Is it possible that telling yourself certain lies could actually make you happier and healthier?

Is it possible that telling yourself certain lies could actually make you happier and healthier?

via Psychology Today by Joe Pierre

“I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” —Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man (2005)

In psychiatry and psychology, the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy—known as “reality testing”—has been traditionally considered a prerequisite for mental health. Conversely, its impairment is a defining characteristic of psychosis, as exemplified by symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. But in 1988, UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor challenged this notion with the radical hypothesis that some impairments in reality testing may actually be key to mental health. In a paper written together with Southern Methodist University colleague Jonathan Brown, Dr. Taylor outlined the case for “positive illusions,” defined as misbeliefs that are associated with happiness, the ability to care for others, and the capacity for creative, productive work.1 Put more simply, positive illusions are healthy lies that we tell ourselves.

Thirty years later, positive illusions are now well-recognized (albeit still debated) in psychology, and following Dr. Taylor’s original conception, they fall into three general categories. In this blog post, I’ll review each one and provide an update on areas of controversy.

1. “I’m better than the average person.”

Dr. Taylor cited evidence from various psychological studies that found that individuals tend to regard positive traits as core parts of their identity while discounting the negative (it’s worth noting that much of this research is based on college undergraduates responding to surveys, as is often the case in psychology studies). Most report that they are “better than the average person”—a mathematical contradiction if a trait is normally distributed—with self-appraisals that are inflated compared to how others see them. This cognitive bias has now come to be known as the “better than average effect,” the “superiority illusion,” and the “Lake Wobegon Effect,” named after Garrison Keillor’s radio-show Utopia where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Indeed, we tend to extend the superiority illusion beyond ourselves to our loved ones as well, offering a kind of explanation for how love can be blind, allowing us to overlook the faults and foibles of our romantic interests and our children alike.

Subsequent research by Dr. Brown found that the better than average effect is stronger for valued attributes like honesty, kindness, responsibility, intelligence, and competence. The effect also increases following threats to self-worth and is motivated by the desire to feel good about ourselves.2 But in contrast to such common and hard-to-measure personality characteristics, other research has shown evidence for a “worse than average effect” when it comes to rare abilities and difficult tasks, such as computer programming, riding a unicycle, or coping with the death of a loved one.3 This suggests that the better than average effect may sometimes be less about self-aggrandizement than it is about errors in estimating traits and abilities in others and the way that we interpret the term “average” as a pejorative rather than a statistical norm.

Although the better than average effect has been found to be associated with psychological well-being, there’s also evidence that its benefits might depend on quantity. It should come as no surprise, for example, that confidence is correlated with self-esteem—they’re nearly the same thing. And over-confidence might very well lead to perseverance that is predictive of real achievement in some circumstances, such as among children learning new skills, or even superiority, such as among elite athletes. But it should also come as no surprise that the superiority illusion has also been correlated with narcissism, with “self-enhancing” individuals more likely to be rated as condescending, resentful, and defensive.4 (Note that the idea of a continuum of confidence/overconfidence mirrors the finding that narcissism can be both adaptive and maladaptive, depending on degree. See my earlier blog post “Just What is a “Narcissist” Anyway?” for details.)

As always, the devil may be in the details. “Self-enhancement,” defined as a discrepancy between self-perceptions and others’ impressions, might have more negative effects than over-confidence that’s not as obvious to others.5Some research has also suggested that self-enhancement might have short-term social benefits through favorable initial impressions that can become more negative and socially harmful in the long run.6

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has argued for a kind of Goldilocksian “optimal margin” of positive illusions in which too much superiority bias, but also too little, could be associated with less psychological well-being.7 Just the right amount of superiority bias might therefore go a long way, but it’s probably best to keep it to yourself…

…keep reading the full & original article HERE