Friday, December 2, 2011

The Trouble With Knowing Thyself

     In the August 2010 entry "A Hen Is Just An Egg's Way of Making Another Egg" we showed how the driving force behind natural selection is survival and reproduction, not truth, and gave several examples of deception in nature. Our evolutionary history has hardwired false belief systems that turn out to be an essential part of our nature.

     For example, it has been repeatedly proven that men overperceive the sexual interest and intent of women. The Darwinian rational for such a distortion is that the cost of this misbelief is much less detrimental to reproductive success than it's opposite, that is the man's sense that the woman is uninterested. For women, not surprisingly, the cost asymmetry is reversed. For a woman to falsely believe in a man's interest in familial investment is more detrimental because it will result in abandonment and therefore a lower chance of the offspring's survival. If she were wrong in this biased perception of a man's familial investment, it would merely delay reproduction, a much less costly error. Let the mating dance begin.

     Evolution has also crafted certain misbeliefs about ourselves. One particularly striking example is the "better than average effect". Most people judge themselves to be more intelligent, honest, original, friendly, and reliable than the average person. Drivers who have been hospitalized as a consequence of their poor driving, rate themselves as having better than average driving skills. My favorite example is that most people perceive themselves as less prone to such self-serving distortions than others.

     Traditional psychological theories have considered a close relationship with truth as an essential ingredient of mental health.  We're no longer so sure. In an amusing study, investigators assessed reality testing (how accurate one's observations are about oneself and the environment) in people on a spectrum of moods. The scale ran from clinically depressed, moderately depressed, normal mood, elevated mood, to manic. Surprisingly the moderately depressed won the contest, providing the most "accurate" responses. The normal mood group consistently demonstrated unrealistically positive evaluations of themselves and their loved ones, exaggerated perceptions of personal control or mastery, and unrealistic optimism about the future.

     These positive illusions are more accurately understood as design features of a normal mind rather than a brain function failure. In fact such positive misbeliefs are key to physical health as well. Unrealistically positive views about one's medical condition have been repeatedly linked to better outcomes than more accurate beliefs.

     One might wonder how we are so good at fooling ourselves.

     Because deceit is so fundamental in animal communication, there must be a strong selection to spot deception. This in turn led to a selection for self-deception, burying certain facts and motivations in the unconscious, so as to be the least obvious when our deception is being enacted. This protective failsafe- like system filters what we will allow ourselves to know.

     We know our neighbor better than ourselves.

In the next entry we'll take a look at some of the ways our memory distorts things and how that makes it difficult to know how to pursue happiness.




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