We are awash in illusion. Today is no worse than yesterday in this regard, except now there is technology which can help push this illusion to ever greater heights of realism.
But worse than these are the illusions we create for ourselves. It’s bad enough that the world at large is trying to trick us, isn’t it? And yet in many ways we are our own worst enemies.
There is so much about our lives that is up to random chance and statistical probabilities. The rest of it is really up to us. And yet we handicap ourselves by spinning elaborate webs of self-deception that might help us navigate the world, but don’t really do anything to make our lives, or the lives of others, any better.
I’m no genius, but what I am is a flawed individual just like you. Here are five common illusions we create for ourselves, based on personal experience, and what we can do about them.
- “I see through the lies and view the world as it really is.” This is often referred to as being “red-pilled,” named after a scene in the popular sci-fi movie The Matrix, which came out when I was still in high school and good God do I feel old. Anyway, the idea is that everybody else is duped and that you are not. This is dangerous because it creates a false sense of security whereby one thinks they are always right. Since few things are “always right” except for the fact that nobody is ever “always right,” this creates dangerous blind spots. You might reject, or not even seek, evidence, or take potential risks seriously, because you already have The Answer.
- “I’m a good judge of character.” No you are not. People usually say this right after meeting somebody. You cannot judge somebody based on superficial characteristics, or even a deep conversation or two. You need to judge them by their fruits; that is, their actions. People’s character is a function of what they do and who they spend time with. Until you know this–which can take years–you are not judging anybody’s character. You are judging your first impression of them, which itself leads to blind spots, making you potentially easy to dupe. And when this person disappoints you and you realize your judgment was incorrect? That shatters one’s illusion, which will likely make you angry and more inclined to double-down on this mistaken belief to prove that this error was only an exception.
- “I’m totally in control of my own thoughts and actions.” This is a tricky one. You are, to a degree, but you cannot deny that biology and psychology make you do things you do not want to, or that you know are wrong. You are probably addicted to certain substances, like sugar or caffeine, for example, and even though you don’t want that chocolate bar and know that you shouldn’t eat it, you find it in your mouth anyway. Or perhaps you’re really into pornography: You know it’s harmful but the first thing you do when you get the chance is fire up the ol’ laptop and have at it. More distressingly, people never like to blame themselves for their problems, always ascribing their travails to the outside world. This will keep you stuck in your rut, because only you can change you. If you’re unaware of the natural human inclination towards being manipulated, you’ll never be able to mitigate it. Note how I didn’t say “fix” or “solve.”
- “I’m more trustworthy than other people.” Here’s an interesting one: We grossly overestimate our own abilities in everything, including traits that some might say resemble “humility.” Everybody likes to think of themselves as trustworthy. This can be moral shorthand for not doing trustworthy things. If you think you’re better in this regard than everybody else, than you’ll never feel like you’re doing anything wrong because by default it will be better than what anybody else would do. So it’s a win-win for you that is completely divorced from reality.
- “Everybody/Nobody does X, Y, or Z.” Usually, we hold this illusion because we think that if we don’t do X, or don’t get upset by Y, or believe that Z is a big deal, everybody else feels the same way. Why? Well, because we’re more trustworthy than everybody else! Or more logical, or in some other way better. This absolves us of self-reflection. How could anybody possibly do, or say, or think this? We get stuck in our own bubble, like legendary film critic Pauline Kael who, after Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election reportedly said “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” There’s a word for this: Myopia.
So what do we do about these illusions ? What magic spells can we weave to dispel ourselves of these cognitive traps?
- Stay humble. Humility is a powerful thing. We all think we’re the star of the movie we call life, but in fact we’re bit players in a cast of 6 billion or so. Keep that number in mind, because each of those 6 billion is an individual with unique needs, wants, likes, and dislikes just like you. Why is this important? Because 6 billion is a huge number, and some of them are bound to disagree with you or have a different take on things (just a hunch).
- Get feedback. It’s good to have trusted family and friends to check your ego from time to time. When we fear our heads are getting too big, it never hurts to ask somebody what they think of the situation, or how we handled things. And if you want honest feedback, you can’t take it personally, as ugly as it may be.
- Reserve judgment on others. Until you know the measure of a man, it’s tough to say you’re a “good judge of character” based on a small sample size. It’s okay to say “He seems like a nice guy,” or “He rubbed me the wrong way,” but that’s different than consigning somebody you just met to the bowels of hell because they disagreed with you on politics or had a stupid look you didn’t like or even came across like a jerk. Everybody has a story, and until you know that, and what they’ve actually done in their life, it’s impossible to judge their character one way or the other. Keep an open mind and give the benefit of the doubt until you are proven wrong.
- Evaluate your own performance. Self-reflection is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenals . . . as long as it doesn’t devolve into solipsistic navel-gazing. As new-agey as it sounds, it helps to regularly assess yourself and perform a ruthless audit: What am I doing with my time? Who am I associating with? Am I really as great as I think I am? Am I really as bad as I think I am? Are the things I’m doing getting me closer to my vision? Important things that, when coupled with feedback from other people, can help you change your behavior for the better.
- Recognize our propensity to lie to ourselves. This is at the heart of self-awareness, the knowledge that you are flawed and that it is okay. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful is this very recognition. Admitting you lie to yourself will help you from falling for many of these illusions. This bookends nicely with humility. Don’t beat yourself up! We all do this. It’s just a fact. What you do with this fact is what’s important.
Slowing down and asking questions as we recognize the illusions we create for ourselves will help you really see things as they are, because the biggest liar you have to deal with is you.
Yeah, I just called you a liar. I’m a liar too. Deal with it.
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