By Nicole Frehsee
Conventional wisdom reminds us not to kid ourselves, to live in the real world, to set achievable goals. But according to former Wall Street Journal reporter Joseph T. Hallinan's new book, Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception, sometimes perceiving ourselves as better, smarter, and more powerful may set us up for greater health, happiness, and success. "When I started researching self-delusion, I had no idea it could translate into real benefits," says Hallinan. We asked him to tell us more.
Q: You say self-deception gives us the illusion of control. Why is control so important?
A: Research suggests that a feeling of control is essential to well-being. When you feel powerless, stress hormones can flood your system, and over time, they may wear your body out. One study found that workers who had little say over their schedules died earlier than people who could, for example, decide when to eat lunch. If you can make your situation more tolerable—by, say, telling yourself that your assigned lunchtime is when you'd eat anyway—your health will likely be better for it. Fortunately, there are many little ways in which the world conspires to give us the perception of control.
Q: What sort of ways?
A: Crosswalk buttons, for instance. In New York City, most of them were disabled when traffic signals became computerized, so they produced only a placebo effect. The WALK sign eventually appeared, so we believed we had a hand in making it happen. It's the same thing with office thermostats: By some accounts, estimates of fake thermostats in office buildings range as high as 90 percent; they were put in solely to give employees the illusion of control over their environments.
Q: Can self-deception make us more successful?
A: Let's say your boss asks how long it will take to complete a project, and you give an overly optimistic answer. Even though you're kidding yourself, research shows that you still may finish the task faster than your more realistic counterparts. We also know that people who feel powerful are often more inclined to seize opportunities and take risks, which helps them achieve goals.
Q: But there's obviously a downside to feeling invincible....
A: Of course. Ever heard the phrase "drunk with power"? Research suggests that feelings of power can suppress the parts of the brain that govern inhibition, with an effect similar to that of alcohol. This is why we see influential people do incredibly stupid things.
Q: So how can we fake a sense of control in a positive way?
A: Odd as it may sound, superstitions help. In one study, researchers asked two groups of people to putt a golf ball. The people who were told that the ball had been lucky for fellow golfers were, as a group, 35 percent more accurate in their putting than those who were told nothing. We all know that there's no such thing as a lucky ball, but it doesn't matter—your confidence is boosted by information you merely believe to be true. It won't make the impossible possible, but for challenges that fall at the edge of your ability, it's critical in giving you that extra boost.