The Grandeur of Delusion
Fooling yourself is a survival strategy
Posted March 8, 2013
A patient lies in a hospital bed in the neurological ward, his head wrapped in bandages. He’s just suffered a major trauma to the brain. The injury has wiped out the region that controls motion in his left arm. More than that, it’s destroyed the man’s ability to even conceive of what moving his arm would be like.
He’s paralyzed, in other words, but he doesn’t know that. He can’t know.
“Would you be so kind as to raise your left hand?” his doctor asks.
“Certainly,” the patient. But the hand remains where it is. “It’s gotten tangled up in the sheets,” the man explains.
The doctor points out that his arm is lying free and unencumbered on top of the sheets.
“Well, yes,” the man says. “But I just don’t feel like lifting it right now.”
The inability to recognize one’s own disability is a disorder called anosognosia, and it offers an unusually clear window into that peculiarly infuriating and astonishing aspect of human psychology: our seemingly boundless capacity for delusion. Faced with stark and unambiguous information that a part of their body is paralyzed, anosognosia sufferers can effortlessly produce a stream of arguments as to why this is simply not the case. They’re not lying; they themselves actually believe in the validity of their claims.
The disorder sounds bizarre, but we all do something similar on a daily basis. Though we’d like to think that we mold our beliefs to fit with the reality that surrounds, but there’s a natural human impulse to do the reverse: to mold our reality so that it fits with our beliefs,no matter how flimsy their justification may be.
Psychologists define “delusion” as a manifestly absurd belief held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, specifically as a symptom of a disorder like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But we’re all delusional to some degree. In fact, a certain amount of delusion may be essential for our mental health.
As we go about our lives, we form all sorts of beliefs and opinions about the world, which psychologists divide into two types. The first kind, “instrumental” beliefs, are ideas that can directly help us accomplish our goals. I believe that a chain saw can cut down a tree; I believe that the price of a first-class postage stamp is 44 cents. These kinds of beliefs tend to be directly testable: if I rely on them and they fail, I’ll have to revise my understanding.
The other kind of belief, the “philosophical” kind, are not so easily tested. These are ideas that we hold these beliefs not because they are demonstrably true, but because of the emotional benefits of holding them. When I say that I live in the greatest country on earth, or that true love lasts forever, I can’t really offer any evidence supporting these ideas, and that’s okay. They’re worth believing because they fulfill my emotional needs.
We get into trouble when we confuse the two types, and start holding instrumental beliefs for emotional reasons.
What kind of emotion tends to lead us astray? Well, one of the most powerful is the need to feel in control. Countless psychological experiments have shown that for both humans and animals, helplessness in the face of danger is intensely stressful. Believing that we have power over our destiny helps relieve that negative experience, even when that belief is unfounded. Hence the enormous appeal of “magical thinking”—the belief that one’s thoughts and private gestures by themselves can influence the surrounding world. If you’ve ever put on a lucky shirt because you thought it would help your favorite sports team win, leaned sideways to keep a bowling ball out of the gutter, or felt like you were more likely to win the lottery because you used numbers that had special significance to you, then you’ve succumbed to the delusion of magical thinking.
This kind of delusion isn’t particularly damaging, in itself. No one’s going to mind too much if you wear a ratty old shirt to a Super Bowl party. Nor are you going to be harmed by the hundreds of our other daily delusions we swaddle ourselves in: how adorable our children are, how fascinating our appendectomy was, how chartworthy our morning-shower impersonation of Carly Rae Jepsen is. But when you start relying on emotionally-motivated beliefs to make decisions with real consequences, you’re treading in dangerous territory.
As I write this, the world has just managed to survive the end of the world, as supposedly predicted by ancient Mayans. Experts of every stripe spent the preceding year reassuring the public that no Apocalypse was afoot, just as they’d spent 2011 quelling anxieties over Harold Camping’s predicted Rapture. And yet for a certain segment of the population, the prospect of forecasted doom seemed somehow too appealing to let go of. One fellow I know had to sell his small business and move lock, stock and barrel to rural Idaho because his wife had a dream about the Apocalypse. She said if he didn’t come with her, it would mean divorce. I like Idaho, but having to move there in the dead of winter strikes me as a steep price for confusing two modes of belief.
I wish I could wrap up this essay by giving you the secret key for avoiding delusion, but it’s not easy. The whole problem with delusion is that we don’t want to escape from its clutches. Even I don’t. I mean, look at us: suspended on a tiny dot in the middle of the vastness of empty space, doomed to suffer and die, and never know the reason why. If we woke up every morning and stared reality in the face, we’d slit our wrists. Maybe literally. Psychologists have long known that depressed people are less delusional than the rest of us; they’re much more perceptive of their own flaws, a phenomenon called “depressive realism.” (Imagine knowing exactly how flawed your “Call Me Maybe” is.) So I say: Raise a cheer and throw up your arms, assuming you’re able. Enjoy your delusions while you can. Let’s just hope that they don’t wreak too much havoc along the way.
[A version of this article originally appeared in Red Bulletin magazine.]