The story of Anna Sorokin, aka Anna Delvey, began in Domodedovo, a town close to Moscow, Russia. When she was a teenager, her family moved to Germany. Then she lived and worked in several countries in Europe, and in 2013 she came to New York, where she started to tell people that she was an heiress of a German billionaire. Many people believed her and lent her significant sums of money. What made her so persuasive? She apparently believed in what she said.
Not much is known about her childhood, but it probably wasn't particularly happy. Children devise different life strategies if they feel insignificant. One of them is to create a false reality, in which the kid is a king or queen or an heiress of a billionaire, and convince themselves that this is true. So, people believed Anna Delvey not because she wasn't a gifted actor – she told the truth. At least she sincerely believed in it at that moment.
It's tempting to say that was just a mentally unstable person's quirk, but we all do the same things every day. We live in the false realities (scientifically called "mental models", we'll discuss them someday as well) created by our imagination from the pieces of knowledge and experience. We also use self-deception to boost our ego or to defend ourselves from being unmasked by other people (impostor syndrome). And we don't even notice that.
In 2011 Zoë Chance, an associate professor of marketing at Yale University, conducted an experiment in which participants could cheat while taking a test – and all of them did it without realizing that. They truly believed that they knew the correct answers.
Some other experiments confirmed that from time to time, people tend to do things that would be regarded as "immoral" or "unfair," but then they somehow convince themselves that they didn't do anything wrong. For instance, they could believe that their cases were somehow exceptional. Apparently, Anna Sorokin and Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos's founder who now faces 20 years in prison for fraud, thought this way.
Technically, "self-deception" is not the correct word. It implies that there is a "true self" deceived by… who? There is no "true self" as well as there is not an "objective reality." We all live in imaginary worlds created by our minds. For instance, we all agree that the sky is blue, and the grass is ordinary green. But if you somehow could look at the sky and the grass through my eyes, maybe you would discover that they have the colours that you call, say, yellow and red.
Do you like this story? Take a look at my free online Strategic Thinking course here