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Believing Your Own Self Delusion

We cover the challenges of deluded thinking a lot here at Ergonomics in Design. Part of the reason is that I am fascinated by the psychological processes that lead to deluded thinking. Humans are remarkably capable at coming to the conclusions that we prefer rather than the ones that might be normatively optimal (whatever that means).

The other reason of course is that as human factors practitioners we need to be aware of when deluded thinking can impact performance. Deluded thinking is not always harmless. It can impact our health, our work performance, or lead to unsafe and potentially fatally conditions.

Here is a good example that I suspect will resonate with you. As you might expect, many people “airbrush” what they post on social media such as Facebook. Because of how public our posts are, it is only natural to put our best foot forward. We filter what life events we post to pick out the best. And then we avoid posting the events that we feel bad about, such as staying home alone on a Saturday night or failing at a task at work. Even with the filtered events, we embellish them to make them even better. Just small changes, otherwise we might feel bad about it. But we can maintain our self-image as an honest person by keeping the embellishments small, just like we know everyone else is also doing.

My Take

What makes it more interesting is that we start believing our own deceptions. The process of reconsolidation describes how recalling a memory from long-term storage can easily change some of its details. When the hippocampus re-encodes the memory and “puts it back” into long-term storage, it becomes a blend of the original memory and our current state.

The effect on social media is larger than when it occurs naturally. When we recall past events naturally, there is a rich visual image in our minds that maintains a great deal of its fidelity. But when we are reading words on a screen, even when they are our own, it is easier for falsehoods to become part of the blended image that we recreate in our minds. And then every time someone comments on our post, we read it again, reinforcing the embellished version that gets re-encoded.

Your Turn

OK, so now it is admission time. Do you embellish your social media posts? Is it just a vague suspicion of your own tendency? Or do you have a devious plan to take over the world (sorry for the old Pinky and the Brain reference there)?

And from a human factors perspective, what consequences do you foresee from this trend? On one hand, it could just be a mechanism for us all to lead happier lives by improving our reminiscence. But there are plenty of contexts where false positiveness could be harmful. Near misses become great happy hour stories when they could be opportunities for safety investigation and improvement.

Image credit: Eric McGregor

5 thoughts on “Believing Your Own Self Delusion”

  1. Two comments Marc-

    The embellished Facebook postings may improve our reminiscence but the cost of that will be that current events can not be live up with the new reality that we have created.

    This seems to be part of larger trend of trying to use the web to create the reality we want to see. We can talk ourselves into believing that Europe is full of “no-go zones” and that 19th century America was a complete melting pot where everyone in Chinatown or German Village spoke perfect English. If you search long enough you’ll find someone online that shares your beliefs.

  2. The tendency to believe your own ” hype” is indeed a very interesting phenomenon. I tend to agree that repetition via social media voices (like counts) seems to feed this trend. Beside memory reconsolidation as an explanatory concept it is not altogether different from other bias creating forces folks are willing to pay large sums of money for in commercial advertising, marketing and politics. What is worry some here is that social media helps speed up the accompanying degradation and loss of cognitive “value anchors” which can otherwise guide rational human judgment and decision making and serve to counteract delusion. Perhaps this is where we need some auto-analytic smart tools that help highlight, record and trace shifts in
    opinion and display as feedback the overall magnitude of
    self-deception. This supposedly is the truth meter, some form of which has been previously used in some news programs as a way to journalistically deflate exaggerated claims or outright fabrications. It works by presenting facts that counter the claim. So what we have with social media effects is a simple process acceleration of cognitive bias creation. This may explain other polarization phenomena such as entrenchment of certain counterfactual attitudes by geographical location or race or the development of phobias and fears. The only antidote so far that has been proposed is to stop this electronic self-worship, de-link, turn-off, go-offline and step out and reacquaint yourself with nature and physical sensation as reality.

  3. Great suggestions! I would love a truth meter. But here is an interesting design question:
    1. Truth meter on click bait – clearly needed and valuable.
    2. Truth meter on mass media articles – easy to say yes. But perhaps harder to judge.
    3. Truth meter on my friends’ posts that show up in my feed. I think I would want something, but I am really not sure what.
    4. Truth meter on my posts that my friends see. Ummmmm . . . .
    5. Truth meter on my posts that I see. No thanks. I want the ability to delude myself ;-).

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