Self-Illusions are Good for You



By David Gamon, Ph.D. and Allen D. Bragdon

Common sense has it that an accurate self-perception is essential to good mental health. By this view, “normal” people have a realistic understanding of who they are, what they are capable of, and what will happen in the future. People who lack such a balanced understanding, by contrast, may be unwell or, in extreme cases, insane.

            The facts show that the opposite may be true. The healthiest and happiest people, it seems, are the ones who have unrealistically positive illusions about their own good qualities, their control of chance events, and their future prospects. The realistic ones have a tendency to suffer from some degree of depression.


Do you view yourself as happier, healthier, luckier, more virtuous, and more skilled than others? People who score low on inventories of depression tend to exaggerate their own positive qualities. They’ll rank themselves as having a stronger sense of ethics than most others, as being more creative, imaginative, and intelligent. On an individual basis, this kind of self-evaluation may or may not be realistic. But when 80% of the population opine that they are better drivers than most others, it just doesn’t add up: 80 out of 100 people just can’t all be better than 51 out of 100. Those remaining people who fail to consider their driving better than average — who, on average, are more realistic — tend to be at least somewhat depressed. 


Do you think your good qualities are unique, and your flaws common? Well-adjusted people tend not to focus on negative aspects of themselves to begin with. But pressed to acknowledge their flaws, they dismiss them as unimportant, often because “everybody’s like that.” Positive aspects, on the other hand — abilities, talents, and virtues — are perceived as rare and distinctive. Depressed people tend to have a more even-handed view of themselves and others.


Do you think your future will be better than your past? Most people characterize themselves as more oriented toward the future than the past, and most people believe the future will be better than the past.  There’s really no way to know beforehand whether such beliefs will turn out to be justified or realistic. But some things point clearly to the fact that most of us are simply not facing reality.

            Why is life insurance such a hard sell? Because most of us cultivate comforting illusions about our mortality. Far fewer people believe that they’ll ever be in a serious automobile accident, or be a victim of violent crime, than statistics indicate is realistic. Why would otherwise happy and intelligent people indulge in life-threatening activities —  cigarette smoking or tailgating at 80 miles per hour — if they were being realistic about the risk involved? Happy and optimistic people aren’t realistic — they think other people will get lung cancer or die in a car accident. 

            People with mild depression and low self-esteem tend to have views of their prospects more in line with statistics and hindsight, and tend to be more sober and analytical about their future. It’s a telling comment on the pervasiveness of unrealistic optimism that the sober realists are often accused of being pessimists. It is, in fact, depressing to be realistic, and indulgence in realism about the future is even considered socially unacceptable. And woe betide any politician who admits that the future might not be better than the past.


Do you indulge in magical thinking? It appears to be a good sign for your mental well-being if you have an exaggerated view of your control of events and people around you. “Normal” people indulge in this kind of thinking much of the time. In games involving pure chance, we imagine we can somehow influence the outcome even though we can’t — by rolling the dice softly if we want low numbers and hard if we want high numbers, for example.

            Many people select lottery tickets with personally meaningful numbers —birthdates, anniversary dates, and the like —  rather than buying a randomly generated “quick-pick” ticket. Rationally, this makes no sense. First, there’s no way that a personally meaningful number sequence will stand a greater chance of winning in a random drawing. Second, “quick picks,” while admittedly not more likely to win, are likely to result in a greater prize if they do win: certain date-based numbers (1 through 31) tend to be picked by people who take that approach, thus increasing the chances of having to share a prize with like-minded others. We may speculate that it might be possible to identify those at risk for mild depression by the fact that they choose the rational approach, rather than the irrational “magical” one. On the other hand, given that your chances of winning the lottery are probably less than those of finding buried treasure in your back yard, the very fact of buying the occasional lottery ticket may be indicative of a healthy temperament.


Illusions aren’t just comforting — they improve performance. People like to have the illusion of control. Businesses have recognized this for many years: Employees are less likely to resist change if they’re informed beforehand of what’s happening and included in the decision-making process — even if they’re given no real authority to change the ultimate outcome.

            But there’s more to it than just this. Having an unrealistically positive self-image and an exaggerated sense of control over events may be construed as a sort of egocentricity. Memory is organized egocentrically: The more personally meaningful something is, or the more self-relevant it is, the easier it is to remember. Therefore, positive self-illusions may have cognitive benefits for memory.

            Even more important, positive illusions feed back into performance. People with unrealistically high self-perceptions, belief in personal control, and optimism about their future are often more motivated and persistent, and may perform better because of this.



SELF-TEST: Illusions Inventory

The object of taking this test is to measure the types and degrees of the illusions you maintain about yourself. As the foregoing article explains, the higher your self-esteem the more likely you are to escape depression —up to a point of course. Maintaining wholly unrealistic views of reality is the nature of madness, as your friends will doubtless point out if you score 20 points.

            At the end of this self-test you will find a scoring legend based on the number of points you have earned by totaling those allocated to each answer to the questions that follow.


Do you think you’re more honest than others?

(a)        Yes, very much so (2 pts.)

(b)        Maybe a little (1 pt.)

(c)        No (0 pts.)


You and a friend each buy a quick-pick lottery ticket. You ask him to hold your ticket while you tie your shoe, and you later realize the tickets must have been jumbled: the one you have is not the same as the one you originally had. Does this bother you?

(a)        Yes, very much so (2 pts.)

(b)        Maybe a little (1 pt.)

(c)        No, it makes no difference (0 pts.)


Of all your talents and abilities, which one do you think is best or most important? _________________ What percentage of other people in the country do you think share your level of skill in this ability?

(a)        0-30% (2 pts.)

(b)        30-70% (1 pt.)

(c)        70-100% (0 pts.)


Do you think you’re a better driver than other people?

(a)        No doubt about it (2 pts.)

(b)        Better than average, but not dramatically (1 pt.)

(c)        No (0 pts.)


Do you think that the success you’ve had in life is due more to hard work than just being in the right place at the right time?

(a)        Very much (2 pts.)

(b)            Somewhat (1 pt.)

(c)        No (0 pts.)


Of all your flaws, which one do you think is worst or most significant?

________________. What percentage of other people in the country do you think also have this flaw?

(a)        70-100% (2 pts.)

(b)        30-70% (1 pt.)

(c)        0-30% (0 pts.)


Do you think you’re more sincere than others?

(a)        Very much so (2 pts.)

(b)            Somewhat (1 pt.)

(c)        No (0 pts.)


How true do you think the following is? Most people act out of self-interest, but I try to help people rather than hurt them.

(a)        Very true (2 pts.)

(b)            Somewhat true (1 pt.)

(c)        Not true (0 pts.)


Do you think that good things happen to people who do good, and bad things to people who do bad?

(a)            Definitely (2 pts.)

(b)        To some degree (1 pt.)

(c)        No (0 pts.)


Do you think that people who get in automobile accidents are bad drivers?

(a)        Almost all the time (2 pts.)

(b)        Only occasionally (1 pt.)

(c)        No, it’s basically random (0 pts.)



Add up your point total.

15-20 points = You probably have very strong happiness-enhancing illusions.

8-14 points = You have moderate happiness-enhancing illusions.

0-7 points = You’re a sober realist, and quite possibly at greater risk for mild depression.


From Building Mental Muscle by David Gamon, Ph.D. and Allen D. Bragdon. Copyright © 1998 Allen D. Bragdon Publishers, Inc. Excerpted by arrangement with the publisher. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call toll-free 877-8SMARTS or click here.