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5 Steps to Optimal Illusion

Skillful self-deception, kidding ourselves where it's useful, not dangerous

Self-deception—the sweetest and sourest taboo: there’s no more reliable way to stimulate a rich discussion than to get catty about other people’s self-deceptions. And there’s no better way to curdle a conversation than to accuse someone of self-deception to his or her face: Self-deception is the other guy’s folly. We’re above it. Or, at least, we think so for a while.

Here’s a back-of-the-napkin sketch of how we come to terms with our own potential for self-deception:

Stage 1— Naïve: We come into the world with no notion of deception let alone self-deception. Gradually, it dawns on us that people lie, and sometimes even lie to themselves. This makes us wary. We learn to spot other people’s self-deception.

Stage 2—Exempt by contempt: We get pretty good at spotting other people’s self-deception. We assume that because we can spot their deceptions and they can’t, we must be experts on spotting deceptions. As experts, when we inspect our own thoughts presumably with the same scrutiny we apply to others, we don’t notice any self-deception. So we must be exempt. The more contempt we feel for other people’s self-deceptions, the more expert and exempt we feel.

Stage 3—I once was lost, but now I’m blind: Sooner or later we catch a glimpse of our own potential for self-deception. Maybe we overhear someone at stage 2 giving us a taste of our own medicine. Maybe we catch ourselves. Now we have to come to terms with it—and come to terms we do. We surrender. We admit that we had a potential for self-deception. We give ourselves credit for seeing it. We’re no longer exempt by contempt. Our consolation is that we’re brave enough to face our self-deceptions, which gives us a different, more sophisticated exemption. OK, so we used to be lost. We didn’t know ourselves. But we learned. Now we know ourselves. Pat. At this stage, we talk about other people’s self-deceptions, and we tell self-effacing stories about our own past follies too.

Stage 4—Eternally nonexempt: We discover that even with the exceptional self-knowledge we acquired in stage 3, we still lie to ourselves. It turns out that self-deception isn’t a one-time thing: No matter how skeptical we get with ourselves, we just can’t keep up. No matter how much we pursue the truth about ourselves it will never catch us. Now we’re wary of ourselves. In stage 4, talking about self-deception is a bummer. It’s a rare person who gets past stage 3, because stage 4 is so little fun.

Stage 5—Optimal illusion: If there’s no escaping self-deception, maybe it’s not all bad. What is it, anyway? Is it self-deceptive to hope and pray and believe that of the many ways a situation could turn out, it will turn out well? Of course not. Still, if the situation turns out poorly, you’ll wonder why you kidded yourself, and the folks stuck at stage 2 will snigger about you behind your back. But maybe they’re wrong. Maybe the trick isn’t eliminating self-deception, but learning how to use it well. Here, we embrace optimal illusion:

The trick isn’t being an orthodox realist or an orthodox dreamer, but, rather, getting the right mix of the two, kidding yourself where it helps in the long run, not where it hurts. Optimal illusion is absorbing and ignoring reality checks in the right combination to keep ourselves motivated, focused, and flexible but with our feet on solid ground. It’s not an easy balance to achieve. In fact, it’s unachievable—optimal illusion is a lifelong pursuit.

Not everybody gets to all five stages. We don’t graduate from one stage to the next; rather, we expand our repertoire, adding the stages as we go and changing the frequency with which we visit each. Even the best optimal illusionists get catty sometimes, as though they are still at stage 2. Sometimes, laughing at other people’s folly is the optimal illusion, the best way to resist surrendering to their alternative viewpoint.

Without cattiness, it may be impossible to climb to the higher stages. Cattiness sharpens our claws. As they grow, they curl back in on us, causing the sharp self-inflicted pain from which we grow toward optimal illusion.


Can musicians feel the music
 though they know the notes by name?

Can athletes play a death match 
though they know it’s just a game?

Could Vargas feel the heat and lust
from a pinup he had painted?

When materialists know it’s glandular
do their love affairs get tainted?

When you know it’s lights on silver screen
do the movies seem more pallid?

If you see through God to his creator
does your creed become less valid?

No, apparently we’re able to both see through and

What an awesome gift from God is this, our power to 

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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