The Delusion of Illusion


Why do we believe what we believe? Is the way in which one person believes somehow better than another? Why do we believe things despite evidence to contradict that belief? I’ve always been a fan of the psychology and neuroscience behind the delusion, big or small. So I was intrigued to see a few articles crop up that presented new evidence as to what goes on in the brain when we believe things that aren’t quite the way things really are.

Firstly, the BBC synopsised a report first published in Nature Neuroscience, outlining how the brain loves good news about the future, and for some people, resists altering their optimism when presented with negative news. Apparently a whopping 80% of us are optimists, even if we don’t think we are. Basically, the optimists choose to believe that statistics don’t apply to them as they do to “others”. So, for example, if an optimist says their chance of getting cancer is 10%, they won’t hugely increase that percentage even when presented with the correct statistic of 30%.  The upside of the risk underestimation is that optimism is good for your health.

Clearly, I am not an optimist. I don’t absolutely believe that everything will be ok. I hope it will, and fervently so, but if I was pushed to put a number on it, it wouldn’t be an optimistic figure. My attitude comes from my own personal experience, and an observation of what has gone on in and around my life, either to myself or others. Funnily enough, I say the glass is half full, but I justify that because I believe that the original form of a glass is to be empty. Healthwise, it might be good to be an optimist, but it also means that when something does go very wrong, the blow is extremely painful. Surely there’s a middle ground between optimism and pessimism,  called realism.  We all say from time to time that “everything will be ok”, but I would argue that we say such things to urge ourselves and others onwards, to muster willpower to continue swimming against the tide, in the hopes that we will somehow break through to the other side.

Secondly, Mark L. Howe of Lancaster University, England, presents: “Illusory Memories Can Have Salutary Effects”. To start with,  everything we believe isn’t correct. We make up a lot, fill in the gaps, embellish, and so on. We assume a finish when we don’t actually know what it is. Howe says that:  ” Not only do we regularly generate false memories but, perhaps because we create them ourselves, those illusions are more tenacious than facts.”  He goes on to say that memory illusions can be beneficial, such as when “… an inflated self-concept may result in greater confidence, which fuels success.” (hats off to Dunning -Kruger, again.) I have no argument in particular with these, as I have seen them in action myself, but I did pause at the following example, whereby false memories can also have a related effect: ” children who came to remember a lumbar puncture as less painful than it was were able to tolerate the procedure with more ease the next time.” I had to ask myself how many lumbar punctures a regular child undergoes? However, this aside,  the point of the study is to show that false memories aren’t necessarily bad.

It seems to be that this study deals with too many different kind of memories to be conclusive. Surely there’s a difference between having an inflated self opinion as described above and believing that (as in the evolutionary psychology example) you saw a predator (rather than merely signs of same predator)  in your favourite foraging spot by the waterhole yesterday. The latter would lead you to be super cautious the next time you went a-foraging, and might possibly save your skin.  The former false belief can lead to success in life, but it can also lead to ridicule and dislike. It’s not a clear line.

I tried very hard to think if I had any false memories, when I came across the final article in Wired: “How Friends Ruin Memory: The Social Conformity Effect”.  In short, we tell stories and we like to embellish those stories. If we are asked questions of a particular witnessed event, such as a robbery, we will follow the crowd if unsure of ourselves. So if Joe and I are asked how many people came out of the building after the clown, and Joe says three and I am uncertain, I will say three as well. I would encourage you all to read the articles, and see what you think. By the time I had finished the third above mentioned article, I was concerned about myself.

I’ve already mentioned that I’m definitely not an optimist, but a realist. I can’t find any false memories in the recesses of my mind, nor do I feel that I bend to social influence or pressure. Perhaps, when I was younger, I may have opted for the majority choice, but I can’t say that that stands any longer. With the above example, I’m happy to use the terrible words of: “I don’t know”. There’s no shame in it, and humility can often beget information and greater knowledge.

The above articles outline things we already know, and have known, for quite some time. We are susceptible to our environment, we are gullible, we lie (for many reasons), and we put up barriers that skew our own knowledge. I find it to be a sad commentary. I made up a story once. I made it up purely because my reality just wasn’t interesting enough, and I had become tired and frustrated of hearing of  good fortunes and happy days belonging to other people.  It was my own story, and it suited me. I made it up and used it for years. But I always knew it was poppycock. I never started to believe it. It was a utilitarian type story, and in time, I outgrew it, and discarded it. I hope I’m not alone in my thought processes, and I hope the slide of the mental grip we have on ourselves isn’t as gloomy as presented.


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