Positive Illusions Definition
Positive illusions refers to a set of three related beliefs that characterize the way people think about (1) themselves, (2) their ability to control environmental events, and (3) their future. Instead of being evenhanded or balanced between the good and the bad, people are unrealistically positive: They believe they have many more positive than negative personal qualities, they exaggerate their abilities to bring about desired outcomes, and they are overly optimistic about their futures. If not too extreme, these positive illusions promote psychological well-being and psychological functioning.
Positive Illusions History and Background
Accurate self-views were once thought to be an essential feature of psychological well-being. It is easy to see why. People who harbor delusions of grandeur or believe they control the moon and stars are not paragons of mental health. Whether accuracy is best, however, is another matter. It is entirely possible that excessively positive self-views are detrimental, but mildly positive ones are beneficial.
One way to address this issue is to ask, “Do most people know what they are really like?” For example, suppose we randomly sample a group of people and ask them, “Compared with most other people, how intelligent are you?” Logically, most of the people in our sample should say they are as intelligent as most other people, with the rest equally split between saying they are less intelligent and more intelligent than most other people. This does not occur. Instead, most people say they are more intelligent than most other people. Furthermore, this effect occurs for a wide variety of personality traits and abilities. People believe they are more competent, flexible, and intelligent than others; drive better than others; are more caring, adaptive, and fairer than others; are happier and have better interpersonal relationships than others; and are more deserving of good fortune and good health. They also believe their judgments are less distorted by greed, self-aggrandizement, or personal gain than are other people’s judgments and that their opinions are grounded in facts, but other people’s opinions are driven by ideology. The bias even extends to friends, family, loved ones, and fellow group members, and is characteristic of people from a variety of cultures.
People also exaggerate their abilities to bring about desired outcomes. They readily credit themselves when things go well, but deny responsibility when things go awry. Together, these beliefs give rise to unrealistic optimism. Believing they are “good” and “powerful,” leads people to believe their futures will be brighter than base rate data justify. For example, even though the current divorce rate in industrialized countries is approximately 50%, roughly three-quarters of newlyweds believe they will never divorce.
The prevalence of illusions does not mean that people are wildly inaccurate. In most cases, the degree of distortion is modest, resulting in a self-portrait that is just a bit too good to be true. Moreover, positive illusions do take reality into account. For example, although smokers think they are less likely to get cancer than are most other smokers, they readily acknowledge they are at greater risk than are nonsmokers.
Benefits of Positive Illusions
If not too excessive, positive illusions can be beneficial. These benefits fall into four areas. First, positive illusions are linked with subjective well-being. People who hold positive self-views are happier and more content than are those who are more realistic. Second, under some circumstances, positive self-views can also beget success. People who are confident in their abilities often perform better at achievement-related activities (e.g., exams, sporting contests) than do those who are more modest, even when their confidence is not entirely warranted. These effects are most apparent at tasks of moderate difficulty. Third, positive illusions promote interpersonal relationships. People who view their romantic partners through rose-colored glasses are more satisfied with their relationship and more committed to it than are those who have a more realistic view of their partners’ actual strengths and weaknesses. Finally, positive illusions help people cope with life’s challenges. For example, cancer patients who believe they can prevent the recurrence of cancer enjoy greater health than do those who are realistic, and preoperative patients who are unduly optimistic about their operation’s success fare better than those who more accurately perceive the procedure’s dangers and risks.
These benefits are achieved through a variety of means, but the most important is that positive illusions promote a problem-focused approach to coping. Rather than assuming that all is lost or blithely adopting a “What, me worry?” attitude, people who exhibit positive illusions roll up their sleeves and actively strive to build brighter lives for themselves. In this sense, positive illusions have motivational consequences. Believing that success is well within one’s reach motivates people to work hard to achieve positive outcomes.
Costs of Positive Illusions
The many benefits of positive illusions should not blind us to their potential costs. First, positive illusions can lead people to undertake activities for which they are ill-suited. For example, an aspiring dancer may invest years pursuing a career in the arts without having the requisite talent. Positive illusions can also lead people to make poor economic decisions or engage in behaviors that are detrimental to their well-being. Gamblers, for example, often exaggerate their ability to control events that are heavily influenced by chance, such as roulette. Finally, positive illusions can have interpersonal costs. Although people generally prefer the company of optimistic people, they are not drawn to people who are boastful or narcissistic.
Importance of Positive Illusions
Research on positive illusions is important for two reasons. First, it has theoretical implications. Theories of mental health are largely based on what most people do (i.e., what’s normative is normal). Evidence that most people possess inaccurate self-knowledge indicates that accuracy is not an essential component of normal psychological functioning. Second, positive illusions have practical implications. The capacity to adapt to life’s challenges is one of the most important skills a person can possess. Positive illusions have consistently been shown to play a key role in helping people cope with, and even benefit from, life-threatening illnesses and life-altering tragedies.
- Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.