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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