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'Useful Delusions' Examines How Beliefs Can Be Powerful In Positive And Negative Ways

<em>Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain,</em> by Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler
Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain, by Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler

A few years ago, former NPR journalist and Hidden Brain podcast host Shankar Vedantam became absorbed with the story of Donald Lowry.

Decades ago this Illinois man impersonated a woman, writing thousands of love letters to men across America — and he asked them for money.

Some of the men who were fooled by this con artist did not care when they learned the truth. Some actually reported that their lives had been transformed for the better. Eventually, when Lowery was brought to trial on charges of mail fraud, some even came and testified in his defense and argued that the love letters had kept them from depression and suicide.

Lowery's story begins a new book by Vedantam and Bill Mesler called Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self Deceiving Brain.

Interview Highlights

On how we fool ourselves more often than we may realize

Let me give you the classic example of how a delusion can be beneficial. Think about the phenomenon of parenting and what parents experience when a child is born. Nearly every parent has the experience that I had when my daughter was born, which is you believe that this child is the most special child in the universe. And of course, when you step back and look at it, you know that this belief has to be a delusion, even though for me it doesn't feel like a delusion. But there's a reason that our brains produce this delusion when we have children. Parenting is incredibly hard and time-consuming and costly and difficult. And when parents are deeply invested in their children, when they see their children as unique and special, parents are willing to invest the time and effort needed to raise children properly.

On deluding oneself when faced with serious illness

There are lots of examples in the realm of health that suggest that accurately perceiving our limitations, disabilities and shortcomings might not actually be functional for us. In fact, there has been a body of research over the last 20 or 30 years that has made the argument that mental health involves seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses, that when we see the world accurately, completely for what it is, we might in some ways be less functional than when we look at the world optimistically. This is absolutely the case when it comes to people who have serious illnesses when it comes to diseases. But it's also the case for all of us right now, even when we don't have diseases. When you think about the pandemic ... a lot of us have indulged in fantasies and daydreams that have allowed us to get through the horror of the past year.

On the collective benefits of self-deception

When we think about very large things in our lives, things like the nation state, for example, it's difficult to conceive of these things as delusions. But of course, the nation really is a human invention. Nations exist because large numbers of people believe they exist, the people who live within the nation and people who live outside the nation. A nation really is a shared belief that we have agreed upon collectively. So this raises the question when we think about visiting a place like Arlington National Cemetery, where the Americans who have lost their lives in combat are memorialized and remembered, the question that arises is why would people give their lives for something that is at its heart a human construction, a human invention? Why would you be willing to sacrifice your life for something that has been invented by other human beings? And the answer, of course, is it lies in the brain's very powerful need for connection with others, for feeling like we're part of a larger group. And so our brains are designed in some ways to form tribes with others, to form connections with others, to stand by one another. And the willingness that we have to go into battle to die for one another is perhaps the highest example of ways in which our shared beliefs can produce things that, in fact are both wonderful and powerful.

On how a country that's subjected so many people to slavery, degradation and exploitation came to think of itself as a beacon of freedom and human dignity

Yeah, so the founding myths of all nations are deeply complicated. And in fact, when you think about the stories and the histories of nations, this is true not just of the United States, which dispossessed large numbers of native peoples in order to make way for the for the United States. But it's true for all nations, which is they are often based on shared myths that we have about our past. Now, you can look at those shared myths and basically call them delusions and look down at them and say we should look at reality more clearly. But it's also the case that the fact that we think of ourselves as being a nation of equality, a nation where we live by the credo that all people are created equal — even though we haven't lived up to that credo very often in our past — the fact that we believe in that helps us move forward in all kinds of powerful ways.

On finishing the book during this past year

Yeah, one of the great fears that I have ... is that people will read the cover of the book and imagine that I am basically defending all delusions or saying that all delusions are useful and nothing could be further from the truth. I do think, however, that the way we go about trying to dismantle dangerous delusions is often counterproductive. Many of us are often so upset with the content of people's delusions that we don't stop to ask the question: What is this delusion serving? What purpose? What psychological function is it serving? I believe if we ask that question, if we started the conversation with curiosity rather than judgment, if we asked people to explain why it is they believe what they believe, rather than telling them at the outset that they are wrong, I suspect we would be more effective in dismantling some of these delusions. You know, over the last four years various news organizations have documented the enormous number of falsehoods and lies that came out of the Trump White House. I believe The Washington Post catalogued more than 30,000 falsehoods and lies that came out of the Trump White House. The net effect of all of this was [that] between 2016 and 2020, 11 million more people voted for Donald Trump between those two elections. And I think, again, it speaks to the idea that the conventional way we think of setting people right often focuses on facts and fact checking, whereas really a deeper psychological understanding of why people believe what they believe, and a deeper empathy for the costs they would pay if they were to give up their delusions, might actually get us to a better place.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.