Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power Of Self-Deception, by Joseph T. Hallinan
This book is sort of the flip side of the author’s previous book on why we make mistakes. This is the sort of book that happens fairly organically for a writer. First one researches a subject in great detail, and then one finds that in the course of doing one’s original research one has enough or almost enough material for another book that is related to the previous one but has a slightly different focus. So David McCullough turned his scraps from a John Adams biography into a thoughtful discussion of the year of America’s Declaration of Independence, and so Joseph Hallinan turns his scraps on mistakes people make to the way in which the systematic biases of the overly optimistic and self-deluded mind are in fact a good thing and that given that we need confidence to survive, that which gives us confidence is a good thing . As was the case with the author’s previous work, there is a great deal of humanity in the author’s approach and he deals with the subject of confidence and self-deception with a great deal of gentleness and mildness, something that many readers are likely to appreciate.
Like Gaul, this book is divided into three parts, beginning with a discussion of the power of nothing (placebos and the like), with chapters on the medicine of imagination (1), the human stampede of mass delusions (2), and fatal delusions that can kill people and animals thanks to the power of the nocebo (3). The second part of the book looks at the eye of the beholder problem, examining the power of expectations (4), the benefits that come to people who are true believers (5), the way that human beings seem to obsessively need control over our environment (6), and the way that superstition runs far deeper than our much-vaunted rationality, especially when times are difficult (7). The last section of the book looks at the delusions of success, including the way that people often become drunk with power (8), think that the bad things that happen to others can’t happen to them (9), and the ways that delusions can provide the hope that allows people to survive adversity and difficulty (10). The book’s main point appears to be that since confidence is necessary to survive, the sort of accuracy of understanding that comes from being depressed is often decidedly negative, and so we should not judge ourselves too harshly for preferring illusion.
While the author’s point in this book is rather humane and delivered with a high degree of tact and mildness, the author’s points about rationality and delusions are nonetheless immensely troubling. Is there a way to gain the benefit of optimism without allowing it to lead us into deception? The author appears to present the reader with a false dilemma by which delusion and error on the one hand are countered by a depressive realism that leads people into ruin and self-destruction. He does not present a picture by which a faith that ultimately matches a deeper reality than he recognizes serve the aims of both truth and success, only leaving the reader with the idea that faith in anything is better than faith in nothing. Perhaps if the author were himself a person of faith himself, it would be easier for him to seek a synthesis between his praise of faith and his general skepticism about that which human beings have faith in. Instead the author leaves the reader with a puzzle, but no way out of the maze we often find ourselves in when struggling with what to believe in.
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