Authentic vs. Counterfeit Self: The Emotional Economics® of Self-Deception

David Krueger MD

Does feeling like a fraud make someone more likely to commit fraud?

Do people who buy fake goods to look good to others look worse to themselves?

Psychologists studied two groups of young women. One group wore sunglasses from a box labeled “authentic”; the other group wore sunglasses from a box labeled “counterfeit.” (Both boxes were authentic). The researchers put the participants in various situations in which it was easy and tempting to cheat.

Although math performance was the same for the two groups, 30% of those in the “authentic” condition inflated their scores, while a whopping 71% of the counterfeit-wearing participants inflated their scores.

The researchers concluded, “When one feels like a fake, he/she is likely to behave like a fake.”

The volunteers who wore counterfeits were more likely to not only act dishonestly, but to believe that others did too. Wearing sunglasses they thought were fake made them interpret the actions of others through a lens of dishonesty.

And, they were completely unaware of both cheating more and judging others as more unethical. While people buy fake goods to look good to other people, the ironic impact is that they look worse to themselves.

In this study, it was not their self-image that led them to cheat, but the act of wearing fake shades (knockoffs) that triggered their dishonesty. (Psychological Science, May 2010)

Why is this?

The brain has an error detection mechanism that registers when something appears wrong. This innate capacity detects what neuroscientists call “errors”: the differences between expectation and perceived actuality. This portion of the brain plays a central role in detecting mistakes, as well as responding to them.

In an earlier Blog, I considered the emotional expense of two things: a lie and a debt.
When Lies and Debts are Similar

You can deceive others—even your own mind. But your brain always knows.

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