Are We Fooling Ourselves with Positive Illusions?

If you ask most people whether having a positive attitude is a good thing, they would likely agree. 

Seeing the bright side of life and believing that things will improve is a core principle in most self-improvement teachings.

However, there is a human tendency to take thinking positively too far, especially regarding how we view ourselves.

The social psychology term ‘positive illusions’ describes the human tendency to have overly positive self-evaluations and an exaggerated perception of our control over our lives.

Even though positive psychology has proven that a positive mental attitude can help with a sense of happiness and fulfillment, it’s important to understand when it can go too far.

This article will look at positive illusions and how an unrealistically positive attitude can become a detriment. Once you understand how positive illusions work, it is easier to balance your views and live life more in line with reality.

What is a Positive Illusion?

The term “positive illusions” (sometimes called the positive illusion bias) originated in a 1988 paper by Shelley Taylor and Jonathan Brown. The original paper was titled Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health.

According to Taylor and Brown, a positive illusion is defined as ‘a perception that represents what is perceived in a way different from the way it is in reality. An illusion is a false mental image or conception which may be a misinterpretation of a real appearance or may be something imagined. It may be pleasing, harmless, or even useful.’ 

Positive illusions are a form of favorable self-deception or self-enhancement. They are views about ourselves that make us feel good, boost self-esteem, and help us avoid emotional discomfort.

Taylor and Brown’s study suggests that certain positive illusions are highly prevalent in normal thought and traditionally associated with mental health. However, they also note that positive illusions are regarded as mild distortions of reality and do not involve denying the obvious. 

Three Types of Positive Illusions

According to Taylor and Brown, there are three general forms of positive illusions that humans tend to believe.

1) An Inflated Assessment of Own Abilities

Sometimes called the overconfidence effect, this sort of positive illusion is commonly seen when people are asked to assess their skills compared to others (e.g., rating driving skills versus other people).

Sometimes called illusory superiority, most humans overestimate their personal qualities, attractiveness, and abilities, especially in relation to the same qualities and abilities of other people. 

This was proven in the 1999 study ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It’ by J. Kruger and D. Dunning, where participants grossly overestimated their abilities and competence.

This inflated sense of our abilities often leads to setbacks, frustration, and even failure when we are not as skilled or prepared as we assume to take on a challenging situation.

2) Unrealistic Optimism 

Most people will see their prospects and opportunities as favorable, despite no logical evidence to back them up. 

For example, many people are wildly optimistic about the relationship satisfaction they will experience in the beginning stages of a romantic relationship. 

Even though they have had negative experiences in the past, the human tendency is to think, ‘this time will be different’. This dispositional optimism is common when starting a new career, diet or exercise routine, or setting new year’s resolutions.

3) The Illusion of Control

Human beings tend to believe that they are in control of their lives to a far greater degree than they actually are. However, the vast majority of circumstances we are part of have factors completely out of our control. 

For example, driving a car may make us feel the illusion of control as we steer, accelerate, and brake. However, most of the control is outside our hands, dependent on traffic, road signs and rules, weather, and even the condition of our vehicle. 

Many individuals can become addicted to feeling in control of their lives and will seek ways to maintain control at work, in romantic relationships, and environment.

The Rise of Positive Thinking

The term ‘positive mental attitude’ was first introduced to the world by self-help pioneer Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich in 1937. 

According to Hill, positive visualization, positive beliefs, and high self-esteem are all components essential for success. 

In 1952, pastor Norman Vincent Peale published the Power of Positive thinking, popularizing the term “positive thinking”. The book was hugely successful, remaining on the bestseller list for over 180 weeks and selling over 2.5 million copies in the first three years of publication. 

Although Peale’s book has been criticized for lacking verified sources in modern times, it remains a seminal self-help classic and had a lasting impact on popular culture. 

The core premise of The Power of Positive Thinking book is to ‘picture yourself succeeding’ using positive visualization. It suggests using ‘a positive thought to drown out a negative thought’.  

This mental substitution technique has also been popularized by books like The Magic of Thinking Big, The Magic of Believing, and the Strangest Secret audio program by Earl Nightingale. The general message seems to be that the more positively you view yourself, your circumstances, and your potential, the more positive outcomes you will experience.

In the seventy years since positive thinking first became a part of popular culture, social psychology has grown in depth and breadth. Psychological science has now conducted extensive research on the impact of positive thinking and positive illusions in people’s lives.

Positive Thinking vs. Positive Illusions

Positive illusions are very similar to positive thinking because they are unrealistically favorable attitudes people have toward themselves or their circumstances.

The idea of ‘thinking positive’ is used extensively in sports, business, and everyday life to help people to feel better, see their situation differently, and potentially change their results.

Harvard Health Publishing espouses the value of positive thinking as a component of positive psychology and the relationship between positive beliefs, mental health, and high self esteem.

Additionally, a 2016 National Library of Medicine study has shown that ‘verbal worry is best countered by generating opposing positive thoughts in the same (verbal) modality.’ 

It seems that a tendency to be overly positive about your situation can have some mental and emotional benefits. Many success stories are also driven by the narrative that ‘you must believe it before you can achieve it’.

The difference between positive thinking and positive illusions seems to be that while the former can help you feel better about your life, the latter can create an unrealistic view of your skills, actual opportunities, and ability to control your life.

How To Overcome Your Positive Illusions

While all human beings tend to have positive illusions that can color their worldview, there are ways to balance them with reality. This does not mean sinking into depressive realism, or removing unrealistically positive views. Rather it means we find balance directly in the middle.

There are two easy ways to escape the trap of unrealistic positive illusions in your life.

1) Seek Objective Feedback from Experts

When we view our skills or abilities as better than they are, it is often because we are not seeking real-world feedback. If we truly want to know our skill and ability level, it can be valuable to get feedback from people who are further along the path than us.

It is important to note that you should only seek feedback from people who are experienced or have achieved what you want to achieve. Most people will have an opinion they can share with you, but they may not have an accurate worldview themselves.

As Buddha wisely said in 500 BC, “Should you find a wise critic to point out your faults, follow him as you would a guide to hidden treasure.”

2) Look For Blind Spots

The next best way to reduce the positive illusions in your life is to look for your blind spots. Find ways to review your performance and look for mistakes, slip-ups, or ways that you fall short. Rather than being guided by your emotions or opinions, examine areas where you have uncertainty. 

Looking at your results objectively, such as recording yourself or measuring them, might be uncomfortable, but it is much closer to reality. Once you understand where you are starting from, you can improve your blind spots and move closer to your potential.

Aim To Be Neutral

Perhaps the best method for growing awareness of positive illusions is to be neutral in your view of yourself and your circumstances.

When you label or judge yourself (either favorably or unfavorably), you are moving away from the reality you live in. 

It is far better to detach yourself from any judgment and simply be as neutral as possible. If you succeed in life, try not to claim credit for it. Likewise, if you fail in life, try not to blame outside circumstances.

With a more neutral view of life, the need to force a positive attitude begins to fade, and the power of being calm and present begins to take over.

In the sage words of Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, “For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.” 

It can take time and patience to let go of excess positive thinking or positive illusions, but it can also be incredibly rewarding once you see the freedom it offers you.

3 thoughts on “Are We Fooling Ourselves with Positive Illusions?

  1. What is going on with you, Daniel? This is not the DMS I met years ago. That you’re measuring your speaking skills based on Toastmasters contests is silly. We have past champions who needed to make multiple appearances just to win the world championship of public speaking. On top of that, those very same contests are more about Toastmasters marketing and self-congratulations along with finding new leaders & hardly about public speaking in my opinion. And, reality is what you make of it. Keep in mind the following quote from Audre Lorde. “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Define yourself for yourself, Daniel. Happy holidays.

    1. Good insights, Steve! Don’t worry, my confidence and belief in myself and my abilities has not waned. I am just finding more balance between positive thinking and the reality of the world. At least for me it makes sense with where I am at now. I appreciate your encouragement and the reminder where I came from. Wishing you all the best, sir! – DMS

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