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 tells.
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.