You’re Deluded — and That’s a Good Thing

Photo: Andrew Collings

Self-deception wouldn’t appear, at first glance, to be a good thing. Who benefits from wrongly gauging their own looks, intelligence, or athleticism? And yet self-deception is deeply woven into human nature. What benefits does it confer that have allowed it to survive the gauntlet of evolution? When does it backfire? These are the questions that piqued Joseph T. Hallinan’s curiosity, and he tackles them and others in his new book, Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception.

Science of Us spoke with the Pulitzer Prize winner and former Wall Street Journal reporter about the powerful role self-deception has in our lives — for better and for worse:

So what are the upsides to self-delusion?
Well, I think in a word: perseverance. Under the right conditions, if you’re able to deceive yourself, it’s what keeps you going. There’s an old line that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I think that has broader application to self-deception. If when the going gets tough you’re able to fool yourself into thinking things will work out, there can be an upside to this, and it’s actually measurable, quantifiable, and can improve your performance in given situations.

What’s the most common form of self-deception that people commit in their everyday lives?
How smart and how relatively attractive we are compared to other people. Whether they’re the most common, that would be tougher to prove, but they’re certainly up there.

So overestimating ourselves, that is?
Yeah, typically, and it varies a little bit as you might suspect between men and women. There’s a so-called “overestimation bias” among men. It’s pretty well-established among sex researchers — men generally think they’re more attractive to women than women rate them. And then it works pretty much in reverse for women, at least straight women, who typically underestimate men’s interest in them. There’s also a bias in terms of IQ — everyone thinks they’re smarter than the average person even though, of course, that can’t always be true.

Do you think that there’s an evolutionary benefit to that sort of self-deception?
In certain circumstances, obviously thinking you’re smarter than you are can land you in a load of trouble. Thinking that you’re more attractive than you are can get you embarrassed at a bar on Saturday night, but if your overestimation of yourself allows you to meet, date, and marry somebody who you might otherwise think is out of your league, that’s a very good benefit.

Same with thinking you’re smarter than you are. Everybody, particularly your readers, has been in situations where you’re applying for colleges, jobs, or other situations where your smarts are on the line, and it can help you persevere to believe that you’re a bit smarter than you may actually be.

Got any personal examples?
Across the board, studies show that the vast majority of college students overestimate their GPAs. They tend to remember every A they ever got, but if the grades go down, their memory gets worse. So, for instance, the recall rate for As was 89 percent, but for Bs it was only 29 percent. Even in their recent memories, students believed they were better students than they actually were.

I went up to the attic and pulled out my own report card from the fifth grade. I had remembered myself as an A and B student, and there in my report card was a C+. And it was in writing, of all things. If I had gone through life believing I was a C+ writer, I’d probably have a different career path than the one I chose. Deceiving yourself about your own performance can actually have good benefits.

Are certain individuals more likely to be self-deceiving than others?
I don’t know that they’ve established any sort of self-deceiving personality type. Self-deception seems relatively inconsistent with depression, so people who are depressed tend to actually be the most realistic, if you’re looking for an accurate assessment of things. I don’t know if you would call depression a personality type, exactly, as opposed to a personality condition. But certainly there are a lot of red flags that accompany that condition and self-deception or the lack thereof would be one of them.

On the other side, what seem to be the most detrimental types of self-deception?
One is called the “Nocebo Effect,” where you convince yourself that you are much sicker than you are. In some instances, it appears that people have basically deceived themselves to death. There was a study in I think Sweden, where researchers followed people after they received a cancer diagnosis, and they found that the subjects’ rate of fatal heart attacks was much higher in the weeks and months after the diagnosis than it was compared to people with no diagnosis. And they even found that it varied according to the severity of their diagnosis.

So, for instance, if you were told that you had a mild form of cancer, the death rate was lower. If you were told you had a particularly deadly type of cancer, the death rate due to heart attacks was much higher. There’s kind of a convincing of yourself that the end is near so I may as well just punch out now. I’d say that would be the worst or most extreme, as well as probably the rarest, form of harmful self-deception.

Once you’ve become aware of a positive deception, is it possible to maintain it?
There’s a researcher at Harvard, Ted Kaptchuck, who answered this with the placebo effect. He said, if people know it’s a placebo, does it still work? So he tried it with people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and they gave a group of people drugs and told them that they were taking sugar pills, but that they had shown to be effective in the past. And he found that even when people knew that they were taking a placebo, as long as they had belief in it, it worked. And that’s pretty amazing.

What would you like people to take away from this book?
The most important thing is that self-deception is a psychological immune system. It’s automatic and works without our awareness. But instead of attacking germs like the body’s immune system does, it helps us stave off things that cause us to be unsuccessful in life, like depression. We have a built-in way of looking at the world, rose-colored glasses, that ultimately is very helpful.

 This interview has been condensed and edited.