What people lie to themselves about


In a recent episode of Radiolab, they discussed the topic of deception and at the 48:51 minutes mark, they referred to work by two psychologists about how people lie to themselves by compartmentalizing two contradictory beliefs in their minds and allowing only one into consciousness. They mentioned the work of Harold Sackeim and Ruben Gur who had developed a list of 20 questions that they would ask people to respond on a 1-7 scale with 1 being ‘not at al;’ and 7 being ‘very much so’.

I tracked down the 20 questions and give them below.

  1. Have you ever felt hatred toward either of your parents?
  2. Do you ever feel guilty?
  3. Does every attractive person of the opposite sex turn you on?
  4. Have you ever felt like you wanted to kill somebody?
  5. Do you ever get angry?
  6. Do you ever have thoughts that you don’t want other people to know that you have?
  7. Do you ever feel attracted to people of the same sex?
  8. Have you ever made a fool of yourself?
  9. Are there things in your life that make you feel unhappy?
  10. Is it important to you that other people think highly of you?
  11. Would you like to know what other people think of you?
  12. Were your parents ever mean to you?
  13. Do you have any bad memories?
  14. Have you ever thought that your parents hated you?
  15. Do you have sexual fantasies?
  16. Have you ever been uncertain as to whether or not you are homosexual?
  17. Have you ever doubted your sexual adequacy?
  18. Have you ever enjoyed your bowel movements?
  19. Have you ever wanted to rape or be raped by someone?
  20. Have you ever thought of committing suicide in order to get back at someone?

(Gur and Sackeim’s original papers were in the Journal of Personality Social Psychology, vol. 37, no. 2, February 1979, p. 147-169 and Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 47, No. 1, 1979, 213-215.)

They claimed that these feelings are universal and that everyone agrees with them and should answer high on the scale. Thus people who answered low were people who were lying, though perhaps not consciously so, because to agree to at least some of them (say the one about rape) would be embarrassing for most people. Apparently this questionnaire is used widely to identify people who lie to themselves and use that to measure the effects that such lying has on other factors. Researchers find that the self-deceivers seem to do better at certain types of tasks because they convince themselves that they can achieve more, and they are even happier while more realistic people are more depressed than others.

While it is plausible that most people might have experienced most of those feelings, what I could not find was how they knew that all these feelings were universal and that anyone who denied them was lying, at least to themselves. As far as I can tell, they were guessing. But maybe there was other research that I am not aware of.

Comments

  1. ardipithecus says

    Pop psychology dressed up for book sales?
    How do you measure something that is not precisely defined? This quiz is riddled with concepts with a large subjective component. What constitutes a bad memory to you might not to me. etc.

  2. says

    When I was studying psychology, in one of the questionnaires there were interspersed questions which had too assumed universal answers. They were there to assess whether the questionaire can be used to evaluate said person or whether it should be tossed.
    However those questions were much more inocuous than these: “Have you ever overslept for school/work?” “Have you ever stolen something, however small?” “Have you ever told a lie?”.
    How the arrived at the conclusion that the asnwers to these questions should be universaly “yes” was never explained.

  3. Holms says

    That seems like a dubious assumption. It had literally never occurred to me until this question that my parents would hate me. Not once. Apparently I’m now guilty of unconscious self deception, but this seems like a cheap gotcha attempt – the more I deny it, the more I deeply buried it must be.

  4. cartomancer says

    So, according to this rationale, numbers 3 and 7 together mean everyone in the world is bisexual?

    I mean, I suppose in a technical sense I find all the attractive members of the opposite sex turn me on – because to my eyes there are no attractive members of the opposite sex. It’s rather a tautologous statement really.

    1, 4, 12, 14, 18, 19 and 20 seem highly suspicious too.

  5. Holms says

    Oh and questions 7 and 16 as well (they are essentially the same) – I distinctly remember trying to look up girls dresses at age six, and possibly earlier still, with no similar interest in boys.

    Actually, quite a few of these depend greatly on interpretation. Q12, sure I was scolded as a child on many occasions, and back then I would likely have thought that such scoldings and groundings and such were unfair meanness, but as an adult I don’t think so at all – they were the ordinary matters of a parent disciplining a child. And what a brooding, sullen child I was! I completely believe I deserved those scoldings, and certainly don’t consider them meanness as an adult.

    And so forth.

  6. Jenora Feuer says

    Yeah, some of those questions are really bloody dubious. Good lord, that last one. That’s kind of a ‘what are you, twelve?’ question.

    I also, particularly with the combination of #16 and #18, suspect a pretty strong bias in that the creators assumed it would primarily be biological males answering this.

    (And me, I’m mostly asexual, which would definitely throw off some of these questions.)

    I’m reminded of a comment from a psychology professor, who said that Freudian psychology tells us a lot more about Freud’s particular hangups than it does about human psychology in general. I’m getting a number of ‘personal hangup’ bells from this set of questions, too.

  7. ridana says

    Yeah, that’s a bullshit set of questions. They don’t seem to differentiate between anger and hate. I’ve been angry with my parents, but never hated them. I’ve fought with my mother, mostly about social issues, but I never felt her position was held out of “meanness” towards me. I certainly never thought they hated me, ever.

    I always thought my parents were pretty smart. I hardly had any rules because I didn’t need them. Since I lived out in the country, there was nothing to do if my friends weren’t out and about, so if they had curfews, that was de facto my curfew, without my parents having to set one. 🙂

    And if you want someone to “rape” you, it’s not rape. It’s just forceful sex. Again, I think they equate fantasy with reality. No one wants to actually be raped, even if they have rape fantasies.

    I also find it hard to believe that everyone that’s not asexual is turned on by all members of the gender(s) they fancy whom they find attractive. I think George Clooney is one ridiculously handsome man. Has the mere sight of him ever turned me on? No. Have I ever fantasized about him? Not once.

  8. John Morales says

    Thus people who answered low were people who were lying, though perhaps not consciously so, because to agree to at least some of them (say the one about rape) would be embarrassing for most people.

    If the reason to not answer strongly affirmatively is consciously avoiding embarrassment, then it’s not lying to oneself, is it? It’s lying to the tester.

    (And this business of unconscious lying seems rather incoherent to me, too)

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 ardipithecus

    Pop psychology dressed up for book sales?

    Probably not in its original incarnation but it looks tailor-made for some silly book.

    @ Mano,

    The articles referenced are behind a paywall but I’d want to see a lot more than two articles and a good bit of theorecical work before I would put any trust in that questionnaire. It would be nice to see the psychometric properties of the instrument as well.

  10. says

    Since everyone else has done a good job of skewering the assumptions and showing contradictions, I’ll put a different nail in this coffin: It is IMPOSSIBLE for these questions to be universal, because there are people for whom they do not apply!

    For example, 1, 12, & 14 would not apply to orphans from a young age. 3, 7, 16, and probably 19 would not apply to asexuals. Amnesiacs would not have a useful answer for 13, possibly ALL of these in the extreme.

    So does the test claim these people do not exist? Then it’s invalid: empirically they do. Then that means the ‘universals’ are not actually universal – and as soon as you open that door, you get normal distributions instead of fixed values, and the assumption that everyone must be lying shrivels up and dies.

    BTW, I answered the questions before looking at the discussion, and had a three 1’s and a few 2’s and 3’s in there… and why would I be lying under such circumstances? I mean, you could assume I’m lying NOW but then we start wandering into hypothesis-as-religion territory.

  11. Curt Sampson says

    Now I’ve not looked into this deeply, and so could be wrong, but it seems to me that people here are drastically misinterpreting this test. The hypothesis here is that “They claimed that these feelings are universal and that everyone agrees with them and should answer high on the scale.” Thus, even if several questions are misinterpreted or even utterly irrelevant to you and you answer “0” to them, that shouldn’t have a huge effect on your overall results: coming in at 90 instead of 120 is still quite different from coming in at, say, 30.

    Yeah, some of those questions are really bloody dubious. Good lord, that last one. That’s kind of a ‘what are you, twelve?’ question.

    Given that the test asks, “have you ever,” and most test takers will have been twelve at one point in their life, what’s so dubious about that? Someone saying “no, I was never immature” seems to me a perfect example of someone lying in most cases. (And again, even if someone could truthfully answer this question with zero, could they truthfully give all questions a zero answer?)

    So does the test claim these people do not exist?

    No. No more than a test for cancer whose positive result is correct only 99% of the time is claiming that cancer doesn’t exist in that last 1%. “The test must have perfect sensitivity or it’s useless” is a completely silly approach.

    So, assuming the target audience is modern western cultures, and where “score” here is that total score on all questions, without paying attention to any individual question scores, is anybody claiming that they expect a large proportion of people to score very low?

  12. John Morales says

    Curt, zero was not an option.

    “They mentioned the work of Harold Sackeim and Ruben Gur who had developed a list of 20 questions that they would ask people to respond on a 1-7 scale with 1 being ‘not at al;’ and 7 being ‘very much so’.”

    Also, re “They claimed that these feelings are universal and that everyone agrees with them and should answer high on the scale.”, that’s not the central claim, which is that low scoring correlates with self-lying, but its basis.

    Didn’t see the scoring method on that link, but here’s a similar one:
    http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~dpaulhus/research/SDR/downloads/MEASURES/SDD.htm

    The scoring of the SDD is similar to that of the other two sub-scales of the BIDR. First, reverse the following items:1, 43, 45, 47, 49, 51, 53, 55, 57, 59. Then assign one point for each ‘6’ or ‘7’ response. Hence, the minimum score is 0 and the maximum, 20.

    re: “Given that the test asks, “have you ever,” and most test takers will have been twelve at one point in their life, what’s so dubious about that?”

    There is no subjective degree; it’s a yes or a no. But you have to choose a number between 1 and 7. So if you’ve ever, it should be a 7, right? And if you’ve never, then it should be a 1. So the numbers in between are useless with that type of question.

  13. avalus says

    I too find this highly dubious. I mean, q19 and 20 are just bollocks!
    How did they come to the conclusion, that these are universal questions?
    Can we conclude the test was done by white males?

  14. jrkrideau says

    Has anyone read the two papers Mano cites? If not, we really have no idea what the original authors said unless Radiolab is interviewing at least one of the original authors.

    It looks like a pretty crappy instrument to me but I’d have to have a look at the original papers before totally dismissing it.

  15. Curt Sampson says

    I too find this highly dubious. I mean, q19 and 20 are just bollocks!
    How did they come to the conclusion, that these are universal questions?
    Can we conclude the test was done by white males?

    Rape fantasies are common, and even a subject of popular literature (Story of O, 50 Shades of Grey.) (You of course understand that this does not mean that anybody would care for it in reality, any more than many men would really enjoy in real life beating someone up even if they enjoy the fantasy.) So it seems a perfectly reasonable question for this kind of test. And if you’re not familiar with the “You’ll be sorry when I’m dead” trope, well, what rock have you been hiding under since your early teens?

    And again, showing individual questions to be inapplicable in some circumstances doesn’t invalidate the test. There’s a reason they don’t ask just one question. (Hint: it’s because they know that not all questions will apply to everyone.)

    BTW, I’m not saying that the test is good or accurate. (I don’t even have access to the papers in question.) I’m just saying that the arguments I see here that it definitely is not are rubbish.

  16. anat says

    There is a big difference between ‘common’ and ‘universal’.
    Re: 18 – does relief count as enjoyment? Because that’s the only way that response would be common.
    And some questions are asked in present tense, yet I would only agree with them in past tense.
    Oh, Re; 3 – depending on the definition of ‘attractive’ they may have been asking a tautology.

    Yeah, so I counted about 6 questions I wouldn’t pick a high score for.

  17. Mano Singham says

    Radiolab did interview the two authors.

    I can send the two articles to anyone who wants it if they email me.

  18. John Morales says

    Curt:

    BTW, I’m not saying that the test is good or accurate.

    Nobody is.

    I’m just saying that the arguments I see here that it definitely is not are rubbish.

    Huh. I thought you were saying that it didn’t matter if individual questions weren’t universally applicable so long as their total aggregate is, which it may well be.
    So so long as they are common or are tropes.

    Which I think is a rather weak objection that misses the point to that particular objection.

    (Also, note that, in that other test, some answers were first inverted before scoring)

  19. Curt Sampson says

    Re: 18 – does relief count as enjoyment? Because that’s the only way that response would be common.

    Seriously? Anal sex is a common thing but you think that stimulation of that area can never be pleasurable?

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