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USEFUL DELUSIONS by Shankar Vedantam


The Power & Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain

by Shankar Vedantam & Bill Mesler

Pub Date: March 2nd, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-393-65220-8
Publisher: Norton

According to this ingenious and unsettling account, deception is essential to our well-being.

Vedantam and Mesler note that when we ask an acquaintance, “how are you?” we usually don’t want an honest answer—and don’t get one. If you don’t believe in Santa Claus or the second coming, it’s because “your life does not depend on your believing such things.” However, if matters took a turn for the worse, you might reconsider. “There are no atheists in foxholes” is a cliché but not entirely false. The authors emphasize that evolution did not design our brain to seek the truth but to survive. Seeking the truth is beside the point. Depressed people often see the world more realistically. Deception, including self-deception write the authors, “enables us to accomplish useful social, psychological, or biological goals. Holding false beliefs is not always the mark of idiocy, pathology, or villainy.” Much of the book recounts often squirm-inducing examples to prove the case. For example, in the late 1980s, a group called the “Church of Love” sent affectionate form letters from purportedly distressed young women to lonely men, many of whom engaged in extensive correspondence and sent money, not always when requested. At the leader’s trial, many victims, despite knowing the facts, fervently defended him. Digging deeper, the authors examine American patriotism and how our collective “national fictions give us a shared sense of identity and purpose, the cohesion to accomplish great things, the will and capability to defend ourselves against mortal threats.” The authors also examine the concept of the placebo, which in certain cases is “the most benevolent of lies,” and they defend their position that optimists with fatal diseases live longer than “realists,” quoting studies that show this and ignoring those that show the opposite.

A passionate, often counterintuitive, disturbingly convincing addition to the why-people-believe-stupid-things genre.