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Illusion and Well-Being

A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health
Shelley E. Taylor and Jonathon D. Brown
Psychologlcal Bulletin 1988, Vol. 103, No. 2, 193-210

(read this paper)

Many prominent theorists have argued that accurate perceptions of the self, the world, and the future are essential for mental health. Yet considerable research evidence suggests that overly positive self-evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control or mastery, and unrealistic optimism are characteristic of normal human thought. Moreover, these illusions appear to promote other criteria of mental health, including the ability to care about others, the ability to be happy or contented, and the ability to engage in productive and creative work. These strategies may succeed, in large part, because both the social world and cognitive-processing mechanisms impose filters on incoming information that distort it in a positive direction; negative information may be isolated and represented in as unthreatening a manner as possible. These positive illusions may be especially useful when an individual receives negative feedback or is otherwise threatened and may be especially adaptive under these circumstances.

Note that in psychology “adaptive” means “a good way to cope psychologically” rather than the evolutionary sense of increasing one's reproductive success. This paper is part of the literature of Positive Illusions. Subsequent work has supported the core ideas that people seem to normally exhibit exaggerated impressions of their competence, of their control over events and of how they are less likely to suffer misfortunes, and also that these unrealistic beliefs are associated with mental health. Effects of Mindset on Positive Illusions offers an explanation of why this bias tolerable—we can turn it off when we need to.

Is there a Universal Need for Positive Self-Regard? argues that these positive illusions are less prevalent in Japan and that mental health norms are also different in Japan. So these optimistic or self-serving biases may be a consequence of western culture rather that a biological imperative. Cultural or not, we can still consider whether this bias is adaptive in the evolutionary sense.

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