Is being delusional a good thing?
Being delusional is bad
Which person does everyone think is going to get into heaven?
One of my favorite examples of this human tendency comes from a survey conducted by U.S. News and World Report in 1997. The survey asked one thousand Americans the following question: “Who do you think is most likely to get into heaven?” Respondents indicated a 52 percent likelihood for then president Bill Clinton; they gave Michael Jordan a 65 percent chance (maybe partly because the Bulls had won the NBA championship that year); and they gave a 79 percent chance to Mother Teresa. But guess who received the highest likelihood for getting into heaven? It was the person completing the survey, with a score of 87 percent! Apparently, most of the respondents taking the survey thought, “Mother Teresa has a pretty good chance of getting into heaven. In fact, there is only one person I can think of who has a better chance than she does, and that’s me.”
David Brooks, author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, explains just how extreme our delusion can be:
Via The New Yorker:
Human beings are overconfidence machines. Paul J. H. Schoemaker and J. Edward Russo gave questionnaires to more than two thousand executives in order to measure how much they knew about their industries. Managers in the advertising industry gave answers that they were ninety-per-cent confident were correct. In fact, their answers were wrong sixty-one per cent of the time. People in the computer industry gave answers they thought had a ninety-five percent chance of being right; in fact, eighty per cent of them were wrong. Ninety-nine per cent of the respondents overestimated their success.
You might be better off asking your friends to evaluate you than doing it yourself:
In general, people’s self-views hold only a tenuous to modest relationship with their actual behavior and performance. The correlation between self-ratings of skill and actual performance in many domains is moderate to meager—indeed, at times, other people’s predictions of a person’s outcomes prove more accurate than that person’s self-predictions. In addition, people overrate themselves. On average, people say that they are ‘‘above average’’ in skill (a conclusion that defies statistical possibility), over-estimate the likelihood that they will engage in desirable behaviors and achieve favorable outcomes, furnish overly optimistic estimates of when they will complete future projects, and reach judgments with too much confidence. Several psychological processes conspire to produce flawed self-assessments.
But if there are all these reasons why delusion and overconfidence are bad, why in the world would this be our default state in so many situations?
Being delusional can be good
Overconfident, deluded people are better at work.
…moderate overconfidence is both pervasive and advantageous and that people maintain such beliefs by underweighting new information about their ability.
But doesn’t it turn people into intolerable cocky bastards? Nope, it improves teamwork:
…the presence of overconfident workers in teams is beneficial for firms since it raises effort provision and team output. We also find that overconfidence leads to a Pareto improvement in workers’ payoffs. In contrast, underconfidence is detrimental to firms as well as workers.
Deluded people are happier.
Via Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom:
…evidence shows that people who hold pervasive positive illusions about themselves, their abilities, and their future prospects are mentally healthier, happier and better liked than people who lack such illusions.
And a little delusion is necessary for another important thing — love.
- Those with positive illusions about their relationship are more fulfilled, score higher on love and trust, and have fewer difficulties.
- “…people who were unrealistically idealistic about their partners when they got married were more satisfied with their marriage three years later than less idealistic people.”
When I interviewed Dan Ariely he talked about the “IKEA effect” — our irrational attachment to the things we create. What did he think was the best example of this? How we love our children:
So this is a great example of something that is irrational but wonderful. And what we’ve basically found is that the moment that you invest something of yourself into something, you start overvaluing it… And I think this is because kids are an ideal example of the IKEA effect. We love our kids. I have two kids; I think they’re the most adorable kids in the world. We just went skiing and I couldn’t believe anybody wanted to do anything on the mountain besides watching my kids ski. How could they find anything else more adorable? If you want, I’ll send you the video. But the realization I think is we love them so much because they’re our kids. We think that IKEA furniture comes with better instructions. Kids really come with no instructions. Very tough to deal with, difficult, complex, but incredibly involving and time-consuming and I think the love that comes out of it is an example of the effect of a tremendous investment.
Let yourself be a little delusional today.
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