Shankar Vedantam on the power and paradox of self-deception

Here is an excerpt from an interview of Shankar Vedantam by Raju Narisetti for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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The host of Hidden Brain on NPR discusses the lies we all tell ourselves and the role they play in easing everyday life.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Shankar Vedantam, the host of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, about his new book, Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain (W.W. Norton, March 2021). In the book, Vedantam and coauthor Bill Mesler argue that, paradoxically, self-deception—normally believed to do harm to us, to our communities, and to the planet—can also play a vital role in our success and well-being. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Understanding self-deception

We’re all liars, aren’t we?

As I’ve written this book, I have noticed numerous cases in my own life when my behavior has deviated from rational choice. Let me give you a couple of examples. A few years ago, my dad was dying from lung cancer, and he was going downhill very quickly. And I would see him periodically every couple of months. And each time I saw him, he looked much sicker. He looked much worse than he did the previous time.

Now all of us have been in situations like this. We’ve seen people going through terminal illnesses. This is extraordinarily painful for the person who’s going through it and for the family as well. But my dad would eagerly ask me each time he saw me how I thought that he was doing.

And when he asked me that question, I invariably lied. I told him, “I think things look like they’re going pretty well. In many ways, things seem to be looking up and are going better than we could have anticipated. It sounds like you might [end up being] one of the lucky ones.”

Now someone could look at what I said and say, “You know, you’re a cruel, heartless person for lying to your dad.” But I think most of us in this situation would see that what I did was, in fact, a human thing to do. When we are speaking to people whom we love, whom we care about, and they’re experiencing great suffering, we don’t often feel that it’s our job to tell them the exact truth.

When a friend comes up to you and says, “You know, I’m going through a divorce,” you don’t tell your friend, “Well, you’re going through a divorce because you were a terrible partner. Serves you right.” You tell your friend, “I’m really sorry for what’s happened to you. I’m sure that things are going to look up in the future. Let’s maybe sit down and talk about how we can make things better for you.”

That’s what makes you a good friend. One last example: some months ago, I was traveling away from my home when I started to experience a loss of vision in one eye. Now, I have a family history of retinal problems, and it turned out that I was suffering a retinal detachment.

For those who are not familiar with this, the retina is the screen behind the eye. It allows you to see, and so, when the retina comes off its hinges, you can essentially lose your vision altogether. Now I was very far from my home. I didn’t have doctors nearby. I eventually managed to find an eye doctor who very kindly opened his practice for me at 9:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night. He diagnosed me with a retinal detachment, and he said, “You need to go into surgery in the next few minutes or you’re going to lose your eye.”

Now at that point, I didn’t have a chance to get a second opinion. I didn’t have a chance to look up reviews and see whether he was a good doctor or a bad doctor. I did what all of us do in a situation like this. When you’re drowning and someone throws you a lifeline, you don’t question that lifeline.

You grab onto that lifeline, you hold onto it, you believe in it. And that’s exactly what I did. I trusted the doctor. As it turned out, he was a brilliant surgeon. He ended up saving my eye, for which I’m profoundly grateful. But it reminded me in that moment of great vulnerability, I did not respond with reason and logic.

I responded with trust and with faith. When we go through vulnerable times, we need to reach out to other people. When other people are going through vulnerable times, we need to reach out to them. In some ways, that idea is at the core idea of Useful Delusions—when we see the delusions of other people, it’s easy to sit in judgment of them. It’s easy to be contemptuous of them. But it is far more helpful and far wiser to be empathetic to them, to be compassionate, and to be curious about how it is they came to be thinking the way they do.

The brain, in some ways, invents realities of its own—sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.

What were you hoping to accomplish with this book?

The problem that I was trying to address grew out of what I’ve seen for many years as a journalist. We in the news media have often covered various events, and we would present facts to the public. And very often, these facts would not have the effect that we thought they were going to have.

I’ll give you an example. During the four years of the Trump presidency, The Washington Post catalogued more than 30,000 lies and falsehoods that came out of the Trump White House. The net effect of all of this was that Donald Trump received 11 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016.

And examples like this prompted me to ask the question, “What exactly are facts doing? When we provide people with facts and information, are people actually processing the information the way we think they’re processing the information? Or is it in fact the case that their minds are shaping and filtering that information in all kinds of ways?” My book is trying to grapple with questions like these, about how the brain, in some ways, invents realities of its own—sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.


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