'those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship,
for to undertake to wound and offend a man for his own good
is to have a healthy love for him.'
-michel de montaigne*
(all this time, reviewers were just expressing their healthy love for me!)
today i am going to talk about self-deception. don't worry, i will connect it back to scientific integrity.
being a researcher who studies self-knowledge and self-deception is a little nerve-wracking. watching other people delude themselves and be entirely convinced by their self-deception, you start to wonder whether all of your own self-beliefs might not also be delusional. it can make a person paranoid. so i started wondering, could there be an internal marker of self-deception? a red flag that, if trained, one could detect and catch oneself in the act of self-deception?
if there is such a clue, that would be extremely useful not just in everyday life, to know when we are deluding ourselves about personal matters, but also as scientists who recognize that we are susceptible to motivated cognition in our research. sometimes we might exploit researcher degrees of freedom without fully realizing that we are doing it. if there was a sign that we are doing this, and we could learn to detect that sign, that would be fantastic.
i think there might be such a sign. my own and other people's research suggests that people who know us well (our friends, family, etc.) sometimes can see things about us that we can't see about ourselves. in some ways, they know us better than we know ourselves. obviously this is not true for all close others, and there are also things we know that others don't. but let's assume that close others do sometimes have insight into what we're like, why we do what we do, etc.**
if that's the case, then an important clue that you might be deceiving yourself is when there is something you are avoiding telling the people you normally tell everything to. if you find yourself leaving out a crucial detail when retelling a story, or hoping your best friend won't ask you about something, maybe there is a truth buried under there that you are avoiding. of course there are other reasons we might avoid a topic, but with very close friends, one possible reason is that we're trying to maintain a fragile self-deception. we fudge the facts in order to shelter our self-deception from the sharp eye of those who are most likely to detect it.
with p-hacking, the same idea applies. any reluctance to disclose the steps you took to get the result you are presenting is probably a sign that you gave yourself too much leeway. sure, that study in the file drawer wouldn't change your overall conclusion anyway, but then why are you hiding it away in the file drawer? if you don't trust others to understand the rationale for your decisions and come to the same conclusion as you did, that is a sign that you might be deluding yourself. your colleagues are smart, if you need to hide the messy details from them, it's probably not because they won't 'get it.' it's because they will.
next time you find yourself tempted to hide some ugly details - about your life or about your data - find a trusted (and critical) confidante and force yourself to tell that person all the gory details. then, listen to what they say. and remember: to love is to criticize.
**i like to assume things. it's one of my top three hobbies.