Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain

Image of Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain
Release Date: 
March 2, 2021
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“The aim of Useful Delusions, a very readable book, is to teach us to be more rational about our irrationality, to not make the latter our enemy, but to recognize how it may help as well as harm us.”

Useful Delusions takes us on a fascinating, enlightening tour of the human mind and its evolution in order to help us come to terms with our ability to self-deceive. The authors are not out to disparage our delusions, but to expose them in a compassionate way that illustrates how we would not have evolved to be who we are today if we did not occasionally fudge facts and remain willfully ignorant.

The book’s well-researched and liberally illustrated premise is that self-deception is hard-wired into us because it serves the function of enabling “us to accomplish useful social, psychological, or biological goals.” Speaking as one, co-authors Shankar Vedantam, host of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast and radio show, and Bill Mesler, journalist and author, teach us that “holding false beliefs is not always the mark of idiocy, pathology or villainy.”

To illustrate the power of delusions and deluders, the authors tell the story of Donald Lowry, an immensely successful scam artist and founder of the “Church of Love.” His profitable bamboozlement scheme, which takes advantage of lonely, lovelorn men, shows how ubiquitous is the “dance of complicity between deceivers and deceived,” and reminds us that pacts between the parties are more often implicit and unspoken than explicit.

Lowry’s story and that of others show us that we often don’t want to know what we don’t know. Blissful ignorance enables us to create purposeful lives rather than dwell on how insignificant we are in the universe and to get out there and enjoy life instead of brooding about the infinite possibilities of how, when, and where we might die.

Fortunately, our multi-layered brains evolved to provide us with two views of the world—a short and long one. Our ancient circuits produce immediate fear while (relatively) newer mental faculties help us anticipate, imagine, and plan long-term even into a time when we may no longer be around. “Our minds are not designed to see the truth,” say the authors, “but to show us selective slices of reality, and to prompt us toward predetermined goals. Even worse, they are designed to do all this while giving us the illusion that we are seeing reality.”

Section one, Everyday Life, examines the lies of etiquette and social niceties which lubricate our relationships. These everyday lies are the ones we both tell and believe. Little white lies or omissions happen when waitstaff insist you’re their favorite customer, your doctor tells you pre-surgery that you’re going to be just fine, and a customer service rep treats you like a king even though she would like to wring your neck.

They happen when you leave out the part of an anecdote that makes you look foolish then draw out the part describing how you shined, allow others to assume that you think as they do when you actually think the opposite, or simply pivot to avoid a social blooper. “It’s not that we don’t value honesty, it’s that we value something else more . . . the other person’s feelings or your feelings of loyalty towards them.”

For example, we reassure each other that everything is going to be okay even when we don’t have the foggiest clue if that’s true (or when we know full well that the opposite is more likely). We make up and tell stories to children playing fast and loose with facts, use the placebo effect (aka “the lie that heals”) in medicine when doctors tell patients they expect their symptoms will resolve, employ the “benevolent lie” and “optimistic self-deception,” which convey what people obviously wish to hear, and sell myths through branding merchandise and lifestyle choices that boost our egos.

Section two, The Search for Meaning, deals with deception and self-lies that defend against emotional threats, exploring the brain as a story-making machine with a purpose. Self-deceit helps us love and procreate, find meaning in life, remain optimistic in the most dire circumstances, live as if we were never going to die, and tolerate the knowledge that we’ll be on this earth one day and be gone the next. “While seeing what we want to see can certainly be a source of trouble, it is simultaneously true that a generous sprinkling of positive illusions can help us perform better, stay happier, and avoid the pitfalls of depression and low self-esteem.”

Section three, The Tribe, focuses on how deception of self and others fosters group cohesion, a key to survival, because “our individual brains are also wired to serve the larger needs of our groups.” We do this through “bullet-proofing” rituals which, because we believe in their positive power, actually make us more likely to succeed or overcome. These rituals convince us that we will be safe as long as we follow them, and we buy into them because doing so is better than feeling like powerless victims in a dangerous, unpredictable world.

Some rituals are hard-wired into our makeup. Whether military or religious, they make us feel more committed to a goal, “ward off anxiety, connect us to our history and to our cultural moorings” and “bind us to our groups.” Our rituals are based on “foundational myths,” invented stories and shared narratives that need not adhere to truth for their power. They may be based on facts or lies, but there are “our” lies, our collective truth (also known as propaganda) that we have created and cling to as if our psychic lives depend on it, which indeed they do.

The authors explain that “Sacred causes—and the myths and stories that underpin them—give us something to value beyond our own lives.” These myths need not be rational as long as they provide a mirage of control over our lives and destiny. We look to a God or multiple gods to watch over and care for us, an afterlife to shower us with the rewards we missed out on in this life, and “immortality narratives” offering us longevity, resurrection, an everlasting soul, and a figurative legacy to keep our terror of harm and death at bay and give our lives a rich sense of purpose and meaning.

The aim of Useful Delusions, a very readable book, is to teach us to be more rational about our irrationality, to not make the latter our enemy, but to recognize how it may help as well as harm us. The ultimate acceptance of human deception is not meant to make us more rational, but to provide us with understanding and compassion for ourselves and others when we are not.