Two weeks ago, I concluded my blog with “everyone is trying to be someone they are not”. Some of you must have realized by now that I often take deliberately provocative positions. This helps unfreeze others as they feel compelled to stake an opposing view. It’s good to stir up the pot. So, as expected, my blog elicited some interesting responses.
Of course, we are all trying to become better at what we do and as human beings. This must be encouraged. I have previously noted that to become skilled at anything requires extraordinary effort (ala the research of Carol Dweck). Similarly, to improve as human beings, we try to hone our strengths and work on our weaknesses. This is also praiseworthy.
Personally, I have always concentrated on improving my strengths instead of my weaknesses. The logic being that even after enormous efforts, the chances are that I will be, at best, average on my weaker attributes. In contrast, by working on my strengths, I aspire to be an outlier on those. This is consistent with classic positioning in marketing strategy:
Either, you are distinct, or you are extinct.
People buy you despite your weaknesses because you are occupying a corner solution (in a multidimensional attribute model). In this view, one accepts reducing some of the negative attributes only to a level that it does not deter too many buyers. The cost of this strategy of focusing on strengths and living with the weaknesses is a smaller target market. But then, how much applause does one need?
What I was actually referring to when observing that “everyone is trying to be someone they are not” were situations where one fails the authenticity test. When, our family, friends, and even society, push us to be something that we are not, and cannot pull off, we must resist.
It is surprising how many of us waste so much of our lives trying to display qualities we do not possess and gain applause we cannot hold. As one becomes older, hopefully, we get more comfortable in our own skin. As the Greek poet, Horace observed two thousand years ago:
Life is about coming back to yourself as a friend.
The above discussion allows me to introduce the concept of positive illusions. Traditionally, in psychology, having inaccurate positive beliefs about oneself was seen dysfunctional to emotional well-being. One would perhaps label such persons as delusional. Consequently, accurate perceptions of oneself was considered an essential element of mental health.
Then came the fascinating paper by Shelley Taylor in 1983 (which I received via my ex colleague, Harish Sujan), which demonstrated that most people have “positive illusions” about themselves. Her research argued that we suffer from such positive illusions in three important spheres:
- Viewing ourselves in unrealistically positive terms
- Believing we have greater control over the environment than is the case
- Holding assessments of the future that are more optimistic than base-rate data can justify
Given the prevalence of these beliefs, and that by definition it is not tenable to classify the majority as abnormal, one must conclude that accurate perceptions are not essential for mental health. And, people are quite ingenious in maintaining such inflated self-perceptions by:
- Choosing attributes for comparisons with others on which they are advantaged
- Defining attributes in ways that reflect on their perceived strengths
- Selecting comparison groups that are worse as to guarantee favourable self-perceptions
In fact, some researchers find that accurate and balanced perceptions of oneself, which traditionally was thought to be associated with a well-adjusted individual, to be correlated with depression. Though others argue that depression is more typically related with negatively biased perceptions rather than accurate perceptions. Regardless, that the term depressive realism is often used in this situation is revealing.
Since Shelley Taylor’s paper, many benefits of these optimistic self-beliefs, sometimes also measured as self-efficacy, have been established. For young children, it helps acquire language skills, develop motor skills, and aids problem solving. In adults, positive illusions help produce more creative work, lead to greater success, aids positive social relationships as well as leads to a greater ability to deal with stressful situations such as coping with severe health problems.
Clearly, we need to consider ourselves greater than we are if one is to accomplish anything worthwhile and overcome the obstacles to ambitious goals. If one only followed accurate self-beliefs, we would never attempt things that are outside our current capabilities, require extraordinary effort, and at which there is a chance of failing. However, it is only through such experiences that we grow and achieve our fullest potential.
On the other hand, these positive illusions at the extreme can become so self-aggrandizing that one becomes delusional. It can lead us to compete against those where we have no chance of winning. Unfortunately, I have often observed the dysfunctional effects of this in the workplace. The results are entirely predictable with the hallucinating person ending up feeling frustrated, and sometimes, depressed. So therein lies the dilemma. We need positive illusions, but within reason.