Dies iræ! dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!
Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuæ viæ:
Ne me perdas illa die.
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the sibyl!
Remember, merciful Jesus,
That I am the cause of thy way:
Lest thou lose me in that day.
—Mass for the Dead, sequence by Thomas of Celano (c. 1200-1260)
Most people see themselves in a much more positive light than others do them, and possess an unduly rose-tinted perspective on their attributes, circumstances, and possibilities.
Such positive illusions, as they are called, are of three broad kinds, an inflated sense of our qualities and abilities, an illusion of control over things that are mostly or entirely out of our control, and an unrealistic optimism about the future.
For example, most people think that they are a better than average driver, citizen, or parent, collectively implying that the average driver, citizen, or parent is in fact not at all average—which is obviously a statistical impossibility. A couple on the verge of getting married is likely to over- estimate the odds of having a sunny honeymoon or a gifted child but underestimate the odds of having a miscarriage, falling ill, or getting divorced.
Positive illusions may confer certain advantages such as an ability to take risks, see through major undertakings, and cope with traumatic events. In the longer term, however, the loss of perspective and poor judgement that come from undue self-regard and false hope are likely to lead to disappointment, failure, and even tragedy, not to mention the emotional and behavioural problems (such as anger, anxiety, and so on) that can be associated with a defended position.
Of special interest is that positive illusions are more prevalent in Occidental and Occidentalized cultures. In East Asian cultures, for example, people do not tend to self-enhance and may even be self-effacing. Positive illusions are also more prevalent in unskilled people. The explanation for this is thought to be that, in contrast to unskilled people, highly skilled people tend to assume—albeit falsely—that those around them enjoy a similar level of competence to them. This so-called Dunning-Kruger effect is neatly encapsulated in a short fragment from the introduction to Darwin’s Descent of Man: ‘…ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge…’
And of course it may also and simply be that, compared to highly skilled people, unskilled people are far more dependent on positive illusions for their self-esteem.
Neel Burton is author of The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide and Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception