Derek Sivers
Useful Delusions - by Shankar Vedantam

Useful Delusions - by Shankar Vedantam

ISBN: 0393652203
Date read: 2023-06-04
How strongly I recommend it: 7/10
(See my list of 360+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Same subject as my upcoming “Useful Not True” book, and so good I could almost recommend you read this instead. Almost. No massive epiphanies but many good points around the subject compiled in one place makes for a good argument. If you like “Useful Not True”, read this next.

my notes

Self-deception can lead to good outcomes.
Self-deception can enable us to accomplish useful social, psychological or biological goals.

Holding false beliefs.
Believing what we want to believe - and seeing what we want to see - is a response to one’s circumstances.

We need hope to function, but the world gives us reasons not to be hopeful.
Our lives are actually trivial, unimportant and easily forgotten.
Self-deception can keep away despair and dysfunction.
Feelings of insignificance, irrelevance, oblivion and erasure are not useful for ensuring our survival and the survival of our genes.

People reach for beliefs that tell them that their lives have purpose and meaning.
Self-deception will endure because it’s functional.

Life, like evolution and natural selection, doesn’t care about what’s true. It cares about what works.
From the perspective of evolution, objective truth is not the goal nor the only path to the goal.

When our scientific instruments show us that reality is not as it seems - that an earth that looks flat is actually spherical - we have the capacity to overrule what feels true in favor of what we know to be true.

Just because self-deception can lead us to ruin, does not necessarily follow that it has no role to play in ensuring our well-being.

Care less about whether something is simply true or untrue and ask:
What are the consequences?
Whom does it serve?

We think we are seeing, hearing and processing the truth, but we often are not.
Our minds show us selective slices of reality.
Minds give us the illusion that we are seeing reality.
We can believe that we are thinking clearly, acting rationally and fighting for the truth.
We are seeing what is functional for our groups, our families and ourselves - and imagining it to be the truth.

Make customers feel cared about no matter the circumstances, and no matter how you might really feel? It could be “deception.”
Deception is found in ordinary, day-to-day settings.
“How are you?” in which the person who asks doesn’t actually care, and the person who answers isn’t expected to be truthful.

Just try to go a few days without lying.
A lot of the lying is because we don’t want to hurt other people.

We value honesty, but we value something else more: the other person’s feelings, your feelings of loyalty toward them.
A moral equilibrium: We want to gain as much advantage as we can while still feeling we are good people.

Coaches tell lies to help athletes perform at their best.

Placebo effect is greatest when patients felt the perceived intervention was largest.
If it’s a small pill, sometimes the effect is not as great as a bigger pill.
If it’s a ‘new and exciting’ pill, there’s more of a placebo effect than an old and traditional pill.
Two years after their procedures, patients who received actual surgeries, those who got the saline wash and those who received placebo surgeries all reported a marked level of improvement. And there were no differences in the level of improvement between the patients in any of the groups. The results were “jaw dropping.” A subsequent and larger study confirmed the results.
Arthroscopic surgery is one of the most common surgical procedures in the world. In cases where it was being performed to treat arthritis, Moseley’s experiment proved that the beneficial effects could be traced entirely to the placebo effect.

A great deal of the suffering caused by disease is caused by our own reactions to illness: Our anxiety and worry about the ailments we have, and what it means to be sick.

After the countries of Europe decided to abandon their various separate currencies for a common euro, I failed to exchange some old deutsche marks. Now, I’m left with paper that used to mean something, but doesn’t anymore.
The paper hasn’t changed, but the story embedded in my deutsche marks has changed.

Researchers conducted brain imaging scans of the volunteers and found something unexpected: When volunteers tasted the $10 wine from the $90 bottle, a part of their brains lit up more than when they tasted the same wine from a $10 bottle.
This part of the brain, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, is activated when people experience pleasure.
So people experiened more pleasure when drinking the $10 wine from the $90 bottle, than when drinking the $10 wine from the $10 bottle.
They were not simply deducing that the expensive wine was better - to them, it actually tasted better.
The wine in the bottles was identical, but people derived more pleasure from the expensively packaged wine.
In other words, your expectations actually turn into reality.
The point of a bottle of wine is, after all, to produce subjective pleasure.
Does it really matter if this subjective pleasure is produced because the wine in two bottles is objectively different, or because people experience more pleasure when they pay extra for the same wine?

A smart-drink: People who drank the full-priced drink solved nearly twice as many puzzles as those who got the drink on discount.
The “price-placebo effect”.

LiveStrong bracelet - “I had about fifty of them!” - and wore the uniform of whatever team Lance Armstrong was riding for at the time.
When he was biking, he would “channel” Lance Armstrong.
He would channel his heroic life story whenever obstacles arose in his personal or professional life.
Then everything fell apart.
When Armstrong admitted to doping and cheating in every one of his Tour de France victories, Reed was devastated.
“It was heartbreaking from the perspective of my identity. In that instant, I lost a part of myself. I trashed all of my LiveStrong and Lance Armstrong gear. It was almost like a funeral. It was almost as if I was grieving because this iconic, aspirational self turned out to be a shallow and hollow fraud. And I felt like I was a fool in that relationship with his brand because I was trying to reinforce and express all of these values that turned out not to be true.”

Divide golfers into two groups and give them identical clubs, but tell one group that they are using Nike clubs, these golfers need fewer strokes to sink a golf ball in a hole than volunteers who think they are using non-brand-name golf clubs.
The performance-enhancing effects of brand-name products was especially acute for novices.

Psychological truth: The music you hear when Joshua Bell is playing on the street next to a trash can and you are rushing past him because you are late for work is not remotely the same music you hear when Joshua Bell is playing in a concert hall, and you have paid hundreds of dollars to listen to him play.
When you cough up a lot of money, sit in a concert hall with other connoisseurs, and devote your mind entirely to the music, your ears are different, your mind is different and, ultimately, the music you hear is different.
The story accompanying a piece of music can profoundly alter how we hear it.

Our brains are helped by not seeing the world for what it is.
The self-deceiving brain helps us generate meaning and purpose - even when logic and reason dictate there are no grounds for either - and explain why our lives would be greatly diminished if rationality was to be our only guide.

Happiest couples have the most inflated views of their partners - they saw their relationships with the greatest degree of self-deception.
Cognitive distortions also helps keep couples faithful.

Most of us are never going to see the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast.
But we all share something in common with the people who do: Our hopes, needs and desires shape what we see in the world.

Our senses are flooded with information.
We literally do not have the cognitive power to process all of this data, and so our brains discard most of the information, and focus attention on a small subset of the data.

We imagine that our eyes behave like a camera, taking in the world and producing a pictorial representation in our heads.
But your brain looks for a familiar model of what it is seeing based on past experience.
They substitute models and preexisting knowledge for what we are actually seeing, but give us the illusion that we are taking in everything.

From an evolutionary perspective: Why bother making you feel like you have an inadequate and fragile grasp of reality?
It might be the truth, but how does that improve your evolutionary fitness?
Why would generating such insecurity help you function more effectively, or lead you to find a mate?

Holding opposing notions is painful, and people look for ways to remove this source of pain.

There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. - Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Belief in the power of the ritual (of bullet-proof elixir) tipped the equation in favor of resistance, which ultimately saved the village from extinction.
From a scientific perspective, the belief was false.
Nonetheless, it resulted in survival.

Rituals offer a way for human beings to deal with a dangerous and unpredictable world.
They generate community, conformity and courage.
Asking whether they “work” in a literal sense misses the point. They work at a psychological level.
The point of a ritual is that there is no obvious point.
Rituals ward off anxiety, they connect us to our history and to our cultural moorings, they bind us to our groups.

Psychologists asked some subjects to engage in an arbitrary ritual they had created from scratch. It was clearly nonsense.
Yet when the subjects were later asked to engage in simple games that would gauge their level of trust in each other, those who had been asked to complete the ritual demonstrated greater cooperation with other practitioners than those who had not.

How is Switzerland, which has three languages, two religions, and three or four races, a nation, while Tuscany, for example, which is so homogenous, is not?

No French citizen knows whether he is a Burgund, an Alain, a Taifala, or a Visigoth : the tribes that once flourished on the geographical boundaries of modern France.
We think we are citizens of a nation because we have forgotten many things.

A nation is a social construction - an “imagined community.” All nations are collections of stories - stories.
National myths: Once millions of people collectively believe in them - they become real.
Slavoj Žižek has said of these kinds of big, collective lies, “If everything is a fake, this fake, precisely insofar as we know it’s a fake, tells us so much about the social reality in which we live. Even if it didn’t happen, it’s true.”
Extraordinarily useful: Without a sense of ourselves as a nation, we would never have commerce or currency or the rule of law. We could not generate revenue through taxation; no volunteer army.
To get the useful things that nations provide their citizens, you can’t just present a cost-benefit equation. Rational calculation doesn’t prompt people to leap. You must speak to the soul.

It’s easy to see the delusions of our opponents for what they are, and very hard to see the myths of our own groups, teams and nations with clear eyes.

Advocating fearless rationality - an end to myth-making and myth-believing - is a matter of privilege.
If you don’t lack for food and water, for physical security or a police department that comes when you call, you might not feel the need to turn to myths, rationalizations and rituals.
You may have no need for fellow members of your tribe to come to your assistance when you are sick, because there are doctors and hospitals who will do a better job.
If you think of yourself as a citizen of the world because borders are illusions and people everywhere are the same, you probably haven’t lived through the kind of persecution that makes you desperate for the protection of your fellow tribesmen.

Every human being is really a breathing piece of defecating meat.
Self-deception developed as a psychological defense mechanism - a coping strategy for avoiding fear of death.

Death reminders prompt people to adhere more strongly to social norms - whatever their culture deems to be “good”.
In the face of threat, it is comforting to fall back on the “certainties” of one’s group or culture.
People reminded of their own deaths hew to actions that defend their culture’s norms.

We know that all people will die, but we never believe that it will be our turn next.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Scrooge recognizes his own looming mortality, he does exactly what volunteers in psychology studies do - he seeks out the solidarity and the approval of his community through prosocial acts, and he seeks to cement his legacy through acts of generosity.

For a long period in early human history, groups were extraordinarily egalitarian, because there were few ways to accumulate wealth.
If you killed a bison and decided to hoard all the food for yourself, you would only get a few meals out of your kill before the meat went bad.
It made more sense for you to share the meat with others, to buy yourself goodwill in the expectation that, down the road, your neighbor might consider sharing her surplus with you.
As groups grew larger, it became easier for people to act in antisocial ways and escape censure. Strangers could cheat you, and you would not have recourse to a community of elders to settle matters.
These new challenges set the stage for the invention of an important social innovation: religion.

Religions tell people that if they don’t play nice, there will be terrible consequences.
Big, omniscient punitive Gods helped enforce civic virtue, and provided a unified set of rules.
Religions allowed for vast trade networks based on trust. A Muslim from one end of Asia could trade with a Muslim at the other end, comfortable that their trading partner would not be a cheat.

Groups with religious beliefs outcompeted groups that did not have such mechanisms to enforce group cohesion and solidarity.
As religions made some groups more successful than others, the religions of successful groups spread to conquered lands.
Beliefs that were functional - that yielded survival and success - were more likely to be passed down.

Why religions are in decline in some parts of the world:
As human societies created nations, and devised mechanisms for self-governance, the punitive gods who were so effective at enforcing group norms and ethical behavior were no longer as necessary.
Many societies today no longer need gods to provide cohesion and ethical guidelines.
Effective states and local jurisdictions are now perfectly capable of creating civic pride and enforcing ethical norms.
Countries of the world with the best functioning states are also the places where organized religion has seen great declines,
Religious faith continues to flourish in places riven by poverty, inequality or social conflict.
Scandinavians have lots of trust in their governments, excellent social services and high-functioning states. They also have some of the lowest levels of religious belief in the world.

Religious adolescents appear to have better mental health than their nonreligious peers.
People who are members of religious groups live on average five years longer than those who are not religious.

Throwing evidence and data against passionately held false beliefs is important, but often futile.
Many people hold false beliefs because those beliefs help them hold their lives together.
What psychological benefit does holding a false belief confer on the people who hold it?
What underlying needs does it address?
Are there other ways to address those needs?

Care much less about what’s true, and much more about what works.
Why put the emphasis on the truth or falsity of the stories, rather than on what the stories do for us?