the test reflects their intelligence, and knows that they cheated.

Norton, in an unpublished paper that studies the effectiveness of salespeople, found that those who deceive themselves about the quality of their products were better at selling. But, in the long run, once customers found out that the products were not as fantastic as promised, it hurt sales. In the short term, Norton said, self-deception can be beneficial. It makes people feel better about themselves and makes them more convincing to their peers, but it can have long-term behavioral costs.

For students, perhaps the most pertinent takeaway is that, as Jordan put it, “The best way to study is not with the answer key in front of you.”