People are strange. We possess the ability to evaluate evidence and apply logic to solve complex problems. We use sophisticated reasoning skills to cure disease, explore the universe, and create technology that transforms lives. But logic and reason often take a backseat when deciding what we think and believe is true when misguided beliefs allow us to accomplish our goals.
More often than not, we lead with our goals and desires, not the facts, then distort, overlook, and contort the evidence to fit. And it’s not just in the realm of personal politics, religion, and global affairs where our objectives can override reasoning. Intimate relationships are held together by biased reasoning. Our healthiest, most successful relationships are not based on a complete understanding of who our partners are, but by positive illusions.
Happy couples are more likely to assign positive traits and qualities to their partners, regardless of the actual existence of such positive attributes. And most people genuinely believe that their romantic partners are overwhelmingly honest, despite the fact that the complexity of our close relationships makes it difficult for partners to always tell each other the truth. Concealing information from a partner is common when the truth is likely to result in hurt feelings, long conversations about the topic, or some form of punishment.
Research also shows that we think we know our partners better than we really do. The accumulative evidence points in one direction: the aim of wanting to be in an intimate relationship takes priority over having an unblemished and rational view of who our partners are and how our relationships work. Or in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.”
But going through life with our eyes half shut seems kind of reckless. Wouldn’t it be better to have an accurate read on what’s going on around us?
Many scholars are coming to the conclusion that as we evolved as a species, getting others to go along with us served us better than coming to terms with reality. Being able to convince others or use arguments to our benefit was more helpful than being realistic and sensible. We’re first and foremost a social, goal-directed, animal—being practical is a less pressing concern.
Recent research by Robert Trivers and his colleagues sheds light on just how useful our ability to delude ourselves can be. In a clever experiment, participants were asked to write a speech about a character after watching a series of videos of him engaging in positive, neutral, and negative actions. Sometimes the participants saw the character behaving positively before acting in a negative way and vice versa. Before watching the videos, the participants were randomly instructed to try to persuade others to form either a positive, neutral, or negative opinion of the character. A financial reward was offered to participants who wrote the most persuasive messages. Participants in turn watched the videos in a biased manner. For instance, if their goal was to write a positive message the participants lost interest in watching the rest of the videos when they first saw the character helping someone in distress. After seeing evidence to support their goal, they’d seen enough. However, if their goal was to write a positive message and the first few videos showed the character behaving poorly, they kept watching until they saw him engage in a positive action—they held out until they saw what they wanted to see.
The participants also formed judgments about the character consistent with the message they were asked to write. For example, those who were asked to write a positive passage actually saw him in a more positive light (and they thought other people would see it the same way). More importantly, people who let their goals influence their beliefs and watched the videos in a biased manner also created the most persuasive messages. This study shows that goals can influence how we take in information, shape what we believe to be true, and help us get others to see the world as we do. It appears that self-deception plays an important role in helping us accomplish our goals.
The next time you encounter someone who fails to see reason, they’re probably not being any more or less unreasonable than you—their goals simply differ from yours. Facts be damned, it’s our goals that matter.
Cole, T., & Duddleston, E. (forthcoming). Broken trust. Chicago, IL: Immensus Press.
Mercier, H., & D. Sperber (forthcoming). The enigma of reason. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 79-98.
Smith, M. K., Trivers, R., & von Hippel, W. (forthcoming). Self-deception facilitates interpersonal persuasion. Journal of Economic Psychology.
Swann Jr, W. B., & Gill, M. J. (1997). Confidence and accuracy in person perception: Do we know what we think we know about our relationship partners?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(4), 747-757.