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Why Self-Delusions Are Part of Human Nature and How They Keep Us Alive

We believe we’re rational, logical, fair people. We believe we see the world as it is, and that we understand the source of our feelings, thoughts, and decisions. We also believe, it turns out, that we’re better looking than average, more skilled, intelligent, and capable than the person next to us (more on this soon). This is why, in the words David McRaney, author of You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, And All The Ways To Outsmart Yourself, we’re completely delusion but essentially why it’s okay.

Our mind has many tools and tricks that influence us to deceive ourselves for the sake of survival. For millions of years, our ancestors had to deal with unimaginable adversity, and what kept them alive was our predisposition to find meaning, to alter reality, to identify the good in the bad. Sort of like a Defense Against The Dark Arts, the self-enhancement bias is the mind’s natural tendency to enhance the view of ourselves so that we may not be pummeled by the harshness of reality, and so that we may keep moving forward. As McRaney says:

“The positive illusions and their helpers form a supercluster of delusion that thumps in the psyche of every human. Together, illusory superiority bias, the illusion of control, optimism bias, confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and self-serving bias combine like Voltron into a mental chimera called self-enhancement bias. It works just as the name suggests—it enhances your view of yourself.
“These illusions serve as a system of checks and balances running in the background at all times. Taken together, they form your self-enhancement bias—the rosy glasses through which you see yourself” ”

We maintain our happiness under three positive illusions:

  1. The illusory superiority bias: This bias allows us to judge ourselves in a warmer light than we do for others. This is what makes us feel unique in a crowded space.
  2. The illusion of control: Exactly the way it sounds, without hope and the belief that our actions are doing something, putting a dent in the universe, we would otherwise wither and die.
  3. Optimism bias: Hope is the lifeblood of the human condition. In the words of McRaney, “The third great positive illusion is optimism bias, the mental construct that provides smokers the belief they’ll be among those who escape cancer, motorists the confidence they can speed during rainstorms, couples the certainty they will die hand in hand behind a white picket fence, and immigrants the beamish tenacity to open a new business in a down economy.”

And what supplements these 3 positive illusions are 3 supporting delusions, which in turn, form the goliath of the self-enhancement bias:

  1. Confirmation bias: This is the tendency to seek information that confirm your beliefs, and it makes it that much more difficult to embrace differing perspectives. Conspiracy theorists are a perfect example of this: they are likely to find information that confirm the illuminati controls the quality of their life and will shun anything that proves otherwise.
  2. Hindsight bias: The belief that our predictions about the future are accurate, when in fact, we’re usually wrong.
  3. Self-serving bias: When things go our way, when we believe that the universe has somehow responded to our email, we attribute the success to our abilities and hard work. But when things don’t go our way, we’re quick to realize the obstructions and faults that hindered us, like bad luck or a bad teacher.

But why are we so irrationally delusional other than the fact that it helped our ancestors pass on their genes? Why is it so difficult to just be “realistic”? It turns out that this kind of hardcore realism is actually unfavorable and incredibly difficult to maintain. McRaney writes [emphasis by me]:

“The idea that people would be happier if they maintained a constant state of realism is a beautiful sentiment, but Taylor and Brown found just the opposite. They presented a new theory that suggested that well-being came from unrealistic views of reality. They said you reduce the stress of terminal illness or a high-pressured job or unexpected tragedy by resorting to optimism and delusion. Your wildly inaccurate self-evaluations get you through rough times and help motivate you when times are good. Indeed, later research backed up their claims, showing that people who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day to day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities.”

Going back to our unrealistic beliefs about being better than average in just about every aspect of our lives, McRaney shares a study that exemplifies just how prevalent these delusions are when it comes to our appearance:

“In 2010, UCLA researchers conducted a survey of more than 25,000 people ages 18-75 and found that the majority rated their own attractiveness as about a seven out of ten. This suggests that the average person thinks he is a little better looking than the average person. About a third of the people under 30 rated themselves as somewhere around a nine. That sort of confidence is fun to think about considering that it is impossible for everyone to be better looking than half the population.”

What all of this essentially boils down to is our deep-seated need to tell stories, especially to ourselves. Narrative, after all, is perhaps the most powerful force in human nature. Finding meaning in all that we do is what separates us from our smaller brained allies. McRaney states:

“Narrative is so important to survival that it is literally the last thing you give up before becoming a sack of meat. It is the framework of your conscious experience. Without it, there would be nothing but noise. Better still, after the pilot regains consciousness they go through the same sort of explanatory routines as patients in emergency rooms who have technically died and returned to life. After the psychedelic wonder of prolonged loss of oxygen, many people see that light and tunnel as the passage to the afterlife. The stories differ, depending on the belief system, but there is always a story.
According to Ramachandran, as an organism, you desire ‘stability of behavior.’ The last thing all the various agencies of your mind want is the whole system going off in random directions, out of control. When your brain senses trouble, senses that something out of the ordinary is going down, the first instinct is to create a narrative as a sort of defense mechanism against chaotic and risky behavior.”

Although it was probably evident for most, a major realization clicked in my mind when reading McRaney’s two books on self-delusions: so many of our mind’s tricks, so much of our irrational nature, is quintessentially for survival. Our overconfidence, often times unrealistic attitudes about ourselves and place in the world, serve as a survival mechanism to help us thrive and move forward. Without it, we would lose hope, and in turn, perish.

My favorite point in this book is when McRaney acknowledges the importance of mindfulness and learning to pause, with a brief explanation of how we became this way, and why our self-delusions aren’t necessarily awful flaws [emphasis by me]:

“As with most biases, all it took was a pause for reflection to trump the default settings of the mind.

So, why is it, then, that you so rarely pause to reflect? What keeps the self-enhancement bias and all its positive illusions thriving in your mind? Why would such an obviously impossible set of beliefs persist in the heads of just about every conscious person?

Scientists can’t say for sure why these biases and illusions about how awesome you are exist, but most speculation on the issue suggests that for something like this to be so ubiquitous among human minds, it must have served an adaptive purpose in your ancestors. As your ability to think and reason evolved, you also developed the power to obfuscate the truth lest you see through the illusions of life and became despondent. Your ancestors slept on dirt and were pummeled like Rocky Balboa minute by minute with a steady flow of harassment from an unforgiving and indifferent world. Nature never gave up, and it makes sense that your species developed mechanisms to ensure you couldn’t be kept down.

Some researchers have posited that the overconfident invaders of the jungles and savannah may have been so bold and intimidating that when they charged into camps of their enemies, they tended to do better than more timid and shy among them. There are psychologists who believe that morale is nothing more than a cluster of positive illusions; and morale is generally considered more important in combat than anything else.”

So when we are faced with information that does indeed challenge our beliefs, perhaps we can be aware of the power of confirmation bias and learn to view differing perspectives not in the sake of being right, but to simply develop a greater understand of ourselves and the subject. Or when we’re walking with our chin held high throughout the mall, we can consider the effects of the illusory superiority bias and not harshly judge the person who just tripped up the escalator. Or when we try to predict the future and assume that we’ve done so successfully in the past, we can remember what hindsight bias does to our minds, but ultimately to recognize that it’s in our nature to create these predictions to possibly create hope and motivation.

You Are Now Less Dumb—as well as You Are Not So Smart—are now my favorite books on psychology. David McRaney is the psychology professor I sadly never had, but his two books are wonderful starting points to understand our mind’s arsenal of tricks. The books further explore cognitive fallacies, heuristics, as well as a plethora of scientific and psychological studies showcasing the different faults of the mind. As McRaney concluded in the introduction of the book, “consider this a humility shock-and-awe campaign designed to help you feel more connected with the community of humanity. We’re all in this together, and these are our shared mental stumbling blocks. Use what you learn here to be kinder to others and more honest with yourself. You are not so smart, but there are some concrete, counter-intuitive, and fascinating ways to become less dumb.”

Indeed, after reading these two books, a much more comprehensive understanding of human nature and the mind are always in mind when I catch myself being a bit too harsh on others.