In the early 1980s Benjamin Libet conducted a series of experiments where subject’s brains were monitored whilst they chose to initiate an action. It was concluded that the brain was initiating the action before the person became aware of “deciding” to do it. What this study challenged was the concept of ourself being all powerful within us. In guiding our behaviour the conscious self’s role is not quite what we thought it was. When we think about our conscious mind and the power it holds the role is overstated because it feels so powerful. To put it another way, the conscious mind is naturally deluded about its own nature.
The next question is why is this the case? Why would natural selection develop a brain that leaves people deluded about themselves? A possible answer, as put forward by Robert Wright in his book “Why Buddhism is True”, is that if we believe something about ourselves it will be easier to convince other people to believe it too. There’s benefit to it: convincing the world that we are coherent and consistent actors who have things under control. Certainly a boon back in the hunter-gatherer days when you needed other people to survive day to day.
On its own being coherent of intent, whilst desirable, is not decisive. If you have concrete intent to do something but always fail to do it you won’t find yourself surrounded with people wanting to be your friends. Therefor we must not only act like we have things under control but must be overly positive about how well we have things under control. And guess what? We are acting like that. Anthony Greenwald in 1980 invented the term beneffectance to describe how people naturally present themselves to the world – as beneficial and effective. There have been many, many experiments since which show that not only do people put out this kind of publicity about themselves but they actually believe it.
In fact, one of these studies showed that the majority of people (surveyed) found themselves to be better, in various areas, than the majority of people! But it’s not just when being compared to a vague population that this self-delusion is apparent. It is also when we talk about any teams we are on. Another study asked academics that had jointly worked on a research paper what percentage of the team’s output they accounted for. In an average four-person team the sum of the claimed credit was 140%. Note the keyword: credit. If things didn’t go well, perceived contribution to the outcome shrinks. I.e. it was someone else’s fault.
People are aware of these forms of self-delusion. People thinking that they are better than they really are. Well, they are aware of self-delusion in other people. In an American study, Kurzban surmised his findings by stating:
We think we are better than average at not being biased in thinking that we’re better than average.
What we can see from all of this is that humanity suffers from two illusions. The first is about the nature of the conscious self, which we consider to have more control than it actually does. The second is about exactly what kind of people we are – namely, capable and upstanding.
In this post I’m more interested in the second illusion: that of being self-deluded. Thinking we are better than we are. That we have more of an impact than we do and that we are more influential than we are. Particularly in relation to other people.
How many times have you found yourself exclaiming, in private to yourself or for others to hear, that you could do a better job than the other person? How often do you lament poor decisions made by others as it isn’t what you would have done? How often have you left your humility at the door and announced how instrumental your actions were in doing a particular thing?
If what we have already read has taught us anything is that the answer to all of those questions, at least at first, is that we don’t overstate ourselves. But that is not really true, is it? Even today whilst pondering this very topic I found myself thinking about how I would do another’s work differently. How their method was undoubtedly inferior to my own. I caught myself in the thought, and after a brief chastising, realised how commonplace such thoughts really are.
The reality is that we are always overstating our abilities. This essentially gives us all (aside from those “enlightened” few) a superiority complex we won’t admit to. In some cases it might be genuine that you are better at something than another, but often when we think we are we are not.
So ingrained is this self-delusion that simply being aware of it won’t dispel it. Even now that I know to be aware of when I act with a sense of (undeserved) superiority it won’t stop me from acting with it. Like trying to break any bad habit it takes a lot of time and constant reinforcement to change your ways. Hopefully, with enough time, I can become truly humble. And with that will come a greater understanding and appreciation of others.
Perhaps if we all shared a greater appreciation of others we would have less strife. Less disagreements, arguments and, indeed, wars. We would all be happier with ourselves and others, being able to more easily surround ourselves with good friends without comparing competencies.
Take some time to really think about this topic and if you show any signs of being self-deluded. Treat it as a chance to reflect on yourself and your character.
The first illusion mentioned earlier, that of the conscious self not being in as much control as we think it is, will be the subject of another post. Buddhists refer to it as the non-self. But there is much groundwork for us to look at before we move on to this subject. More importantly, there is much work to be done on showing why it relates and matters to you as my readers!
What are your thoughts on all of this? Do you sometimes find yourself thinking you’re better at something then you actually are? Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,