Respect Each Others’ Delusions

I love the saying that people don’t remember books; they remember sentences.

One sentence that knocked me off my feet when I read Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History was:

Learn enough from history to bear reality patiently, and respect one another’s delusions.

I love that so much.

The key here is accepting that everyone is deluded in their own unique way. You, me, all of us.

When you realize that you – the good, noble, well-meaning, even-tempered, fact-driven person that you are – have views of how the world works that are sure to be incomplete if not completely wrong, you should have empathy for others whose deluded beliefs are obvious to you. I am such a fan of Daniel Kahneman’s observation that we are better at spotting other people’s flaws than our own.

Of course there is a limit to respecting other people’s delusions. Delusions that directly harm or impede others shouldn’t be tolerated.

But let me share just three causes of major delusions. And ask yourself: Do you think you are exempt from these forces?

1. Nothing is as persuasive as what you’ve experienced firsthand.

David McRaney has a great line here: “When the truth is uncertain, our brains resolve uncertainty without our knowledge by creating the most likely reality they can imagine based on our prior experiences.”

And since we’ve all had massively different life experiences, what seems obvious to me may be bonkers to you, and vice versa. Most debates are not really debates; They are two people with different life experiences talking over each other.

This can occur even within the same person: Some things that I fiercely believed at age 20 I now consider hilariously wrong, and I’m sure the same will occur at age 60 when I look at things I believe today.

Everyone is trying to make sense of the world through the lens of their own experience, and as those experiences grow everyone’s lens tends to focus on a slightly different version of “truth” in the world – especially for social topics like politics, religion, and investing.

2. Your willingness to believe something is influenced by how much you want and need it to be true.

If you tell me you’ve found an easy way to double my money in a week, I’m not going to believe you by default.

But if I desperately owed someone money next month that I don’t have, I would listen. And if my children were starving and my only hope for their survival was doubling my money next week, I would hang on your every word.

The majority of lottery tickets are purchased by the lowest-income Americans. Why? I have a theory: The lowest-income Americans overestimate their odds of winning because when you feel trapped in poverty-stricken stagnation you desperately need to believe that you can buy a ticket out of your situation in order to maintain a certain level of functioning optimism.

That’s a stark example, but the same force influences the beliefs of everyone.

There is a thing in psychology called depressive realism, which is the idea that depressed people make more accurate predictions of the world because they are more attuned to how fragile, competitive, and ruthless life can be.

But they are a minority. Most of us cling to the opposite, carrying around comforting delusions that guide our beliefs.

A lot of decisions are statistically wrong but support the incentives of the person making them – a good thing to remember when analyzing the predictions you use to justify your own actions.

Another McRaney quote fits well here: “Until we know we are wrong, being wrong feels exactly like being right.”

3. When there’s an absence of perfect information, emotion, passion, and tribal identity fill the void.

Astrophysicist Gregory Benford coined Benford’s Law of Controversy, which states that passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available.

Uncertainty is painful to accept. It’s far more comfortable to form a complete narrative about how things work. In a quest to leave no question unanswered, emotion gladly fills the holes left by a lack of information.

The problem with emotion and passion is they tend to be black or white, with no room for the nuance required to understand most topics. You get a false sense of confidence, and one that’s disguised as absolute truth.

Some people are more susceptible than others, but no one is exempt from these.

So as we finish up the year – yet another year filled with controversy, confusion, disagreement and passion, as they all are – I want to focus more on the Durant’s timeless wisdom.

Let’s bear reality patiently, and respect one another’s delusions.