Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Pleasant Fictions

Why we need to self-deceive

Amir Bajrich/Shutterstock

What's one common way self-delusion threatens our well-being?

Researchers who fitted people with accelerometers found out that both men and women dramatically overestimate the amount of exercise they get. So people tend not to exercise enough, and as a consequence, develop all the cardiovascular problems that we know crop up.

Politics stands out as a hotbed of bias.

We have a tendency to see the world not as it is but as we'd like it to be. We often have a hard time crediting politicians we don't like with outcomes we do like. A well-known experiment found that people who liked Reagan thought he trimmed inflation, and people who didn't thought inflation was much higher than it actually was. Republicans didn't think Clinton cut the deficit, and Democrats did. It really affects the way people view even things you wouldn't think were subjective.

But there's also an upside to self-deception.

ABC journalist Amy Robach went on Good Morning America to announce that she had breast cancer, and she had cut off her hair. She had done that, she said, as a way to make herself feel powerful and in control of the disease. That feeling is of course a form of self-deception, but it's a willful kind, and it can actually give you the gumption to fight the disease.

Do you view your own thinking differently now?

A recent journal article looked at an extremely popular form of knee surgery designed to repair a torn meniscus and found out that it basically worked no better than the placebo. Doctors did a sham surgery, gave the patient a little souvenir scar, and the outcomes were virtually the same. I've had this surgery. I read this and thought, Did I fake myself out, or did it really work?

What do you think our lives would look like without illusions?

I think it would be a much bleaker existence. People who find themselves in situations where they really can't have illusions, such as prisoners of war or occupants of concentration camps, often die very quickly—either a literal, physical death or a spiritual death, the onset of major depression.