Delusions and evolutionary fitness

Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler write in Useful Delusions:

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have shown that the human brain is designed to make a number of errors in perception and judgment. These “bugs”—distortions, shortcuts and other cognitive cross-wiring—produce slanted pictures of reality. They exist for a reason: Evolution found that, on average, the bugs lead to a greater likelihood of survival and reproduction. It’s a grave mistake to think that evolution is remotely interested in helping us perceive reality accurately. Natural selection has one simple standard: Evolutionary “fitness” is about whatever helps us survive and pass on our genes.

Here’s one example, later in the book:

While seeing what we want to see can certainly be a source of trouble, it is simultaneously true that a generous sprinkling of positive illusions can help us perform better, stay happier, and avoid the pitfalls of depression and low self-esteem. One paper on the subject was written in 1988, by [Shelley] Taylor and her colleague Jonathon Brown, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University. In a survey of psychological work on the subject, they concluded that positive illusions were a necessary ingredient for mental health and psychological well-being: “A great deal of research in social, personality, clinical and developmental psychology documents that normal individuals possess unrealistically positive views of themselves, and exaggerated belief in their ability to control their environment, and a view of the future that maintains that their future will be far better than the average person’s … Furthermore, individuals who are moderately depressed or low in self-esteem consistently display an absence of such enhancing illusions.” The researchers concluded that the presence of positive illusions led to “higher income, higher motivation to work, more goal seeking, more pragmatic action, more daily planning and less fatalism.”

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