Delusion, Productivity, and Success

Does being delusional improve productivity and success?

Posted May 24, 2011

Is Being Delusion Conducive for Enhancing Productivity?

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

Psychologists have long known the importance of being delusional. According to Taylor and Brown, for instance, delusional people have higher levels of well being-that is, happiness-than those who are not delusional.

There are three forms of delusion that most people exhibit. First, people may believe that they have more control over events and outcomes-even chance ones-than they actually do. Further, people believe that their future is rosier than it will actually turn out to be. Finally, individuals' faith in their abilities is incommensurately higher than their actual abilities. 

Most people, if they got to know these findings, might seek to get rid of these (and other forms of) delusions, but here's an intriguing thought: what if the delusions turned out be useful in making you not just happier, but also more successful?

Would you still seek to get rid of them?

Consider what Zhang and Fishbach found in a set of recent studies. They asked participants in their studies to estimate how long it would take them to complete a particular task. Then, they asked participants to report back to them when they had completed the task. Thus, Zhang and Fishbach had, from each participant, two pieces of information: (1) their estimates on when they expected to complete the task, and (2) the actual time it took to complete the task.

Results from their studies showed two patterns of results. First, as one might expect, participants were generally overly optimistic: they thought the task would take less time than it actually took to complete. This finding is not new; it is well established in the management and decision-making literature that people consistenly underestimate how long it will take to complete tasks. (This is referred to as the planning fallacy.) In addition, Zhang and Fishbach had another, much more interesting, finding: they found that, although participants who made the most optimistic predictions were the least accurate in terms of estimating when they would complete the task, they nevertheless still completed the task earlier than those who were less optimistic.

In other words, the more optimistic one's predictions, the less accurate, but more productive, one is.
Zhang and Fishbach's findings suggest that the old adage, "aim for the stars and you will reach the treetops," may be true. They also suggest the importance of making unrealistically optimistic, that is, delusional, predictions about one's future achievements, since those who make such predictions who will actually achieve more than those who make more realistic predictions.

This brings me the relationship between being delusional, happiness, and productivity. Most realists (people who like to have accurate perceptions of themselves and the world around them) will probably accept the idea, if grudgingly, that a delusional person is likely to be happier. But they probably haven't considered the possibility that being delusional can also enhance productivity. Indeed, to most realists, the idea that a delusional person could be more successful than a non-delusional one may appear paradoxical, unfair, and even implausible.

But to a psychologist, it is not at all surprising that delusion can play an important role in promoting achievement-orientation and success. This is because psychologists recognize that human beings, like other lower-order animals, are essentially emotional creatures. That is, we do things so as to feel good (being happy is most people's # 1 goal), and as such, we are more likely to pursue goals when we feel optimistic about achieving them. So, it makes sense that those who feel overly optimistic about their own capabilities and their futures, and about how much control they wield over their environment, will be generally more energetic in their goal pursuits, and will generally aim higher than those who are more realistic. And in the course of pursuing these out-of-reach goals, the delusional person will likely achieve more than one who is not delusional, as the Zhang and Fishbach results suggest.

Reading all this probably makes you wonder: if being delusional enhances both happiness and productivity, why should one be realistic?

That's a good question. Why, indeed, do human beings seek to be accurate in their world-views? If a lower-order animal were offered the choice between being both happy-and-productive, or non-delusional-and-realistic, it would seem that the animal would choose the combo of happiness-and-productivity. But at least some humans would rather be non-delusional and realistic than happy and productive. Why?

That's a question for another post.

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

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