When Delusions Serve Us
In health, business, and romance
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We previously talked about rationality, religion, and how religion can be literally false but metaphorically true — they’re delusions that serve us.
Books like “Thinking Fast and Slow” chronicle how our intuitions often lead us astray, and how first principles thinking can compensate for the errors caused by our cognitive biases.
These books have been so successful that they’ve influenced the modern default that we strive for to be that we should always be rational and reasonable.
Stuart Vyse wrote a book about how in his quest to teach rationality, he kept bumping up against the idea that there were things that were clearly irrational, yet benefited people. Time and time again, irrational beliefs seemed to make sense to the person holding them. They work for the person pragmatically—they make them feel better, or they bond them to their tribe or grant them some other benefit.
After beating the drum of rationality for most of his career, Stuart saw this book as stepping back and correcting the balance and recognizing that we are a mixture of reason and magical thinking,and that while sometimes our delusions hinder us, sometimes they help us too. It’s not always rational to be rational.
He mentions three areas where delusions can be helpful: health, business, and relationships.
Health-wise, believing yourself to be anxious or depressed can be self-fulfilling. Harping on my anxiety may exacerbate my anxiety, because then i get anxious about being anxious. I may start subconsciously looking for events to confirm my narrative that I have anxiety. If I have a fluttering in my chest, is that anxiety? If I say I’m anxious, I’m more likely to ascribe anxiety to that and make a big deal of it. If it never occurred to me to be anxious, I might just ignore it and it’d more likely just go away on its own. Maybe it would be better for my own well-being to just tell myself that I'm not anxious, and maybe that story, even if false, would help me become less anxious — which would somehow then make it more true. You know—fake it til’ you make it.
Another area where holding a delusion of overconfidence is helpful is entrepreneurship. The odds of mega success in entrepreneurship are astonishingly low. Like the odds of making the NBA. And yet. If people didn’t have the delusion that they could be the next Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, then people wouldn’t start moonshot businesses. If people weren’t overconfident that they would succeed, they wouldn’t be able to recruit employees and investors. No way we get Tesla or SpaceX without some delusion. Look at Sam Altman talk about Open AI — when asked how he’ll make money, he said he doesn’t know but that the AI will tell him how to make money. That’s crazy. And yet, there’s no way we get an Open AI without that irrational confidence.
Of course, belief in one’s vision of the future is different from the type of delusion Theranos or FTX were built on, because those companies were actually committing fraud. Being delusional about what you’re achieving is productive, while being delusional about your present finances or what you’ve achieved in the past is not.
The last area we’ll touch on that overconfidence helps with is romantic relationships.
People who are overconfident of their chances (within reason) are more attractive to potential mates. They’re also more likely to reach out to more prospective mates, and they’ll be more likely to ask for a second date when someone more timid may have given up. So they’ll get into more relationships successfully. (Note, they’ll also cause more problems because they misread signals).
Overconfidence also helps people in relationships as well. When people get married, they talk about marrying their “soulmate”, and staying together “till death do us part” But seeing as 50% of marriages end in divorce, a more reasonable approach would be to say something like “I really love you right now. I would like this to last as long as possible. I'm gonna do my best to make sure that this lasts, as long as we like it.”
To ease the pressure and prepare for the worst outcome, it would also be rational to say: “given the many millions of people in the world, we probably could have found any number of other people and be just in just as much in love as we are now.”
And yet, no one wants to hear any of this. Despite knowing the statistics, they’d rather live under the delusion of certainty that this person they’re marrying is indeed their soul mate. And that same delusion is what helps keep them together. Idealizing your partner will make you happier about chaining your life to them. Why would you break up with someone if you’re with the ideal person? There’s no one better out there. Delusions can also help you navigate the fights too, as long as its applied to move the conversation forward. As the saying goes “you can be right, or you can be happy.”
Now of course, it’s important to have the *right* delusion. In health, you don’t want to have the delusion that you won’t get help when you have an illness. In business, you don’t want to have the delusion that you can’t fail and thus don’t need to prepare. In love, you don’t want to be so deluded that you think someone is you’re soulmate when they don’t want you back. You want to be soberly evaluating all the situations you’re in and identifying the ones worth deluding yourself for.
You want to have overconfidence when thinking about asymmetric upside — when starting a business or pursuing your potential spouse. You want to have excessive paranoia when worrying about asymmetric downside — when exposed to a potential dangerous health situation, for example. For most other situations you want to have a sober cost benefit analysis.
Now, the overconfidence only truly works when it’s real. Confidence in business or sports or romance only works when you can truly convince the other party, and that only works when you can convince yourself. This is what people talk about when they talk about a reality distortion field. If your other party senses that you’re faking it to some degree, they’ll call your bluff.
Another reality is that the amount of delusions that are helpful depends on your circumstances. If you have a huge downside to pursuing a startup, then maybe it’s not best to have a delusion that you can be successful. If your life is objectively awesome, maybe it’s useful to have a sober evaluation of how it’s going. If your life is hard, maybe a delusion that helps you cope is warranted. If you have capabilities and resources, maybe it’s best to emphasize your agency in your life; If you’ve befallen some great tragedies and health problems, maybe it’s best to appreciate the randomness of life. Some life situations may require more delusions than others.
Ironically, the term “disillusionment” speaks to the importance of delusions. When we describe somebody as disillusioned, we're usually talking about a state in which they are perhaps moving towards despair. They're sad, they've experienced loss. It's a negative state. But notice at the heart of it is the loss of illusion.
You’d think that the loss of illusion would lead to happiness and joy. And yet. There are some delusions that we just need to hang on to. Sometimes, they’re everything we have.
Thanks to Molly Mielke for edits
Part III - "Thriving Without Illusions" in Julia Galef's book The Scout Mindset is another pretty good read on this subject! Delusions/Illusions can definitely be useful like you've mentioned in this article, but I like how she challenges self-delusion with some alternatives. I guess either strategy can work depending on the person/circumstances, but I've always preferred to try to get the most accurate picture possible, even if the odds aren't in my favor. Elon Musk said something to that degree I believe, like if the "expected value" or benefit is good enough, you try even if the odds aren't in your favor.
I think the best example of a falsehood that served us is 'the divine right of kings'. The idea is that 'God would have intervened if the king you just got was a bad idea'. By being born the eldest son of the last ruler, you were ordained to be the king ... and if God had second thoughts, he could kill you off with crib death or some other accident. So God is the surety of a kingship, and those who would have a different king were conspiring _against God_. God wanted this kingship. Else he would have made a different man king.
People in Europe were well aware that they were suffering from the rule of kings who did not measure at all up to an ideal of divine selection -- if this was God's choice for us then God must really hate us! -- People did not believe in the DRoK because they were delusional. It was just very evident that having a bad monarch was greatly to be preferred to having all out civil war every time the king died. I believe in a lie because the alternatives are worse.
Getting rid of kings when you decide 'Down with rule by kings. Rule by Parliament is better' will, of course be more difficult in places which had DRoK or DR of conquest, but that doesn't make the decision to embrace a falsehood as a political truth a bad idea for the societies who did so. 'All men are created equal' may be a similar falsehood we do well to act as if is true.