“Useful Delusions”: Bright Side of Self-Deception

…(T)he conventional way we think of setting people right often focuses on facts and fact checking, whereas really a deeper psychological understanding of why people believe what they believe, and a deeper empathy for the costs they would pay if they were to give up their delusions, might actually get us to a better place. Shankar Vedantam, author of Useful Delusions, interviewed by NPR

Shankar Vedantam, host of the podcast “Hidden Brain,” has cowritten with Bill Mesler the new book Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain. “According to this ingenious and unsettling account,” states Kirkus Reviews, “deception is essential to our well-being.”

The authors emphasize that evolution did not design our brain to seek the truth but to survive. Seeking the truth is beside the point. Depressed people often see the world more realistically. Deception, including self-deception write the authors, ‘enables us to accomplish useful social, psychological, or biological goals. Holding false beliefs is not always the mark of idiocy, pathology, or villainy.’

Notable is Kirkus‘s conclusion: Useful Delusions is “(a) passionate, often counterintuitive, disturbingly convincing addition to the why-people-believe-stupid-things genre.”

As in the book, Vedantam describes various ways that delusions are helpful in an interview with Steve Inskeep, NPR. A significant example most people can understand:

Think about the phenomenon of parenting and what parents experience when a child is born. Nearly every parent has the experience that I had when my daughter was born, which is you believe that this child is the most special child in the universe. And of course, when you step back and look at it, you know that this belief has to be a delusion, even though for me it doesn’t feel like a delusion. But there’s a reason that our brains produce this delusion when we have children. Parenting is incredibly hard and time-consuming and costly and difficult. And when parents are deeply invested in their children, when they see their children as unique and special, parents are willing to invest the time and effort needed to raise children properly.

Health and mental health are among other areas examined. “In fact, there has been a body of research over the last 20 or 30 years that has made the argument that mental health involves seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses, that when we see the world accurately, completely for what it is, we might in some ways be less functional than when we look at the world optimistically.”

Matthew Hutson (wsj.com), author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking:How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane (see previous post) concludes about Useful Delusions: “In the end, the book’s merits lie not in the depth of its analysis but in its breadth of synthesis and quotable lucidity.”

Hutson, moreover, pointedly refers to the following, pertinent to the current COVID-19 pandemic:

Perhaps the book’s most important point advises how to combat destructive delusions. We should ask, ‘What underlying needs does it address? Are there other ways to address those needs?’ Research elsewhere reports that ostracism doesn’t fight conspiracy theories, but enhances them. So your friends who seem to believe that vaccines contain microchips? Maybe they just need a hug.

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