Kidding Ourselves

The hidden power of self-deception

Baloney Power

Self-deception is rampant–and sometimes useful.

After mob boss Paul Castellano was shot and killed in 1985 in front of Sparks Steak House in Manhattan, then-governor of New York Mario Cuomo urged reporters to avoid using the word "mafia” in reference to the hit.

“You’re telling me that Mafia is an organization,” he was quoted as saying, “and I’m telling you that’s a lot of baloney.”

Maybe.

But decades of research since the Castellano hit have shown that that baloney has a second name, and it’s not m-a-y-e-r; it’s self-delusion, and to one degree or another, we all suffer from it.

An everyday example involves exercise. Two recent studies have shown that we tend to overestimate not only how long we exercise, but how hard. A 2014 study of Norwegians who were outfitted with accelerometers, for instance, revealed that the amount of physical activity men and women actually do is significantly less than they say they do. A separate study of Canadians, also done in 2014, found that people overestimate how vigorously they exercise. In other words, they think they are exercising harder than they actually are.

Exercise, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. We deceive ourselves about all kinds of things, and sometimes this works to our advantage. Italian researchers, for example, have shown that our response to various commonly-used painkillers varies according to whether we can see the drugs being administered. The more visible they are, the better they work.

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In one test, they identified four painkillers and then administered them to two groups of patients. For one group, the injection of painkillers was made in plain sight, as it usually is in a hospital: via an IV bag hung near the bedside. But for the second group of patients, the injections were hidden; they could not be seen by the patient. In theory, both types of injections should have worked equally well. But that’s not what the researchers found. When compared with open injections, the hidden injections were far less effective.

Moreover, most of the pain reduction provided by the drugs was not due to their “pharmacodynamic effect”–that is, to their medicinal properties–it was due instead to the drugs’ psychological effect. The pain relief, in other words, wasn’t only in the drugs; it was also in our heads.

You, like Mario Cuomo, may think that’s baloney. But, as Paul Castellano discovered, even baloney can be effective.

 

Sources:

Schmalz, J. (1985). Cuomo Condemns Use of ‘Mafia’ for Describing Organized Crime. New York Times, Dec. 18. 

Dyrstad, Sindre M., et. al. (2014) Comparison of Self-reported versus Accelerometer-Measured Physical Acticity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, v.46(1).

Kanning, et. al. (2014). Individuals Underestimate Moderate and Vigorous Intensity Physical Activity . PloS One, published online May 16.

Colloca, Lopiano, Lanotte, & Benedetti (2004). Overt versus covert treatment for pain, anxiety, and Parkinson's disease. Lancet Neurology, November, 3(11): 679–84.

 

 

Joseph T. Hallinan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author of Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception.

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