Useful Delusions

Podcast hosts are used to being the ones asking the questions. This week, though, we’re going to flip that script, and put Shankar in the guest seat. We’ll hear a recent interview he did with Krys Boyd of the public radio show Think from KERA in Dallas. The discussion revolves around Shankar’s latest book, Useful Delusions, and how self-deceptions can bind together marriages, communities, and even entire nations.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. It's one of the most common tropes in Hollywood...

Mike Meyer, as Dr. Evil:

It seems the tables have turned, Mr. Powers.

Shankar Vedantam: The classic turning of the tables, when the person at the bottom of the heap suddenly has all the power.

Dave Prowse, as Darth Vader:

When I left you, I was but the learner. Now, I am the master.

Shankar Vedantam: Or the unassuming guy with glasses ends up being the superhero.

Clark Kent:

You mean, you think I'm Superman?

Lois Lane:

Willing to bet my life on it.

Clark Kent:

Lois, you know, you are priceless. Really.

Shankar Vedantam: There's a reason this story-telling technique is so popular. It allows characters to break out of the box we put them in. It allows us to see them in a new light. Today, we decided to turn the tables on me. We're going to bring you a conversation I had with Krys Boyd, host of the public radio show, Think, at KERA in Dallas. She'll be interviewing me about my most recent book, "Useful Delusions." This week on Hidden Brain, the delusions that keep couples happily married, the rituals that help patients heal, and the self-deceptions that hold nations together.

Krys Boyd: Lots of bad things can come from our failure to accept reality. We find ourselves in denial of our bad habits, we fall for cons, we make choices based less on facts than on what we wish to be true. It seems like evolution might've done a way with our tendency for self-deception a long time ago. Since that hasn't happened, it's worth asking, "Are there benefits to our sometimes slippery grasp on the truth?" From KERA in Dallas, this is Think. I'm Krys Boyd. Journalist, Shankar Vedantam, is host of the Hidden Brain podcast. As a guy who prides himself on seeking truth through the objective and rational assessment of facts, he has been curious about the ways we all sidestep reality from time to time, seeing what we wish to see as individual actors and as members of groups. So he set out to understand why we do it, and discover that sometimes fooling ourselves can be good for us. He explains all this in his book, "Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain." Shankar, welcome back to Think.

Shankar Vedantam: Thank you so much, Krys. I'm delighted to be here.

Krys Boyd: The genesis of this reporting was actually a true crime story that seemed to make no sense to you. Tell us about Donald Lowry and how he managed to have his victims showing up to defend him.

Shankar Vedantam: It's a fascinating story. Donald Lowry was a balding, middle-aged man living in a very small town in Illinois. And over a period of a couple of decades, he invented various characters, young women whom he called "Angels," he invented their personas, and then wrote love letters in their voices to thousands of men across the United States. Some of these love letters were sent to these men over a period of years, sometimes decades. The men who received these letters were said to be part of a group that Don Lowry called the "Church of Love." And over the course of many years, these men who often wrote back to the women whom they thought were writing to them, sometimes fell in love with their correspondents and believed they had found their soulmates. The most remarkable part of the story is not the con itself, but when the con was unmasked and Don Lowry was brought to trial on charges of mail fraud. Some of the members of the Church of Love were so upset that the operation was going to be shut down, that they showed up at a courtroom in Peoria to defend Don Lowry, to keep the con going. And I found this such an amazing story that when the con is revealed, the marks show up to defend the con man, that it prompted me to look deeper at the nature of self-deception.

Krys Boyd: Yeah. So you thought, was it possible this con had done something beneficial for the people who got scammed?

Shankar Vedantam: Exactly. Now, there were a variety of people who reacted in different ways. There were people who reacted in a very predictable way of being upset that they had gotten conned and they were outraged at Don Lowry. But at his trial, there were numerous people who testified for both the defense and the prosecution who said that the letters from these Angels had kept them from depression. A couple of people said the letters had saved them from suicide. And so, it prompted me to rethink my views about this very strange story and ask myself, at least for some members, "Is it possible that some elements of the Church of Love did play a salutary role?"

Krys Boyd: We should talk about a bias many of us hold against people we see as having engaged in self-deception or having been conned. You say the ability to not be self-deceiving is not necessarily a sign of great intelligence, it's a sign of privilege.

Shankar Vedantam: That's right. So when I first thought about the story of the Church of Love, I looked at it, I think, the way most of us would look at that story from the outside, which is we think about the people who fell for this con as being deluded fools, gullible people, simpletons perhaps. And I certainly had those views about the members of the Church of Love. But as I got to know some of them and interviewed them in greater depth, I started to have more compassion for them, I started to understand the life circumstances that prompted them to turn to such a con and to believe in it, and then I started to ask myself the question, "Is this true of my own life? When I experience vulnerabilities, when I experience anxieties, if there are things that greatly worry me, things that I have no control over, do I start to reach for beliefs in some ways that soothe my own anxieties, that in some ways relieve me from my fears and my worries?" I found that I do this too. And there's a wide variety of psychological research that shows that when we are in the grip of fear or terror or anxiety or loneliness, we are far more likely to reach for beliefs that allow us to cope. There's the old proverb, "There are no atheists in the foxhole," and I think that sums up the idea that in some ways when you're outside the foxhole, when you don't have bullets whizzing over your head, it's easy to look down with contempt the beliefs that people come up with in those situations. But you and I, to actually be in that situation ourselves, many of us might turn to very similar delusions.

Krys Boyd: I think a lot of people might be listening and still thinking, "Well, that happens to other people but I have a firm grasp on reality." But you remind us that every second, our eyes are open, we're experiencing some kind of self-deception.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. So when we think about delusion and self-deception, I think we think about it at the level of these large cons or the level of conspiracy theories. And we certainly can talk about self-deception and delusion at the level of conspiracy theories, but in some ways, it helps to actually take a step back and look at much more everyday examples of how our brain operates. I mentioned the example in the book that in any given moment, our eyes take in about a billion bits of information. But if all this information was actually transmitted to the brain, we actually would very quickly get overwhelmed by the amount of information coming in. And so, our brains engage in a significant amount of filtering. By the time the information actually gets to the brain, it's been reduced a thousandfold. Only a million bits of information actually get to the brain. And then, the brain actually processes only about 40 bits of these million bits of information. So out of the billion you began with, the brain basically is processing about 40, and this is how all of us look out and see the world. Now, an engineer might say, what has happened is, in fact, a profound delusion because what you see, what your experience of sight is, in fact, so far distant from the reality that's coming flooding into your eyes. But from a functional perspective, this is exactly how the brain needs to operate. The brain has learned through many, many millions of years of evolution that, in some ways, all this filtering, while it might not show us reality, is actually quite functional. Let me give you another example. I just finished eating some food that was really delicious, and I realized as I was chewing my food that the experience of deliciousness is itself a delusion because, of course, food itself does not have taste. Sugar does not taste sweet. Those are experiences and perceptions that are layered on to the sensations coming from our tongue by the brain. So you can argue that the brain, in some ways, is inventing the experience of sweetness when we eat something sweet or we eat something delicious. But you can see again how this can be very functional. The delusions we have about what we're eating can prompt us in the direction of certain kinds of foods, which of course, is why our brains are designed to perceive taste in the first place.

Krys Boyd: I've been endlessly fascinated by the research that finds that the people who are most accurately understanding reality tend to be people who are clinically depressed. What does that suggest about the value of self-deception, at least in some cases, to mental health?

Shankar Vedantam: This has been a long-standing debate in the field of mental health, Krys. And I think, for many years, people believed that when you're suffering from an illness, you're seeing the world delusionally, if you have depression, for example, or anxiety, that you're seeing the world with a delusional pessimism, for example. But studies over the last 20 or 30 years have challenged this, and if anything, they find almost the opposite that people with depression and anxiety and some other mental disorders might, in fact, be seeing the world more accurately than people who are "mentally healthy." Part of what it means to be mentally healthy, in other words, might be that you're able to take in distressing information, information about threats or dangers, that you don't ignore that information but you don't let yourself get overwhelmed by that information. Part of being mentally healthy might involve looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses. And of course, this coincides with a lot of other research that has found that, in many ways, as people cope with various setbacks that they have in life, let's say someone loses a family member or suffers a grievous illness, what follows over the next several months is not necessarily an accurate perception of all that they have lost but a process of grieving, a process of coping that, in some ways, sets aside the tragedy that's happened, sets aside the trauma that's happened, puts it back into a corner of your mind to allow you to go on with the rest of your life. And when that doesn't happen, when the trauma continues, in some ways, to occupy much of our minds, we call those mental illnesses. We say this person is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This person can't let go of the traumatic memories that have happened to them, and we think of being mentally healthy now as helping this person, in some ways, put the traumas behind them, put them out of sight from their regular perception.

Krys Boyd: You profile a high-end hotel manager here, a guy named Jose Treviño, who is great at his job, in part because he's a master at deception. How does that deception require the buy-in from customers?

Shankar Vedantam: Well, I think, as I started to look at these concentric circles of self-deception, I started again with these very basic ideas of how the brain operates, but then you start to go up in these concentric circles and you see that something like customer service often involves vast acts of both deception and self-deception.

Shankar Vedantam: Many of us expect courteous service when we are sitting as passengers in a plane or we are pulling up at a drive-thru window or you're showing up in a resort somewhere or you go to a restaurant, we expect courteous service. And of course, that's not unreasonable for us to expect courteous service, but the people providing us those courtesies are being asked to provide courteous service not just to us, but to multiple people for many, many hours of the day. I don't know when the last time you tried to be courteous to everyone, kind to everyone, interested in what they had to say for eight hours at a time, to smile at everyone you meet for eight hours at a time, to be polite, to be deferential to everyone you meet for many hours on stretch. Anyone who has tried to do this understands that this is actually very difficult to do. It's not what comes naturally. And customer service, in some ways, involves suppressing the natural urges we might have. You know, if a customer comes up and makes a bizarre request, we might be inclined to tell the customer, "That's a ridiculous request and you're an idiot for making it," but of course, we would lose our jobs if we did that. And so, we come up with deceptions and we come up with ways to hide how we might truly feel. Now, there's also self-deception involved here because when you go to a restaurant, part of what you're paying for is, in fact, the courteous service. You're paying for these courtesies. But there's a fiction that what is being transacted is not someone's deception in exchange for your money or you believe that what's being transacted is just this act of courtesy between two people. And so, there's both self-deception and deception. And I would argue that for much, much of the time, this is actually a good thing, because if you look at workplaces that are marked by rudeness where people simply say what's on their mind, these are not workplaces that are healthier workplaces or happier workplaces. In fact, we all are better off when we mind our manners, which is of course, exactly what our mothers taught us many, many years ago.

Krys Boyd: How can self-deception be good for our relationships?

Shankar Vedantam: This might be yet another concentric circle around the idea of self-deception. So when it comes to our intimate relationships, for example, Krys, imagine for a second that you could visit every single couple getting married in the United States this year and you asked each couple on their wedding day, "What are the odds you think you're going to get divorced?" Now, if they were purely rational creatures, logical creatures, if we expected people to give logical and rational answers to everything, people would look at the statistics and say about half of all marriages end in divorce. There's no reason to think that I'm particularly special. And so, there's about a 50-50 chance that I'm going to get divorced. Very few people on their wedding day aren't going to say that. I suspect that, in many ways, if they said that, they probably are not the kind of people who would get married because, in some ways, getting married involves the leap of faith that believes that you're in this relationship forever. And I think, in many ways, this self-deception that we have about our partners, the beliefs that we have about our own feelings towards our partners, in many, many cases, this is functional. If we actually saw our partners and friends and colleagues for exactly who they are all the time, we might judge them somewhat harshly. We might, in fact, decide in the risk benefit or the cost benefit analysis that the costs outweigh the benefits and many of us might decide that we don't want to be in those relationships anymore. So allowing these relationships to function for long periods of time often requires some acts of self-deception, where you preferentially focus on the things that are good in the relationship and preferentially ignore the things that are bad in the relationship. This is especially true when it comes to friendships. I mean, imagine the last time you talked with a friend where you simply told your friend everything that was on your mind, good and bad. Most of us would recognize that when it comes to our friends, we preferentially focus on the good, say encouraging things, hopeful things, positive things and we expect the same in return.

Shankar Vedantam: Coming up after the break, I talk about what are the most useful delusions in my own life. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This week, we decided to share an interview I did with KERA's program "Think." Here's the host of that show, Krys Boyd.

Krys Boyd: We're about to hear one of the most popular recurring sketches of the comedy duo, Key & Peele, from the Obama era. Jordan Peele plays it very straight as Obama just saying the kinds of things the President might have said. Keegan-Michael Key is his anger translator, who was telling us all what Obama really thinks.

Jordan Peele, as Barack Obama:

First off, concerning the recent developments in the Middle Eastern region, I just want to reiterate our unflinching support for all people and their right to a democratic process.

Keegan-Michael Key, as Luther:

Hey, all you dictators out there, keep messing around and see what happens. Just see what happens. Watch.

Krys Boyd: Shankar, do we all suppress our true feelings most of the time?

Shankar Vedantam: I think it's interesting when the people who don't suppress that true feeling most of the time, we don't actually have very positive things to say about them. I mean, it's interesting, most of us say that we greatly value truth tellers and we value the truth. But ask yourself what it's like to be around someone who simply tells you what's on their mind all the time, most of us would actually find that to be an unpleasant experience. And so, yes, I do think that in "civilized society," most of us find ways to present what we say in a way that our audience is able to hear it. Now certainly, we expect that from people who are presidents and managers and leaders. We expect people who are in positions of authority, not simply to spout off on whatever thought they have in their head, but to actually consider it carefully to weigh what it is that they're saying, to think about what the consequences of their words might be. Now, we don't think of those necessarily as delusions, but in some ways, these are perversions of the truth. We are changing the truth, we're sharing the truth in order to present it in a way that people will be able to hear us properly. And as I said a second ago, organizations that don't do this, leaders that don't do this who simply voice whatever's in their heads, these are not people who we applaud as truth tellers, these are people who often come across as rude or cruel. They're often people who do not get support in workplaces.

Krys Boyd: Years ago, I called a friend and it sounded like I had awakened her, and I said, "I'm so sorry. Did I wake you up," and she just said "Yes," which was true and somehow I got my feelings hurt by this.

Shankar Vedantam: And all of us... What's interesting here, Krys, is that your friend might have been too sleepy to have actually masked the truth, and so she said what was on her mind. But in some ways, all of us expect this of our friends. When you go to a friend and basically say, "My life is terrible," you don't expect your friend to tell you, "Yes, your life is terrible because, in fact, you've made terrible life choices." You expect your friend to say, "I'm really sorry to hear that. How can I help? What can we do to make things better?" If you have a friend who's going through a divorce, you don't go and tell your friend, "The truth is, your life is probably over as you know it and things are going to be miserable for you for a long time." No. You tell your friend, "I'm sure everything's going to be okay and I'm sure you're going to get back on your feet pretty soon." We expect this of the people who are our friends. In fact, people who don't do this simply stop being our friends.

Krys Boyd: So if we look at self-deception in service to optimism as an adaptive response, we need to consider why it's adaptive. It turns out evolutionary mechanisms care a lot less about us seeing the world accurately than they care about us being alive and able to procreate?

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's exactly right. I mean, when you think about it, the average human lifespan, it used to be, whatever, 25 or 30 years a few centuries ago. But even now, even though it's extended quite a bit, let's say it's 75 or 80 years. In the larger story of the human presence on planet Earth, 75 or 80 years is almost nothing, right? Humans have been around for tens of thousands of years and our individual lives are puny. Each of us is just one individual among 7 or 8 billion people on the planet. And this planet of ours is just one tiny planet in the solar system, and the sun that we have in our solar system is one of millions of solar systems in our galaxy, and that galaxy is one of maybe 2 trillion galaxies in the known universe. And so, our individual lives are actually very, very, very puny, almost entirely easily forgotten and forgettable. Now, this is not a useful attitude. To be able to clearly see how insignificant we are is not a useful attitude when it comes to waking up in the morning and putting on our clothes and getting on our Zoom calls and doing all the things we have to do. And so, all over the world in every culture, people have come up with ways to make their lives more palatable, to give their lives a sense of purpose, to give their lives a sense of meaning. This is especially true, I think, when it comes to our relationship with our children. The relationships between parents and children are relationships that are usually marked by great heaps of delusional thinking. I know that when my own daughter was born, I thought of her as being the most special child in the entire universe, the ultimate miracle beyond all miracles. And I think many parents experience this when a child is born to them. They think that this child has to be the most special child in the history of the entire universe. Now, logically, that can't possibly be true. It can't possibly be true that millions of people can simultaneously think that their children are the most special children of all the other children out there. But this is a very useful delusion to have because parenting turns out to be costly, time-consuming, difficult, frustrating, often irritating, and our delusional beliefs about our children buffer us against the challenges of parenting. They allow us, in some ways, to deal with the body blows that parenting often delivers to us. Here's another example of why it is, in our evolutionary history, evolution has thought fit, in some ways, to implant in our minds powerful delusions that our children are extraordinary and special.

Krys Boyd: I've always thought that might play into the fact that we really fear kidnapping to an extent that is not at all borne out by the rates at which it happens. I would take nothing away from the tragedy that it does happen at all, but most children are really not at risk of this at any point in their lives. But we all think, "This kid is so perfect. Who wouldn't want this child?"

Shankar Vedantam: Yes. And I think many of us go overboard in order to protect our children, and this can sometimes harm our children. It can harm us and it can harm our children. In fact, there are examples down history of people's love for their children, not just leading them astray and leading their families astray, but leading entire nations astray. You can see how this delusional love can produce sometimes things that are problems. But the underlying reason that you have the delusional belief in the first place is that it performs a certain functional role. One of the central messages of my book is that when we think about delusions, we're often so focused and so intent on the content of the delusions and we're often so upset by the content of the delusions that we don't stop to ask the deeper psychological question, "What purpose is it serving? What is the function of this delusion?" Now, understanding the purpose and the function of something doesn't mean that you have to agree with it. You can still think that it's a delusion, you can still think that something is a dangerous delusion, but understanding it gives you tools and avenues to potentially dismantle dangerous delusions and potentially also to embrace the useful ones.

Krys Boyd: That brings us perfectly to the question of placebos in medicine. They seem unethical. And yet, if patients improve, I mean, that's the ultimate goal, right?

Shankar Vedantam: This is a really, really tricky, thorny ethical question because I think a variety of studies find that people do respond to placebos, and placebo broadly defined not just sugar pills, but the entire practice of going to see a doctor and visiting a medical facility and seeing people in these impressive gowns. And all the hoopla that surrounds a medical facility is partly why, as we get treated, we improve, that we believe that we're going to get helped, and so, in fact, we are helped. Now, the dilemma here is that medicine has known for a long time that the placebo effect works, the effect that doctors have a very powerful effect on their patients. The question is, should you reach for that as a cure? In other words, instead of actually prescribing a treatment, should the doctor take advantage of her power over the patient in order to help the patient feel better? There is not a simple answer to this question. I think it's a very complicated question and I think there are arguments to be made on both sides. Clearly, if doctors began lying to patients all the time just in order to elicit the placebo effect, you can see in all kinds of ways how this could damage doctor-patient trust and potentially even reduce the power of the placebo effect going forward. But you can also see that doctors who merely tell us, when we go and see a doctor, "Here's what the last three peer reviewed studies said that I've read. Here's what I think we should do. Here's the medication. Go home and let's see what happens and let's see if your results fall in line with the clinical trials," this is not what we often want to hear when we go to a doctor. Because part of why we go to a doctor or a physician or we turn to anyone for help when we're suffering from an illness is we are turning to another human being. We're basically saying, "I'm frightened. I'm lonely. I'm afraid. Help me. Reach out your hand to me." And this is why, in medical schools all over the world, increasing emphasis is being paid on what happens at the patient bedside. The relationship between doctor and patient is not incidental to the outcomes of medicine, it's essential to the outcomes of medicine.

Krys Boyd: How might something like the placebo effect influence how well our cars work for us?

Shankar Vedantam: The placebo effect, of course, is based on the idea that if you believe that your doctor is going to do well and you've gone to a very good doctor and the doctor is giving you the latest medicine, you're going to get better, if that's the premise of the placebo effect, that the rituals and practices around the practice of medicine are partly what make us better. The question arises, can this actually affect us in all kinds of other ways? In other words, when we go to a fancy restaurant, for example, are we partly influenced by how fancy the restaurant is as we judge whether the meal is tasty or not? Researchers have conducted studies on this... You know, when you give people wine to drink, and you have a bottle of wine that cost $10 but you pour the wine into a bottle that is priced at $90, in other words, you're drinking $10 wine but it's poured out of a $90 bottle, people will sometimes perceive that wine as being superior to the original $10 wine. In other words, knowing that this is a $90 wine or believing it's a $90 wine tells you that it's a better wine than wine that's $10. But it's not just a logical inference you're making, you're actually subjectively experiencing the wine is better. Maybe you take more time to savor it because you're spending so much money on your wine. It turns out the same thing affects a variety of other consumer and customer products. There have been instances, for example, of different cars that have been manufactured in the very same manufacturing plant but they are marketed and branded by companies and sold under different brand names, sometimes with very different prices with one of them being sold for thousands of dollars more than the other. And some studies have found that the more expensive cars with the better brand names, in fact, performed better over their lifetime, which is really mysterious because these are the same cars as the less expensive cars that are sold under the less fancy brand name. And the reason that has been advanced is that the reason this happens is that when you spend more money to buy a more expensive car, when you buy a brand new car with a very fancy title or a fancy name, you're going to take better care of that car, you're going to drive it more carefully, maybe you park it more carefully, maybe you find sheltering or a garage where you can park your car because you don't want it to be affected by the elements, you change the oil more regularly, you maintain the car much better. And over the course of several years, your beliefs, your actions on the car, in some ways, mean that the car is actually going to last longer. So two identical cars that are manufactured in exactly the same way, but one of them, in some ways, has more of the placebo effect attached to it. The car with a better placebo effect might, in fact, turn out to be the more reliable car. And in some ways, this is very much like what we said a second ago in terms of relationships. The fact that I believe that I'm in a good relationship, that I have a delusional belief about the relationship, that might be one of the ingredients that makes my relationship good. I think we usually imagine that we're just looking at the world and reacting to the world. The premise of my book is that the ways we respond to the world shape how we interact with the world and then shape the outcomes we see in the world.

Krys Boyd: Okay, what is naive realism and how does that play into the ways we judge the actions and perceptions of other people?

Shankar Vedantam: Naive realism is a phenomenon that affects all of us, Krys. When we look out at other people, we imagine that we can put ourselves in their shoes and very quickly ask “What would we do in that situation?” So in other words, when I look at your actions, I believe I have a very clear understanding of why it is that you're doing, what it is you're doing. We fail to see all the ways, in some ways, in which we, ourselves, are constrained by our own subjectivity, the limits of being creatures that are embodied inside a single mind. As a result of this, we often fail to exercise the empathy that we might otherwise exercise. So when we see people pursue delusional beliefs or engage in self-deception, it's easy to sit in judgment of those people. Because when you look at them from the outside, through the lens of naive realism, you tell yourself, "I would never do that stupid thing if I was in their shoes." You imagine that you're outside of that experience. Now, of course, this goes back to the idea we talked about there being no atheists in the foxhole. When you're outside the foxhole, it's easy to imagine that people who turn to beliefs about supernatural powers are being foolish because you imagine, "I am too rational. I am too logical. My mind works so much better than these simpletons. I would never do that." And naive realism convinces us that we would not fall prey to the same biases. Of course, many of us realize that when we, ourselves, are in positions of great vulnerability, we turn to such beliefs ourselves. I should just mention one personal story here because something happened to me a few months ago that I think is very germane to this. I was traveling a few hours from my home in Washington, D.C. and I suffered a retinal detachment. I suffered an impact right below my eye. Over the course of the next 24 hours, the retina, which is the film that allows you to see, it's essentially the photographic film behind your eye that allows you to see, the retina started coming off its hinges. And at a certain point, if it detaches completely, you will lose sight in the eye altogether. I have a family history of retinal problems so I knew what was happening, and I could see, in some ways, my vision disappearing literally before my eyes. I was very far from home, I didn't know how to find a doctor. I was really frightened. When I finally managed to find an eye surgeon, he very kindly opened his practice for me at 9:00 on a Tuesday night. He diagnosed me with a retinal detachment and said, "We need to wheel you in to get surgery. Within the next several minutes, you're going to lose your eye otherwise." At that point, I didn't have time to weigh the pros and cons. I didn't have time to look at reviews and see if this person was a good doctor or a bad doctor. I did what all of us do in positions of great vulnerability, I put all my faith and trust in this doctor. Now, as it turned out, he was a brilliant surgeon and he ended up saving my eye for which I'm profoundly grateful. But imagine for a second that he had not been a brilliant doctor, let's imagine that he had been a charlatan, would it have been any less likely for me to put my faith in him? I would argue the answer is no. Because my faith did not arise because of what he did, my faith arose because of what I was going through. I was going through a period of great vulnerability, a period of great fear. Trusting him made me feel better, which is why I reached out to him. Expand this in all kinds of different ways and you can see why people sometimes gravitate to beliefs that are false, to demagogues and false prophets. It's not so much because of the demagogues and false prophets, it's because of their own inner vulnerabilities.

Krys Boyd: My guest, journalist, Shankar Vedantam, is host of the Hidden Brain podcast. We're talking about his latest book, "Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain."

Shankar Vedantam: Coming up, why it's so hard for us to let go of our self-deceptions. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This week, we're bringing you an interview I did with Krys Boyd for KERA's program, Think. It's centered around the things I learned while researching my latest book, "Useful Delusions." Our conversation led us to a movie filled with rich psychological insights, the 1998 film, "The Truman Show."

Jim Carrey, as Truman Burbank:

It was nothing real.

Ed Harris, as Christof:

You were real. That's what made you so good to watch. Listen to me, Truman. There's no more truth out there than there is in the world that I created for you, the same lies, the same deceit. But in my world, you have nothing to fear.

Krys Boyd: All right. Shankar, in that scene, I mean, we've watched the whole movie and realized lots of people actively contributed to the deception that Truman, Jim Carrey's character, fell for and we feel like though maybe he should have suspected earlier, except that would have forced him to give up on believing in a lot of good things in his life, right?

Shankar Vedantam: That's right. So the premise of "The Truman Show" is that Truman is part of a reality show, except he's the only one in the reality show who doesn't realize he's part of a reality show. So his wife and his best friend and his colleagues and co-workers and everyone who lives in his town, they're all actors, and he's the only one who doesn't understand or know that he is part of this reality show. What makes the deception very difficult to pierce is that in order to pierce the deception, Truman not only has to see through the deception, but he has to give up his emotional relationships with all the people in his life. He has to recognize that the wife he loves is, in fact, not somebody he should love, that his best friend is not his best friend, that his co-workers and colleagues and neighbors are, in fact, actors, and this is very painful. "The Truman Show," in some ways, is a wonderful account for why it is that even when deceptions are unmasked, many of us sometimes are unwilling to let them go. The reason is not because we are foolish, it's not because we're stupid or that we're idiots, it's because that those beliefs, those delusions, those self-deceptions are now tied up with things that have become very emotionally important to us. And to challenge those self-deceptions means also challenging the relationships that have become vitally important to us. Now, in the little clip that you played there, Krys, I would argue that the creator of The Truman Show was, in fact, being not just deceptive, but unethical in the argument that he was making to Truman. I am not suggesting that we should deceive one another willy-nilly and say that it's a good thing that we're deceiving one another. That's not at all the point of the book. But I am saying that, in some ways, if in some ways self-deception is truly intended for the benefit of the person whom you're intending to deceive or for your own good, there's an argument to be made for it. So the doctor who basically withholds from the terminal patient, the fact that she is going to die in two weeks' time and basically says, "Things look pretty grim but let's see how it goes," I would argue that that doctor is doing the humane thing. The doctor is not doing the unethical thing. Now, other people might disagree and say even there, the doctor's obligation is just to tell the brutal truth. But certainly, it is the case that when the doctor deceives the patient in order for the doctor to gain, there is no question that that is unethical. If a doctor lies to the patient and says, "I think you're going to live for another two years, so let's enter into a business venture together where you're forking over a bunch of money to me," that's not deception or self-deception with the patient's good in mind. That's being a con man. That's being a scumbag. That's not the kind of deception that I'm talking about in the book at all in terms of deception that we might want to honor or potentially protect.

Krys Boyd: I have been thinking about the ways that our personal self-deception could potentially hurt other people, but also our tendency for self-deception explains that. As a white person who really wants to live my life in anti-racist ways, I've been convinced by the research into unconscious bias that says I may have thoughts that don't reflect my values but they still exist within me. On the other hand, it's always so hard to think of yourself as belonging to this system that is abusive and really hurts people of color in this country. Can you talk about why it's so hard for us? Does self-deception play into our denial of racism?

Shankar Vedantam: Absolutely, it plays into our denial of all manners of different kinds of biases and prejudice. There's no question about it, and the reason is almost straightforward. The reason is it's painful to think of ourselves as being people who are biased, as people who have racial bias, or to think that we are sexist people is painful or homophobic people. It's painful to think of ourselves that way. And it's also easy to imagine that we're outside of that world when, in fact, we're not. In many ways, this particular idea is the central idea of my first book, The Hidden Brain. It's all about the power of the unconscious mind and the role of unconscious bias in shaping our daily lives. Many years ago, the psychologist, Leon Festinger, infiltrated a group that believed the world was going to come to an end on a certain day. Festinger infiltrated the group because he wanted to see what happened when the world did not come to an end, and he fully expected that people will tell themselves, "Okay, I was wrong. I made a mistake," this was a delusional belief and they would let it go. But that emphatically is not what happened when the day of judgment came and the world did not come to an end. The people in this group came up with rationalizations of why it was the world did not end. In fact, they said, "The various steps that we took because we anticipated the world was going to end, these are the steps that headed off the world from actually ending." Writ large the same phenomenon effects of large groups of people, it allows people to keep their head stuck in the sand, to close their eyes to reality, it allows political delusions to surface in all kinds of ways. And the underlying reason in all these cases is the same: Sometimes seeing the truth can be deeply painful. My book is not at all making the argument that all self-deceptions are good. In many cases, it's really the wise and important and valuable thing to do to open our eyes and to see the role that we're playing and the ways in which we might harm and hurt one another, but it's also really important, I think, when we look at the delusions and self-deceptions of other people, to look at them with compassion, to look at them with empathy. I would argue that, in many ways, we're going to be more effective at dismantling dangerous delusions when we bring empathy and sympathy and compassion to bear rather than judgment.

Krys Boyd: All right. I want to go to the phones. Let's speak with Dannie in Fort Worth, Texas. Hi, Dannie.


Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I was really interested in hearing, I've heard the analogy about wine and it makes sense of wine tasting better, but the car one stood out to me. It made me curious if being of a higher socioeconomic class enables self-deception in a way that might be a privilege over folks who are financially struggling, who don't have the same resources to engage in that same self-deception?

Krys Boyd: Thanks for calling.

Shankar Vedantam: I think that's a really interesting question, Dannie. I would argue it's not so much that I think self-deceptions are more likely or less likely, I would just say the form that those self-deceptions take are likely to be different. And again, if you think about self-deception as being fundamentally designed to be functional, self-deceptions are filling gaps in our lives. Things that we think are missing, we're filling it in with self-deception. So somebody, for example, who is very poor might come up with self-deceptions that reassure them that maybe the future is not going to be so grim or they come up with beliefs that give them cause for hope and optimism because their present lives are difficult, their present circumstances are so challenging. Somebody who was well-off might not have concerns about their economic security the next week, but they may have concerns about how they're perceived, about how other people might perceive them and their self-deceptions might indeed take the form of being blind to the ways that they might cause harm to others. So you could argue, I suppose, that maybe some of these self-deceptions have more impact and certainly more impact on other people, that's entirely possible, but I'm more inclined to think of these self-deceptions as being functional things that brains are designed to do. Regardless of where you put us, regardless of our circumstances, there are things that all of us find difficult to countenance, and those are precisely the areas where self-deception is likely to flourish.

Krys Boyd: You acknowledge here that religious faith can play a really positive role in people's lives, but there may still be some aspects of self-deception in that. What was the Miracle of the Sun?

Shankar Vedantam: So the Miracle of the Sun, like many other religious miracles, involved large numbers of people believing that they had seen a supernatural event take place. This event took place about 100 years ago. What's striking about this is that this was not a couple of people who had this experience, they were many, many, a large number of people who collectively witnessed something that they thought was the hand of the supernatural, the hand of God at play. But of course, when you look a little bit deeper, what you find is that this happened at a time when large numbers of people arrived at a place believing that they were going to see a miracle. The miracle had been foretold at an earlier time. And so, when they showed up, many people had come great distances, many, many miles to see something remarkable. And so, they were predisposed in some ways to see something remarkable. We see this in all kinds of different ways all over the world right now, in different settings of people believing that they can see certain things. After the 9/11 attacks, for example, there was a memorial that was held where two very bright blue lights were shining to the sky, in some ways, as a stand-in for the Twin Towers that came down. And when those lights were shining in the sky, many people believe that at the peak of the lights, they could see what looked like an angel or a cross. Of course, it might have been an optical illusion, but the reason that we see this optical illusion is because there is an underlying grief, there's an underlying vulnerability that we're trying to find a way to respond to. And again, if you're outside of that grief, if you don't share in that grief, it's easy to look down at people who are able to see those things. You're able to see who comes up with these self-deceptions. When you're in these things, when you've experienced the suffering and the setback yourself, you realize how easy it is to turn to such beliefs.

Krys Boyd: We've mostly talked this hour, Shankar, about self-deceptions that affect us on an individual level. How does the process work when entire groups of people delude themselves into believing something that's not accurate?

Shankar Vedantam: Like all self-deceptions and delusions, these can happen not just at the individual level or the interpersonal level, but they can happen at the level of groups, tribes, even nations and countries. And like all of the other self-deceptions and delusions we've talked about, there are clearly ways in which these delusions can cause great harm, but there are also ways in which these delusions can cause great good. Let me give you the simplest example. It's hard for most of us to think about nations as delusions. But of course, nations are human inventions. Human beings have come up with a concept of nations and says, "Here's where the United States ends and here's where Canada began. Here's where the United States ends and here's where Mexico begins." These are human inventions, human conventions, agreed upon by the people who live within a country and by the people who live outside of that country. Now, if you think about the nation as a delusion in the way that I'm describing the word delusion, not as a negative, but just as something that was invented by the human mind, you can see all kinds of good things that nations do. When you have a natural disaster in one state, for example, people in another state will step forward to help. Someone in Maryland may say that, "When there's a natural disaster in Texas, I feel obliged to help because we're all part of the same big country." The resources, if one part of the country is doing well, we might send resources from another part of the country that's doing better to help the part of the country that's not doing so well. So in other words, we stand together. We help one another. We lift one another up in difficult times. These are all the ways in which nations can be very, very functional and very, very powerful. Now, you can easily ask the question, can these delusions spill over into harm, and you only have to look at the very brief history of the 20th century to see all the ways in which nationalism can cause immense harm, including and up to the point of genocide of groups believing so deeply, so fervently in the delusions that they have come up with that they're willing to fight and kill and destroy large numbers of other people in the service of those delusions. I sometimes wonder, there's the proverbial anthropologist that comes to us from another planet. Let's say you had an anthropologist come to us from another galaxy and travels across these vast realms of space to come to this tiny little planet, and they would find something astonishing. They would find that this one species, human being, which is one species among 8 million species on the planet, somehow believes that we have the right to divide up this planet into 190 different territories, and we believe in these territories so deeply that we're willing to destroy one another over the integrity of these territories, that we armed ourselves with nuclear weapons and are willing to destroy the entire planet because we believe so powerfully in the reality of these inventions. Surely, this anthropologist from another galaxy would think of this as being a delusion. Many of us, of course, don't because when you're inside a delusion, that's usually the hardest place to recognize that you're experiencing a delusion.

Krys Boyd: Briefly, if we know someone else is deceiving themselves but in a way that might be helpful for them, do we have any obligation to correct that?

Shankar Vedantam: I think the question is, truly ask the question, who is this deception in aid of? Who is the self-deception harming and who is it helping? I think there are certain self-deceptions. In the course of the last 12 months, I've come up with self-deceptions that tell me every month that the end is near, the pandemic is near, that the liberation is a month away or a few weeks away. I know many family members that have turned to religious beliefs because they found the pandemic to be so difficult to bear and has produced so much grief and suffering. I don't believe it's in my place to disabuse people of those self-deceptions, deceptions that in some ways help us get through the day, allow us in some ways to be kinder, gentler people. Certainly, I think when those deceptions harm us and especially when they harm other people, that is the time to intervene and to ask when, if these delusions tipped over to being dangerous, how can we dismantle them?

Krys Boyd: Journalist, Shankar Vedantam is host of the Hidden Brain podcast. His most recent book is "Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain." Shankar, it's always a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for making time for us.

Shankar Vedantam: Thank you, Krys. That was my interview with Krys Boyd for the show, Think. I'm really grateful to Krys and the whole team at KERA for the wonderful conversation. Learn more about that show at Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Autumn Barnes, Ryan Katz, Andrew Chadwick, Kristin Wong, and Laura Kwerel. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero today is Bill Mesler. Bill is my co-author on "Useful Delusions." In fact, he's the one who suggested we write this book. Over the course of several years of collaboration, where we work closely together, I got to know Bill very well. He's not just a terrific science journalist and writer, but one of the kindest and most upright people I know. And I'm not just saying that because it's a useful delusion. Thank you, Bill. We'll be back next week with another episode of Hidden Brain. I'll be back in the host seat. To learn more about Useful Delusions and to read an excerpt of the book, go to I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


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