Useful Delusions: A book review by Bob Morris

Useful Delusions: The Power & Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain
Shankar Vedantam & Bill Mesler
W.W. Norton & Company (March 2021)

When context determines appropriateness

As I began to read the first three chapters of this book, I was again reminded of this passage in Good to Great when Jim Collins shares an extended conversation he had with James Bond Stockdale (1923–2005), a United States Navy vice admiral and aviator awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, during which he was a prisoner of war for over seven years.

At one point, Collins asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to Collins and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Stockdale’s emphasis on keeping one’s faith while confronting the “most brutal facts” of a crisis is comparable with one of Shankar Vedantam’s key points in a book written with Bill Mesler.  “By failing to acknowledge that deception and self-deception can sometimes be forces for good, we find ourselves stupefied — and paralyzed –when the evidence points in the other direction.”

Early in the narrative, I came upon this passage: “As children of the Enlightenment, we have tethered ourselves to the mast of rationality, to the brilliance of reason. We reject the intuitions, instincts and illogical drives of the ancient faculties of the brain. The truth, we declare, is our only flag; logic is the wind in our sails. And if the wind should blow in the other direction? Our worldview demands that we ignore such evidence.”

There really is a fine line, a delicate balance, when determining when and when not to be candid, especially if that involves speaking to power. Context is often a key criterion. Questions arise, such as “What good will it do?” and “Will it make any difference?” Faith and hope need to be juxtaposed with undeniable realities. That requires recognition and acknowledgement as well as courage.

As I worked my way through the narrative, I was again reminded of these observations by Dan Kahneman:

o We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.

o We think, each of us, that we’re much more rational than we are. And we think that we make our decisions because we have good reasons to make them. Even when it’s the other way around. We believe in the reasons, because we’ve already made the decision.

o Optimism is normal, but some fortunate people are more optimistic than the rest of us. If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person – you already feel fortunate.

o Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.

o Courage is willingness to take the risk once you know the odds. Optimistic overconfidence means you are taking the risk because you don’t know the odds. It’s a big difference.

In this volume written with and Bill Mesler, Vedantam makes a substantial contribution to thought leadership with a lively examination of the “the power and paradox of self-deceiving” perspectives. I agree with him that ‘we ought to care less about whether something is simply true or untrue and ask more complicated questions: What are the consequences of self-deception? Whom does it serve? Do the benefits justify the costs?” But we do need to recognize the differences between self-deception and strategic empathy or at least sensitivity. I think this is what Shankar Vedantam has in mind when urging his reader to “work with” incomplete truths that serve a higher purpose that candor cannot accommodate.

My own opinion is that the Golden Rule applies to what is said as well as to what is done.


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