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Useful Delusions by Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler (review)

This is inspired by a book review in the WSJ 2021-03-03 by Matthew Hutson. I found it through my public library.

In a single sentence tucked away in the foreword
to Richard Dawkins's 1976 book "The Selfish Gene,"
the evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers offered a
powerful idea: We've evolved to fool ourselves the
better to keep "the subtle signs of self
knowledge" from undermining our tall tales with
Our willingness to participate in fictions makes
storytelling a particularly powerful force.
Messrs. Vedantam and Mesler suggest novels require
a bit of belief to keep us enthralled, and
advertising turns on our buying into brand
narratives. Golfers performed better when told
they had Nike clubs. More important, group
cohesion flows from investment in origin stories,
a belief that something unseen ties us together.
Ceremonies and other rituals can make these tales
visceral, and groups from college fraternities to
nations – motley populations otherwise defined
by little more than lines on a map – rely on
fake-it-till-you-make-it solidarity to do things
like land on the moon. Religions trade in the
power of stories too: Evidence suggests fear of
angry gods bootstrapped altruism toward strangers
until we could put the modern state in place. Such
suspensions of skepticism, the authors write, "are
responsible for creating some of the crowning
glories of human civilization."

And what about love? What Messrs. Vedantam and
Mesler mean when they talk about love is, you
guessed it, self-deception. Don't blame science
writers for this romantic dose of realism; word is
long out. Take it from Fleetwood Mac: "Tell me
lies, tell me sweet little lies." (Or George
Bernard Shaw, with a quote the authors would
appreciate: "Love is a gross exaggeration of the
difference between one person and everybody
else.") One study found that the more participants
valued a given trait, the more they overestimated
its quantity in their partners – and in turn
the happier they were.


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