I’m going to go out on a limb here, and tell you, my devoted reader that it is highly likely that you are vain, deluded, untrustworthy, bigoted, pigheaded, and easily flattered. But don’t stress, everyone around you is similarly, vain, deluded, untrustworthy, bigoted, pigheaded, and easily flattered. So depending on how you look at it, you are in good (or maybe bad) company.
Let me focus on a couple of aspects of this proposition – vanity and delusion. Sadly, we are often very bad at predicting how successful we might be at completing a particular task. Our brain has a tendency to excuse our faults and failures, and sometimes simply forgets about them. I’m sure you’ve heard of the research that suggests that when asked, people will modestly, reluctantly, confess that they are smarter, more ethical, more motivated employees, and better drivers than the average person (As an aside, research into AFL players conducted by one of my colleagues, suggest that more 90 per cent of rookies believe that they will be 300 gamers, and will eventually have a career in the media). No one, whether you are thinking about your driving, getting married, or deciding to take up a football career, believes that they are in the bottom half of the heap or will be a failure. But we know, that this is statistically impossible. It is highly unlikely that the bride and groom are thinking to themselves at their wedding, “Well, this is a 50 – 50 chance”, but somebody has to be at the bottom of the heap – we are most likely to be smack bang in the middle.
This delusion also happens when we think about using a credit card, taking out a loan, or signing up for 15 months interest free. Our ego creates a shield of unrealistic optimism around us, to protect us from failure and help us to make quick decisions. What we do, when we are trying to make a decision, is to rely on our memory to help us to gather evidence, so that we can make the right decision. The problem is that our memory is flawed, and we are more likely to look for evidence to reinforce the outcome that we want, rather than actually search for the truth. So if we truly desire the DVD recorder, our mind will start searching for reasons why we should buy the recorder, and bolster this with evidence that will support the case for why we will be able to pay off the loan before the 15 months expire. Our memory quickly accepts evidence that supports our case, and looks for more opportunities to bolster the case, while evidence that threatens what we want, or think, is subjected to a gruelling cross-examination, and most often, dismissed as not relevant to our decision.
For example, research by Sha Yanga and her colleagues, published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, found that consumers who are prone to unrealistic optimism find it difficult to develop a more realistic view for future borrowing. Unrealistic, self-serving optimism often leads people to reinterpret or deny facts that are contrary to their beliefs.
On the whole, then, we are not good at predicting how we might behave, mainly because we are over-confident about our abilities, and tend to seek out information that supports our generous beliefs about ourselves. Another way to think about this, is that we end up doing what we want, and then hope for the best.
At times, we will simply just invent supporting evidence – which psychologists call illusory correlation. As Cordelia Fine says in her very good book, “A Mind of its Own”, your deluded brain sees what it expects to see, not what is actually there. Treat with the greatest suspicion, the proof of your own eyes.”
Perhaps a better way look at it, would be to say to yourself, can I really trust me?