The first order of business is to announce that the comment section has been fixed (thanks, Collin). Now our comments will be in a pleasant, standard paragraph format. Sorry if you had trouble posting your comments earlier.

Second order of business: after reading this post, feel free to cast your vote for whether you would like the next post to be of a more personal nature (such as my “memories” post) or if you would like another more informative post riddled with stress-related info.

AND NOW….let’s get down to this evening’s post:

I used to think that the closer my thoughts were in alignment with objective reality, then the healthier and more fulfilled that would make me. Some doubt was cast on that once I studied the work of Shelley Taylor a little bit.

Taylor’s theory of cognitive adaptation suggests how humans adapt after a stressful life event. Her theory includes three main themes: a search for meaning (to understand why the event took place and assessment of one’s life post-event), an attempt to re-gain control (mastery), and self-enhancement after the event, in order to build one’s self esteem. These themes are interconnected. Taylor introduces the concept that humans develop and maintain illusions in order to resolve these three themes.

Meaning and mastery can be integrated. We seek to understand the meaning of an event not merely to know why it happened but also to discover the implications for our life now.  Mastery revolves around themes of personal control. Our efforts to control life in response to stress can be on a behavioral level or strictly mental (i.e., doing something vs. altering our perspective). The causes that we attribute to an event are may be based on illusion because often they are not known; these illusions can still benefit the victim by creating a sense of control and self efficacy.

According to Taylor & Brown, holding certain illusions can promote happiness and health.

Here are three healthy illusions that she suggests are adaptive.

unrealistically positive views of the self: The majority of well-adjusted people think they are above average. This is not possible. I took elementary statistics last semester, and as it turns out, there is this whole bell-curve situation and “average” falls right smack dab in the middle where the majority of people reside. SO–the majority of people thinking that they are all above average is indicative of illusion. Another measure in the study was that people were observed performing certain tasks and then asked to rate how well they did them. The self-report that people gave about their performance was higher than the report of the people who had observed them.

exaggerated perceptions of personal control: Many happy and healthy people inferred that they had control over situations that were determined by chance. People believe they produced desired outcome.

unrealistic optimism: Many happy and healthy people believe that the present is better than the past and the future will be even better. People believe the future will be even better for them than for others. They believe that the future will correspond to what they want.

Conversely, accurate self-knowledge is not indicative of mental health. Depressed people in the study had more balanced and realistic perceptions of self and future. Strange, huh?

These healthy illusions mentioned here have been shown to lead to an increased:

ability to care for others: positive illusions are associated with social bonding–indirectly, through creating a positive mood.

capacity for creative and productive work: positive illusions facilitate creative functioning; they enhance motivation, persistence, and performance.

By this definition, people with the above illusions are adaptive and healthy. And then one wonders if these illusions do become a reality for those individuals who keep believing. I think that if you set your mind and attitudes toward optimism and hope then your life will be affected by that in a positive way. Plus, it certainly does make the journey more enjoyable along the way.

Of course, it is important to make sure that your hopeful illusions are not creating negative outcomes for yourself or others. Believing that things will work out and get better in some situations (i.e., abusive or toxic relationships) is not going to help anyone. Also, holding illusions that insulate an individual with real problems from seeking help or correcting his or her deviant behavior isn’t good, either, no matter how happy that individual feels while engaging in destructive behaviors.

So, maybe the gauge for the illusions you allow yourself to hold or or not should be the outcomes they produce in your life and the life of others?

Taylor, S.E. (1983). Adjustment to threatening events: a theory of cognitive adaptation. American Psychologist. 38:1161-1173

Taylor, S.E., and Brown, J.D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin. 103(2):179-192.

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13 Responses to ILLUSION

  1. jason says:

    But it was the majority of well adjusted people who thought they were above average, right? So that is technically possibly, because they are a subset of “all people.” And maybe thinking you’re above average is a key to becoming above average. (I think it kind of is.)

    • Lindsay says:

      Yes, I thought of this, too (the subset thing), but I think that they were just meaning that the excluded from the study people who were maladaptive. So, I think that the sample was still representative of most people…I’d have to go back and read the article to be sure.

      But, I agree that thinking you’re above average does inspire excellence. If you hold yourself to a higher standard for what you expect from yourself and your life, then you’ll probably end up living in a way that produces better outcomes than if you settled for “good enough.”

  2. jason says:

    And I vote that you post both an informative article plus a personal one every day, and that they be thematically linked, and that you also post a video of pictures and charts that support your central theme, accompanied by a song that you wrote and recorded to further clarify your thesis.

  3. jessica says:

    also–I read an article on what makes a good marriage a good marriage (notice I said I READ the article, and not that I WROTE the article). In it, the author said that, statistically, the couples who are successful tend to have higher expectations of their relationship with each other. They expect to be happier and expect for the other person to meet their needs and be romantic and it works like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    That made me think of what you wrote here; I think there is a correlation.

    (also, I think you should write what you feel inspired to write!)

    • Lindsay says:

      That’s interesting, Jessic. I hadn’t applied these concepts to relationship expectations and outcomes. That makes sense, though. I think that our beliefs and attitudes shape so much of how we live, and that certainly includes how we relate to the people closest to us.

  4. mom says:

    also, optimism can be looking at reality …with no illusion about the bad parts, but emphasizing good parts..
    like pop pop….i think he extended his life with his attitude…no illusion about being sick just chose to focus on what he had that was good and was thankful for …

  5. Lindsay says:

    Yes, I think that optimism can be powerful, too. I know that Pop-Pop definitely had a positive outlook on life. I am not sure where illusion and optimism intersect; whatever Pop Pop was doing, it definitely worked to defy his medical prognoses several times.

  6. Stef says:

    Did the study mention anything about an age range for the healthy, happy, above average people…because MOST of my high school students are convinced that they are above average. Hmmm…

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