Overton: A helpful illusion backfires


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Nobody likes being deceived. But can self-deception actually be beneficial? Absolutely. If you’re stuck in a horrible job, you’ll probably try to persuade yourself that it’s worth it. Otherwise, you’re spending a good chunk of your life being miserable for no good reason. Similarly, we have other illusions that protect us, but as the name suggests, they invariably distort reality.

Humans are wired to see their success as accomplished through hard work and talent, while their failures are the product of circumstances.

Let’s start somewhere familiar: income inequality. The Pew Research Center released a report last week, showing that people with less income blame their situation on circumstance. Those with higher incomes pinned their success on hard work. Most of the poor said the rich just got lucky.

If I’m in a good spot, it’s because I’m a swell guy, and if I’m not doing so hot, it was just beyond my control.

It all sounds very self-serving, but this is part of how we maintain the very useful illusion of control. Imagine thinking you don’t have any power to influence your life’s direction. Sounds pretty depressing.

In fact, a series of experiments conducted by social psychologists in 1979 and 1981 found that when good or bad things happened to depressed participants, they accurately believed that it was beyond their control. When good things happened to nondepressed participants, they thought they had control, but when something bad occurred, they said they had no control.

People who suffer from depression are not necessarily wrong in their worldview. In some ways, they are free of many illusions that keep most people optimistic. Control is very much an illusion, or at least the degree of control we assume we have. Critically though, we don’t think we have control when things go wrong.

This dynamic is almost certainly part of why the poor blame circumstances and the wealth praise their own hard work and talent.

Although the polar-opposite explanations the rich and poor have for their respective places in society may seem downright selfish, one finding that Pew reported seems somewhat perplexing. The wealthy — so fond of the virtues of hard work — were evenly split on whether people were poor because of lack of effort or circumstance.

To understand this apparent discrepancy, consider one study that randomly assigned participants to write a challenging (but not excessively difficult) quiz. Others had to answer the questions while the rest watched. Once the quiz ended, contestants and the audience consistently rated the questioner as more knowledgeable than the answerers, even though everyone knew the assignment had been completely random. The quiz hosts did not, however, rate themselves as superior to the contestants.

In his social psychology self-help book Knowing People, University of Iowa sociology Professor Michael Lovaglia suggested that “it may be true that those in positions of great power can sometimes more clearly see the effects of situational factors.”

This may explain why quiz hosts in the experiment didn’t see themselves as better than the contestants, and perhaps also why Americans at the top of the income ladder are unsure about why poor people are poor. Those in authority, to a certain degree, appear to recognize their advantage.

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