3 Healthy Lies We Tell Ourselves
Are "positive illusions" really that positive?
Posted Nov 13, 2018
"I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder." —Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man (2005)
In psychiatry and psychology, the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy—known as “reality testing”—has traditionally been considered a prerequisite for mental health. Conversely, its impairment is a defining characteristic of psychosis, as exemplified by symptoms such as delusion and hallucination. But in 1988, UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor challenged this notion with the radical hypothesis that some impairments in reality testing may actually be key to mental health. In a paper written with Jonathan Brown of Southern Methodist University, Taylor outlined the case for “positive illusions,” defined as misbeliefs associated with happiness, the ability to care for others, and the capacity for creative, productive work.1 Put more simply, positive illusions are healthy lies that we tell ourselves.
Thirty years later, positive illusions are now well-recognized (albeit still debated) in psychology, and following Taylor’s original conception, they fall into three general categories:
1. “I’m better than the average person.”
Taylor cited evidence from various studies that individuals tend to regard positive traits as core parts of their identity while discounting negative ones. (It’s worth noting that much of this research is based on college undergraduates responding to surveys, as is often the case in psychology studies.) Most report that they are “better than the average person”—a mathematical contradiction if a trait is normally distributed—with self-appraisals that are inflated compared to how others see them. This cognitive bias has come to be known as the “better than average effect,” the “superiority illusion,” and the “Lake Wobegon Effect” (after Garrison Keillor’s fictional radio-show community in which "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average"). Indeed, we tend to extend the superiority illusion beyond ourselves to our loved ones as well, offering a kind of explanation for how love can be blind, allowing us to overlook the faults and foibles of our romantic interests and our children alike.
Subsequent research by Brown found that the better than average effect is stronger for valued attributes like honesty, kindness, responsibility, intelligence, and competence. The effect also increases following threats to self-worth and is motivated by the desire to feel good about ourselves.2 But in contrast to such common and hard-to-measure personality characteristics, other research has shown evidence for a “worse than average effect” when it comes to rare abilities and difficult tasks, such as computer programming, riding a unicycle, or coping with the death of a loved one.3 This suggests that the better than average effect may sometimes be less about self-aggrandizement than about errors in estimating traits and abilities in others and the way that we interpret the term “average” as a pejorative rather than a statistical norm.
Although the better than average effect has been found to be associated with psychological well-being, there’s also evidence that its benefits might depend on quantity. It should come as no surprise that confidence is correlated with self-esteem—they’re nearly the same thing. And over-confidence might very well lead to perseverance that is predictive of real achievement in some circumstances, such as among children learning new skills, or even superiority, such as among elite athletes. But it should also come as no surprise that the superiority illusion has also been correlated with narcissism, with “self-enhancing” individuals more likely to be rated as condescending, resentful, and defensive.4 (Note that the idea of a continuum of confidence/overconfidence mirrors the finding that narcissism can be both adaptive and maladaptive, depending on degree. See "Just What is a “Narcissist” Anyway?” for more.)
As always, the devil may be in the details. "Self-enhancement," defined as a discrepancy between self-perceptions and others’ impressions, might have more negative effects than overconfidence that’s not as obvious to others.5 Some research has also suggested that self-enhancement might have short-term social benefits through favorable initial impressions that can become more negative and socially harmful in the long run.6
Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has argued for a kind of Goldilocksian “optimal margin” of positive illusions in which too much superiority bias, but also too little, could be associated with less psychological well-being.7 Just the right amount of superiority bias might therefore go a long way, but it’s probably best to keep it to yourself.
2. “I am the master of my fate.”
When the English poet William Ernest Henley was recovering from amputation-sparing surgery on his leg, he penned Invictus, concluding that despite his hardship, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Belief in personal control over circumstances that are largely beyond our control represents the second category of positive illusions.
“Locus of control” is the more generic belief in how much personal control we have over life events, whether or not that belief is accurate. This has been studied for well over 60 years, with findings indicating that belief in personal control is associated with positive outcomes of both mental health and physical health. According to researchers like Taylor, it appears that an exaggerated sense of personal control can be beneficial.
As with the better than average effect, however, determining whether one’s locus of control belief is illusory can be difficult to assess and can come up against philosophical challenges, not the least of which involves whether free will actually exists at all. (For more, see "The Neuroscience of Free Will and the Illusion of 'You.'") For example, it has been argued that illusions of control may be able to impact mental and physical health outcomes by leading to the promotion of healthy behaviors. But if that’s the case, then the beliefs aren’t really illusions at all, but examples of “positive thinking” that would be expected to be correlated with other self-reported measures of positive thinking definitional to the larger constructs of psychological and physical well-being alike.
What’s more clear is that helplessness and hopelessness are antitheses of personal control and are often core features of depression. Such helplessness has been hypothesized to result in excess secretion of stress hormones like cortisol, which could worsen symptoms of depression or physical illness, resulting in a downward spiral. Illusions of control might therefore provide a shield against stress, or so the theory goes.
That said, illusions of control can clearly become more harmful when they are more obviously inaccurate and within certain settings. Unwarranted belief in personal control might be helpful for someone coping with cancer, for example, but much less so for a compulsive gambler spending all night in front of a slot machine.
A few years ago, University of California, Berkeley psychologist Paul Piff performed a now well-publicized (but as-of-yet unpublished) experiment in which study subjects played a “rigged” game of Monopoly that gave disproportionate advantages (e.g., more money) to some players at the start of the game and as it progressed. At the game’s end, the advantaged winners proudly attributed their success to personal skill and superior strategy rather than advantage or even luck. Piff’s research suggests that illusions of control can result in unwarranted self-appraisals for people with inherent financial advantage, leading them to be less empathic of those who are disadvantaged. Such people might, for example, be more likely discount the ethical or practical benefits of real-world social programs like welfare or affirmative action. This conclusion suggests that while some illusions of control can result in higher self-ratings of individual happiness or mental health, they might also contribute to interpersonal disregard, with a harmful effect on society as a whole.
3. “The future will be great, especially for me.”
The third category of positive illusions involves overestimating the likelihood that good things will happen to us while underestimating bad outcomes. This view of the future through rose-colored glasses has come to be known as the illusion of “unrealistic optimism” or “optimism bias.” Unrealistic optimism accounts for why many of us believe that we might defy the odds to have a long and happy marriage, or win the Mega Millions lottery.
Like illusions of control, unrealistic optimism is thought to represent a kind of denial that can reduce stress and anxiety and allow us to devote energy to achieving goals. Just as people with depression tend to lack the illusion of control, they also tend to suffer from “depressive realism” in place of the optimism bias.
In the Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined an optimist as “a proponent of the doctrine that black is white” and a cynic as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” Recognizing the overlap between unrealistic optimism and hope, it’s easy to understand how seeing the world as an optimist instead of a cynic might be associated with mental well-being. Unrealistic optimism may exert a kind of placebo effect on mental health that reflects more about how we feel about the world than how it actually is or will be. (See "The Healing Power of Placebos: Fact or Fiction?” for a discussion of the illusory underpinnings of the placebo effect.)
Still, following Baumeister’s “too much of a good thing” theory of positive illusions, excessive optimism bias can result in a “planning fallacy” that can lead us to engage in dangerous behaviors like smoking, unprotected sex, or texting while driving, despite known risks. But University of Birmingham philosopher Lisa Bortoloti doesn’t think that the effects of positive illusions are determined by their magnitude of reality distortion, so much as the degree to which they promote positive behaviors. This sounds like something of a tautological answer to the question of what makes positive illusions positive, but its proposed mechanism harkens back to Taylor’s original premise that positive illusions may represent “the fuel that drives creativity, motivation, and high aspirations.”8 Bortolloti similarly suggests that certain types of positive illusions like unrealistic optimism are healthy because when “we are optimistic about how competent and efficacious we are, and about how desirable and attainable our goals are…we continue to cherish our goals and pursue them after setbacks.”9 She therefore links unrealistic optimism with locus of control, arguing that the former enhances the latter by supporting our sense of “agency” and promoting resilience when things don’t go as expected. Optimistically-biased illusions, even those that are significantly off-base, can end up being self-fulfilling, “becoming more and more realistic over time.” In contrast, illusions of invulnerability and depressive realism may lead us to give up and view things as hopeless.
In Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, eponymous protagonist Timothy Treadwell is portrayed as someone whose self-superiority, illusions of control, and unrealistic optimism ultimately lead him to be done in by the very bears with whom he was trying to commune. Watching the film knowing the outcome from the start, Treadwell appears at best foolhardy and at worst, narcissistically delusional. But viewed from another perspective, Treadwell had managed to survive 12 previous seasons in the Alaskan wilderness, largely alone, before he and his girlfriend succumbed to his “vaulting ambition.” That was a remarkable achievement and one that garnered him some measure of fame before his demise.
While Bortolotti has defended irrational beliefs and even delusional thinking as potentially protective,10 Treadwell’s cautionary tale reminds us that there's often a fine line between misbeliefs that help and self-deception that harms. For every positive illusion, there are 10 other cognitive biases that are more likely to hurt us. How’s that for a depressing reality?
1. Taylor SE, Brown JD. Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin 1988; 103:193-210.
2. Brown JD. Understanding the better than average effect: motives (still matter). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2012: 38:209-219.
3. Moore DA. Not so above average after all: when people believe they are worse than average and its implications for theories of bias in social comparison. Organizational Behavior and Human Decisions Processes 2007; 102:42-58.
4. Colvin CR, Block J, Funder DC. Overly positive self-evaluations and personality: negative implications for mental health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1995; 68:1152-1162.
5. Anderson C, Brion S, Moore DA, Kennedy JA. A status-enhancement account of over-confidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2012; 103:718-735.
6. Robins RW, Beer JS. Positive illusions about the self: short-term benefits and long-term costs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2001; 80:340-352.
7. Baumeister RF. The optimal margin of illusion. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 1989; 8:176-189.
8. Taylor SE, Collins RL, SKokan LA, Aspinwall LG. Maintaining positive illusions in the face of negative information: getting the facts without letting them get to you. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 1989; 8:114-129.
9. Bortolotti L. Optimism, agency, and success. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2018; 21:521-535.
10. Gunn R, Bortolloti L. Can delusions play a protective role? Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 2018; 17:813-833.