Scott H Young

Healthy Delusions?


Is some amount of self-delusion a good thing? I used to believe seeing the world more accurately was always a good thing. After all, even positive delusions must at some point brush against the rough surface of reality. Now I’m not so sure.

Depressive realism is a phenomenon where, in some cases, depressed patients can view the world more accurately than the mentally healthy. In one study, participants were asked to rate their degree of control over a light bulb. Non-depressed participants believed they could control the light, even though its sequence was pre-programmed. Depressed patients accurately reported their level of control.

In another paper, psychologists argue that overconfidence maximizes evolutionary success. Read that again: not just confidence, but overconfidence. Success is implicitly coupled with embracing a delusion that you’re better than you actually are.

Findings such as these suggest that many of the cognitive biases humans exhibit aren’t design flaws but purposeful features.

Do We Delude Ourselves to Manipulate Others?

Human beings are social creatures. In addition to serving our own needs, we need to be aware of the impression we make on others. If you’re at a dinner party and served a dish you dislike, most people wouldn’t complain about it to the host. Our immediate desire to not eat the dish is put into conflict with being polite.

Robin Hanson speculates that the brain evolved a capacity for managing these conflicting needs. Use “near” modes of thinking, which are detail-rich and pragmatic, when you’re executing personal goals, and use “far” modes of thinking, which are more abstract and idealistic, when social impression matters:

“And this seems to be just what the human mind does. The human mind seems to have different “near” and “far” mental systems, apparently implemented in distinct brain regions, for detail versus abstract reasoning. …

“These different human mental systems tend to be inconsistent in giving systematically different estimates to the same questions, and these inconsistencies seem too strong and patterned to be all accidental. Our concrete day-to-day decisions rely more on near thinking, while our professed basic values and social opinions, especially regarding fiction, rely more on far thinking.”

This near/far mechanism might explain why we are deluded in the ways we are. Our biases aren’t hardwired merely because reality is uncertain, but because they allow us to manipulate the impressions we create subconsciously.

Note that this explanation of self-delusion is quite different (and much darker) than the typical reasons for optimism and confidence. Perhaps it’s safer to believe overconfidence and excessive optimism are because of self-fulfilling prophecies or ridiculous metaphysical theories, than possibly manipulative social tactics.

Lies and Happiness

The near/far dichotomy is no better represented than in discussions on happiness. I’ve shared previously Daniel Kahneman’s work showing that what we call happiness is really two different things.

When I think about what makes me happy, I think of meaningful work, travel adventures and dating exciting women. But do they actually result in my happiness, or are they far-view representations which project a good social image?

Being happy in your life and being happy about your life are two separate things. They may be correlated, but there are plenty of situations which put them in conflict. Some studies suggest having children is an example of such a tradeoff—most couples are glad they had kids, but were less happy while raising them.

Imaginary Control

Another prominent area of self-delusion is self-control. Namely we are convinced we have control over much of our behavior, even when our experiences repeatedly show us otherwise.

One of the reasons I became such a fan of habit training was simply that it acknowledged how incredibly weak our willpower is. If our actions run on autopilot 95% of the time, doesn’t it make sense to learn how to reprogram the autopilot?

The illusion of control is also a socially instrumental delusion. We talk about the need for more healthy food choices, but continue to eat greasy burgers, because we want to impress upon others our health-consciousness, even if the actual details of being healthy are too difficult for us.

Lies, Love and Sex

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no area is more full of self-delusions than sex, love and dating. Men fake confidence and feign indifference. Women claim to prefer equal partners, but respond to dominance. Men claim to want to date women near their age, but really prefer 21-year olds.

I don’t think I need to convince anyone that irrationality and subconscious motivations abound in dating (for both genders). But I think a more interesting question is how useful is awareness of those self-delusions? Are we happier creating pleasant narratives for our more basic drives, or by understanding them fully even if we don’t like what they describe?

How Much Self-Delusion is Healthy?

The prospect that some irrationality is a good thing is an unnerving one. It suggests that merely knowing how the world works is not enough, but that even with that knowledge, it’s useful to believe falsehoods or exaggerations in specific areas.

What is the solution to this problem? Is it to learn the truth, but foster internal contradictions when they might be useful? Or is it to try to be as rational as possible, accepting that self-delusions will naturally creep in where appropriate as designed by your mental hardware?

These ideas raise more interesting questions than they provide answers, which is a sign they are worth thinking about.


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24 Responses to “Healthy Delusions?”

  1. Anthony Lee says:

    I recently read an article about this. http://io9.com/5901251/are-humans-too-optimistic-for-their-own-good
    It talks about how being too optimistic may not be good for us. Your research appears to support the contrary. I like the idea that overconfidence is an evolutionary necessity. However, you posit some powerful questions. As a super rational individual, I cannot inactively accept self-delusion, but I guess I am wired to be that way.
    The real question truly is, where does this knowledge benefit us?
    You lay mention to self fulfilling prophecies and ridiculous metaphysical theories (which, scientifically barely qualify as hypotheses), but there is mounting research being done on how much the human mind actually DOES affect the physical universe. We see it demonstrated in the human body with placebo effect. So, does knowing that we are deluding ourselves dampen the power of the delusion? At what point, when we are actually manifesting these desires (such as in the placebo case) do they stop being delusions?
    Hmm…….interesting topic. :)

  2. IC says:

    I have often been irked by the presence of wide spread delusions in human society, since it seemed to me that we could get a lot more done if we could agree on one reality. But since that is not the way people work. It seems likely that one way to succeed would be to overstate your qualifications to others (as long as you could get away with it), but be fully aware of your own limitations.

  3. The “Reality Distortion Field” of Steve Jobs comes to mind. Many claim that Jobs was basically delusional, but his vision sucked you in, and you would accomplish things that you never thought possible. In cases like this, there is a healthy aspect to it. Even if you are deluding yourself about the possibility of achieving some grandiose vision, maybe the delusion is powerful enough to motivate you where a realistic perception might not be.

    It’s an interesting idea.

  4. Ben says:

    Self-delusion makes it sound too negative. Focusing on the positive could be seen as this, giving gratitude for what we have, and all this is important. If we were totally realistic humans would be anywhere near where we are now.

    I believe in letting go of the stuff that is actually stopping me from being happy, and the world being positive for me instead of pretending it is okay, it will just become more okay.

    -Ben

  5. David says:

    I’ve been really pondering this as well. I see life as absurd, so I find myself saying “it’s all good.”

    Should I forgo some happiness and comfort in exchange for a different kind of comfort or confidence in knowing I am actively pursuing truth and destroying my delusions? It’s all good.

    Should I delude myself that I will succeed because I’ll take more daring risks and when I probably fail, that despair will me temporary, while that time spent filled with drive, passion and confidence is likely much greater? It’s all good.

    I struggle with dysthymia, a chronic mild depression. I pride myself in the ability to accept hard truths. But having struggled to feel happiness for close to half my entire life, part of me would love nothing more than to put feelings first and the cost of my esteem (according to others) and outward success.

  6. Monica says:

    In a world where, you know that experiment blah blah a watched particle behaves differently or something like that (can’t be bothered to google it), perhaps the basic assumption that there is the 1 ultimate reality that we either see (rationality) or we don’t (delusion) is faulty. Perhaps reality itself is subjective. OR as is the case the placebo effect, perhaps our perceptions have a much stronger effect on our mind-bodies than current science realizes. I personally believe in delusional optimism. It may not be realistic but it sure as hell is a lot more fun and perhaps NOT constantly being in an adrenaline and cortisol influenced flight or fight state at the vicissitudes of a random, uncaring world is more beneficial. In some ways, delusion may aid in rationality, if I were in a crisis say, and I believed against rational hope that I would ultimately be fine, I would be able to assess the situation calmly and take the appropriate rational action, whereas if I recognized that there was a greater probability I would be dead in 2 hours, I’d be running around basically losing my shit or I’d collapse in a catatonic state, maybe curl into a fetal ball and whimper my way into the afterlife. Except that wouldn’t exist, of course.

  7. Adam Isom says:

    Wow, Scott. The reason I like your blog so much is because it has always been intellectual.

    This is different, though: a grade more intellectual than usual. It reads like something I might find on LessWrong.com. It covers so many things I find interesting / already know about, and it sounds to me like if you haven’t yet read Thinking, Fast and Slow, or some Less Wrong Sequence posts or “instrumental rationality” posts, you would greatly enjoy any of them.

    When you find the time, of course. I wonder if the intellectual-ness of this particular post reflects the fact that you’ve been learning so very, very much.

    Keep it up man, love ya. No homo. I’m sure you have many fans.

    P.S. Have you considered that an unintended side effect of having a blog like this is to greatly impress a potential partner? Because I have. I’ve thought that having a blog like this could have the effect of helping me find the perfect woman as it’s the best possible self-advertisement.

  8. Dream says:

    Self delusion is a way of escaping the reality of this world, most of the people do not know why they are here, hence they are depressed. Because it is something out of their control.

    Let us be honest with ourselves; women, money and all these external things does not contribute to true happiness and satisfaction, or at least from my experience.. I love to challenge myself and I am a BIG fan of personal development, but I still feel something is missing in my life.

    I know that you are not a big fan of religion and I will not say so much about it, but I really believe we are here for a purpose. Maybe there is a god?

  9. [...] Healthy Delusions? « Scott H Young This entry was posted in Best Advice and tagged asked, cases, control, degree, depressed, [...]

  10. Robert says:

    The problem is of course, how does a rational being delude itself? I guess you just have to be lucky enough to end up with the right amount of delusion. Success is mostly luck anyway so why not add this to it.

  11. Julian says:

    As a rational being, you don’t necessarily need to delude yourself to engage in what Scott is calling self delusion, or what Ben (in a comment above) calls, and what I like better, focusing on the positive. It’s more about not needing the know the answer to why you feel the way you do always. Who cares why your girlfriend makes you happy? Maybe it is the fact that humans like sex. But maybe that’s not it. The most rational thing in cases like this–when you have a hunch but are not certain–is to enjoy the happiness that you experience without looking for the deeper reason why you feel happy.

    A lot of people do this automatically, but it can be hard for rational people like myself. Sometimes you just need to stop asking why and enjoy life.

  12. Jeff says:

    Personally, I think this is quite simple. If we were painstakingly realistic, it would be much more difficult for us to attempt to stretch beyond our current boundaries. One comment by a friend to point out “you don’t know how to do that” or one realization that you don’t possess a skill you need, and you have an immediate stop sign on pushing your boundaries. If, on the other hand, you can dream up fanciful futures that you don’t even know how to achieve yet, THEN you are motivated to push your limits, expand your boundaries and achieve what isn’t (yet) real.

    Think about this with your MIT challenge. If you had started out fully realistic, you or others would have said “that takes others four years, with great teachers, and still some don’t succeed, what are you thinking?” Whereas you dreamed up an incredible future, and that dream, if you will, motivated you to figure out how to make it happen, rather than stop because it wasn’t already possible. Challenges became just something to deal with, rather than a stop sign, thanks to that invented mental (delusional) viewpoint.

    I see this trait, when used responsibly (that’s another topic entirely), as our evolved ability to stretch (see?) beyond our current capabilities, further and further into (yet) unimaginable futures.

  13. Keri says:

    “Delusional” is often a matter of perspective. There were probably plenty of people who thought you were being unrealistic when you became a professional writer, and even more who thought you were crazy when you decided to finish an MIT degree course in record time.

    You didn’t see either idea as unrealistic, just challenging.

    A certain level of cockiness and optimism is required for growth and success. I believe that many people make things happen just because they believe they can. Even more people are held back by thinking they can’t.

    Most wildly successful business people will tell you that they took “it can’t be done” as a personal challenge and proved that it could, in fact, be done.

  14. Chris L says:

    Beliefs can be more than true or false. Our beliefs affect our actions. That means beliefs can be also be useful or not useful.

    I can give an example of a false belief that is useful, not useful, or irrelevant.

    Irrelevant/false: Moon is made of green cheese. False, but I haven’t ever done or not done something because of the composition of the moon.

    Not useful/false: I can overcome gravity. If you don’t believe in gravity, you can easily end up situations that really really hurt.

    Useful/false: Every girl I talk to is attracted to me. Its not true but if it causes me to talk to more girls than I would have otherwise, that is useful. Also, I think you can see how this particular instance of overconfidence can lead to evolutionary advantages.

  15. Marvin says:

    Everyone experiences optimism and delusion differently. Generally I try to do/read everything that re-enforces my already unrealistically optimistic lifestyle and I love it. Embracing habits like regular exercise and cold showers (Goggle it) only amplify my optimism. Where would we be if there WEREN’T overly-confident people like myself, thinking they could make machines that fly, sail across the ocean without falling off the end of the planet, or walk on the moon? We would be sitting in a dark cave somewhere with our thumbs up our asses, that’s where. We should thank God (except for you, Scott, because you don’t believe in God lol, but kudos, this is one of your best articles in my opinion, if not the best) that some are overly confident and optimistic, even though my realistic friends call it delusional. If my success continues like it has been, I could care less how delusional you think I am. Really, what it comes down to is do what works for you. But it takes an optimistic person to keep getting up after they get knocked down. People don’t become awesome by being realistic. if your own pessimistic mentality talks you out of achieving your dreams, well good! Because when the going gets tough, you’ll be one less person standing in the way and competing for the same opportunities as people like me.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAKsgBP36V0

  16. Bornagainscholar says:

    I have noticed your writing getting much more scholarly and I appreciate that. I have had a problem with the blogging phenomena and that is so many people write about things as an authority but fail to ever include any sources. That is the majority, however, any blog that I take seriously includes sources to back up their thesis. It seems you are doing that much more as of late.

    I question your thought on ridiculous metaphysics theory. Do you really not believe in the law of attraction? Do you not think or realize that anyone’s outer experience is only a product of their thinking or their inner experience? It is interesting that you interject subtle (or not so subtle) comments on topics of fierce debate. I don’t have a problem with that, I actually respect it. But I think if prompted you might care to expand on your thoughts. I would be very interested to hear your position and why you think metaphysics is “ridiculous”.

  17. MB says:

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, no area is more full of self-delusions than sex, love and dating. Men fake confidence and feign indifference. Women claim to prefer equal partners, but respond to dominance. Men claim to want to date women near their age, but really prefer 21-year olds.

    Everyone is different, Scott. To say woman prefer dominance is just nonsense.

  18. Scott Young says:

    Anthony,

    Exactly! That’s the dilemma of rationality. Is it even possible to hold the contradictory state of knowing what the truth is but yet believing the opposite? Have our minds built in healthy delusions to safeguard us from the less instrumentally valuable truths? Does that mean in trying to gain more knowledge, we may actually be weakening ourselves as we become unable to hold the useful falsities which support our lives?

    I’m not sure of the answers to any of those questions. But the possibility is startling and worth thinking about.

    MB,

    Yes, people are different, but the statement isn’t nonsense. Women, on average, tend to respond to traits of dominance–A Billion Wicked Thoughts is a good book showing the scientific support of this tendency. Of course, it won’t be true of everyone or in all situations, but that doesn’t make it incorrect to speak of generalizations.

    Chris Who,

    I suppose my argument was that instrumental and true beliefs aren’t always the same thing. It’s obvious in some circumstances, but harder to accept as a possible general principle of life.

    Bornagainscholar,

    There are interesting ideas about subjective reality and frameworks where it might have philosophical merit. The majority of LoA stuff I’ve seen (including The Secret) doesn’t do that. It posits things which are philosophically inconsistent and unsupported by evidence.

    I dislike LoA not really for the conclusions it draws, but the way it argues for those conclusions. But I avoid lengthy tangents in my articles because this is fundamentally a blog about using ideas to live better, not to debate ontology.

    Keri,

    But I have been staying on track with the MIT Challenge, so it wasn’t a delusional belief by any standard. In fact, given the amount of research and preparation I did before starting, it’s probably not even a good example of the experimental mindset you’re talking about. Whether other people thought I was being arrogant is irrelevant.

    What I’m talking about here isn’t just boldness, which in many cases is perfectly rational and doesn’t require any self-delusion at all, but overconfidence–having beliefs which directly contradict reality. Maybe I’m splitting hairs between rational boldness in the face of uncertainty and overconfidence, but I think it’s an interesting point.

    Adam,

    Having a blog, particularly a popular one, can be a way to impress women, but then you also need to be careful that the person isn’t simply enamored with your success. Many people who reach levels of success much greater than I have start surrounding themselves with sycophants and suitors. I think it’s important to divorce yourself from that manufactured reality to a certain extent. I know it wasn’t really your question, but I think about it when using my blog to meet people.

    -Scott

  19. Paula says:

    Here’s my take: there are two layers to everything: what you THINK is true, and what is ACTUALLY true. For most things in life, what is actually true is most of the time very difficult to determine. For example, I can never scientifically test or truly quantify how much leadership potential I have, how attractive I am (to old men? young men? fat men? short men? men who have short hair? long hair? dreads? nose clips?). Because most things in life cannot be factually verified, all things predicate upon a certain level of uncertainty. If there is no true certainty, falsehood is a sliding scale. From the point of view of the ‘believer’, there can be no falsehood, only degrees of belief in falsehood.

    Shifting the discussion from the philosophical to the practical, we are human beings who will at the end of the day have to live with some degree of uncertainty. We must have and will inevitably form beliefs. Belief in uncertainty is a belief. Beliefs in certainty, truth, or falsehood, are also beliefs.

    It is sometimes useful to have accurate and precise beliefs, but more often than not in life it is impossible to verify or validate accuracy and precision. What we can do as human beings, in the midst of this constant belief-reality tension, is at least practically choose to be efficacious with our beliefs, in order to gain greater effectiveness and satisfaction in life. This doesn’t mean we don’t search for truth, rather we constantly pursue it. At the same time, given the fact that we will never understand truth completely, we might as well make the best of it and positively embrace uncertainty by making our beliefs work for us.

    In cases where you can’t separate certainty from falsehood, as with many things in life, it is not meaningful to deem a belief a ‘delusion.’ I don’t see the things you described as ‘healthy delusions’ – rather as conscious choices as thinking human beings to be effective with our beliefs in a uncertain world. Should I hope for tomorrow? Who can quantify hope? Our perceptions more often than not become reality, and we might as well make the most of it.

  20. Lexi says:

    I believe the ideas put forth here are too generalized. ALL women respond to dominance? No. ALL men say one thing and mean something else? I don’t believe that either. I understand what you were trying to get at it with this article, I just think the ideas were much too generalized.

  21. @eve_bo says:

    I believe that only wellness and goodness flow, and our resistance thereof if we experience otherwise. It’s all perspective, in which case, you can see there’s only good and you’re able to have it, or you can see that you can’t. And in either case, you’d be right.

  22. [...] Healthy Delusions? « Scott H Young What is the solution to this problem? Is it to learn the truth, but foster internal contradictions when they might be useful? Or is it to try to be as rational as possible, accepting that self-delusions will naturally creep in where appropriate as designed by your mental hardware? These ideas raise more interesting questions than they provide answers, which is a sign they are worth thinking about. The prospect that some irrationality is a good thing is an unnerving one. [...]

  23. Scott Young says:

    Lexi,

    I didn’t say “all”, I simply made a generalized observation (which has been supported by some scientific studies). Of course it doesn’t apply universally, but if we only speak of things that apply 100% of the time, the universe of discourse is rather limited.

    Paula,

    The difference between practical beliefs and omniscience is one I try to address in the follow-up post.

    -Scott

  24. Anna says:

    Scott,

    I follow Penelop Trunk’s blog and she mentioned yours this morning. It’s good to be here; I like how you are provoking people to think.

    The idea of self-delusion implies that the self is something stable and knowable. In other words, if we talk about exaggerating our sense of ourselves, this exaggeration is sourced by a self that is confined.

    I don’t get the sense that you are saying that our selves are quantifiable, fixed “realities.” You appear more interested in exploring the different stories we can tell about ourselves and what impact that has on our lived experience. Cool.

    Maybe self-delusion is a matter of authenticity. To what degree are any of us a) directly relating to our experience (rather than responding, reacting, getting swept up in neural pathways that are 25 years old) and b) making conscious choices informed by direct experience (rather than doing what we’ve always done)?

    If our ideas about ourselves are not sourced by direct experience, they are delusional because they are most likely ideas we have had thousands of times already – memories (past based ideas of self) or anxieties (future based ideas of self).

    Who we are exists in the present moment, only… even if we have had experiences before and are fortunate enough to have experiences after this moment. In the present moment a series of possibilities exist for each of us. Some people can authentically say, “Right now, anything is possible” and other people just don’t believe they have access to that. Being honest about that is authenticity.

    In terms of who we are and whether it’s possible to say that our selves are something static that we can then exaggerate or use to manipulate others… that’s another story. I like Pema Chodron’s story about who we are… “You are the sky. Everything else is weather.” You get a lot from life with that perspective.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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