Unthinkable: We lie to ourselves more than to others

Self-deception is rife, says Colm Fitzgerald, and our education system is to blame

The lies we tell: “Nietzsche claimed we lie to ourselves about 100 times more than we lie to others.”

The lies we tell: “Nietzsche claimed we lie to ourselves about 100 times more than we lie to others.”


How many lies do you tell a day? Start counting. You may be shocked by the answer, especially if you include those little lies about how you’re powerless to influence all those things that are, in fact, under your control.

“Probably the most common lie that we can tell ourselves is that our life would be better if we had more – if only I had an extra €10,000, or if I only had this or that – when the reality is that the best thing we can do to make our lives better is to do more,” says Colm Fitzgerald, an assistant professor in actuarial science at UCD.

“Many people wish they were more talented and say to themselves that if [they were] they could do the wonderful things they’d like to do. The reality is that talent is nothing but a lengthy patience.

“Anyone good at maths, is good at maths because they’ve applied a lengthy patience with themselves to become good at maths. Michelangelo even went further than this, declaring that genius is nothing but eternal patience.”

Fitzgerald, a former banker with an interest in philosophy, sees the education system as the root of this self-deceit. “The word education comes from Latin and literally means ‘to draw out from within’ – to bring out our best selves. Education should not be about filling us up with stuff. Nor should it be in a building where we are whipped into shape,” he says. “Our education system is mostly set up to benefit those in power.”

To help remedy the situation, Fitzgerald has developed the “Know Yourself Test” which he is seeking to promote in business and educational settings as a way of guiding people “to achieve their full potential”.

It measures, among other things, how honest one is with oneself, one’s willingness to listen to others and one’s general reasoning ability.

This reporter took the test – which was developed by Fitzgerald with funding from the Society of Actuaries in Ireland – and I was informed I’d done “very well overall” but there were negatives too. Fitzgerald is keen to accentuate these in feedback, as “nothing grows in the comfort zone”, he says, and I’d be lying to myself if I thought otherwise.

You say “real education is about helping us become one of our best friends”. What do you mean exactly?

“Real education is about understanding what it means to be human – to know yourself in the context of being human – to be able to see the heights to which you can soar, and the depths to which you can fall – and to help you to thrive and not fall into life’s traps.

“The Stoics used to say that education was to align our perceptions with reality. Too many of us don’t know the perceptions we have that are helping us most, or the perceptions we have that are hampering us most.

“There are lots of examples of this. Many people bemoan the fact that life is unfair. But the reality is that life is a hill. If we want to thrive we have to get over it and usually the best way to do that is to get over ourselves.”

Is one of the lies we tell ourselves that we “deserve” an easy life?

“Lying, we all know, usually isn’t a good thing, but the worst form of it is lying to ourselves. Nietzsche claimed that we lie to ourselves about 100 times more than we lie to others. Most of the lies we tell ourselves are in order to do less rather than to do more – this is the lying that is most problematic.

“Many people in our society need to be hugged, they need more love, but most people have a greater need to be woken up than a need to be hugged.

“If somebody is dishonest to rob something, or do something else regressive and we hug rather than attempt to wake them up, then we are doing them harm and philosophically we are forgetting the moral of the Aesop’s fable of The Young Thief and his Mother.

“I know a good manager in Paris who has a very responsible and demanding job, meaning that she works very long hours, is under a lot of stress and is mostly thinking about others rather than thinking about herself. She was having problems with her PA who was not doing her job well and bemoaning her life all the time - making the manager’s job even harder.

“She overheard her PA saying how unfair life was, and that if only she was manager like her boss, her life would be great, she’d have loads of money, and her problems would all be sorted.

“This is an insidious lie that she is telling herself. Her problems are to do with her terrible attitude and her laziness and how little she is doing - even if she had a job as a manager, it would also mean a much heavier burden of work than she is currently trying to carry and she’d probably very quickly lose it, making her life even worse.

“Lies damage or even poison our characters. Having a good character is the best defence that we have for all that life throws at us and it is our best resource in helping us to thrive.”

“That said, we need to be careful, taking anything to an extreme usually turns it into its opposite. Lying can sometimes be good.

“Take the story told by the very funny and wise [psychologist] Dan Ariely about how he lied to himself to keep his spirits up and keep himself cheerful to help get him through taking painful medication that he needed to take to avoid liver disease.

“Fun and cheerfulness are wonderful things and they are also very helpful to us. They are usually the best defense against fear. Fear is something that can be extremely disabling to us. Lies that help us do more and that cheer us up without leading us to do less are hardly a bad thing.”

Being true to oneself sounds like hard work. Is it?

William James put it nicely, saying: ‘Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without it’. Often we excuse ourselves from action with a lie, saying we don’t feel like doing it.

“We need to encourage action. I dream of the day when a politician calls to my door offering to help me do more to achieve my dreams, rather than trying to corrupt my nature by offering – and usually lying about – giving me more as a means to making my life better. Yes we do have needs, but our biggest need is to act. The best help that we can get is to help us act.”

Explain the Know Yourself Test to me, and how it can be used to promote “real education”.

“The Know Yourself Test aims to help an individual to achieve their full potential. The test does this by figuring out where our perceptions are aligned towards helping us to thrive and figuring out where our perceptions are distorted and where they are hampering and hindering us.

“It can then be used to affirm our helpful perspectives – to give us an encouraging hug – and to propose corrective actions to counter our not-so-helpful perspectives – ie to wake us up.

“One of the biggest things that prevents us from thriving is confusion about the best way to make our lives better. Our education system does not give us the ethical guidance we need here. The Know Yourself Test aims resolve this confusion and to point us in the right direction to achieve our dreams.

“No matter how strong we are, we can always do with a little help and a hand from others, but it’s best when this help, helps us do more, and helps us to become one of our own best friends.”


Question: If Honesty was a Leaving Cert course would anyone get 100 per cent?

Thales replies: “The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.