Is it really so bad to be a little bit delusional? Not according to Shankar Vedantam. In his new book, Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain, the renowned NPR host argues that we tell ourselves lies in order to live. We believe our marriages will last, even though there’s a fifty-fifty chance we’re headed for divorce. We trick ourselves into thinking our children are extraordinary because if we saw them for who they really are—average, disobedient, smelly—the body blows of parenting would be more than we could bear.
In this candid conversation with Next Big Idea Club curator Daniel Pink, Shankar joins the Next Big Idea podcast to explain why wide-eyed delusions aren’t bad for us. In fact, self-deception is part of being a well-adjusted human being. Listen to the full episode below, or read a few of Shankar’s most remarkable insights.
What’s the secret to a successful marriage? Lying to yourself about your partner.
A wide variety of studies have found that when we have positive—even delusionally positive—views about our partners, we are likely to be in happier relationships. In some ways, this is not a surprising idea. If you believe that your partner is kinder and more beautiful and more intelligent and wiser than other people, you’re more likely to say, “I want to stay with my partner. I want to be with my partner.” And it turns out the delusional beliefs we have about our partners are one way to buffer ourselves against some of the challenges that come with relationships.
Let’s say we went on a road trip, and we stopped by every wedding that’s happening in the United States, and we asked couples: “What are your odds of getting divorced?” If they are logical and rational, if they look at the statistics, they will say, “We expect that we have a 50% chance of getting divorced.”
I would bet you two things, though. One, almost no one on their wedding day will tell you they have a 50% chance of getting divorced. And two, someone who tells you on their wedding day that they have a 50% chance of getting divorced—that is not a person who is about to embark on a very happy marriage.
Your kids are not special—but it’s okay that you think they are.
On that one special day, I felt that my daughter being born was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened—not just in my life, but in the history of the planet. Now, anyone who’s a rationalist would say, “Surely, it cannot be the case that millions upon millions of parents can look at their children as being unique and special.” But that’s the way it feels when you become a parent.
“If parents were to weigh the costs and benefits of having children, many people might logically conclude that parenting is far more trouble than it’s worth.”
So why would evolution put in our heads this delusional belief about ourselves? The answer is self-evident: Parenting is hard. If parents were to weigh the costs and benefits of having children, many people might logically conclude that parenting is far more trouble than it’s worth. So in some ways, our delusional beliefs about our children are designed to hide from us the cost-benefit equation. We might not be seeing reality accurately, but it’s extremely functional for parents, it’s extremely functional for our children, and it’s extremely functional for our genes.
If you want someone to abandon a delusional belief, you’ve got to start with empathy.
When we’re trying to disabuse people of crazy views, the challenge is not in presenting information that will change their views. The challenge is, how do we get them to start questioning their views? And asking people to explain their views is a powerful way to disabuse them of those views.
I think it is also very important to say, “Yes, you might not want to take a vaccine, and I might want to take a vaccine, but I understand the reason you don’t want to give a vaccine to your child is not that you’re delusional—it’s because you love your child.”
In other words, we start from a point of common ground. We start by saying, “I’m giving my child a vaccine because I love my child. And I recognize that you are not giving a vaccine to your child because you also love your child.” Once you establish that common ground, you’re not questioning their love for themselves, their love for their families, their love for their communities, or their love for their nations. You are assuming good intent. And by doing that, you can dismantle a lot of the conflict that leads to pointless arguments.
To listen to ad-free episodes of the Next Big Idea podcast, download the Next Big Idea App today: