Self Delusion and Deception: Maybe We're Not So Smart


David McRaney is a journalist with a passion for psychology and interests in blogging and twittering. He started a blog in which he began to explore some self delusions; ways we all deceive ourselves through faulty thinking and reasoning. He used narrative journalism to explore these delusions and over time gathered a following of fans and a good collection of mental distortions and biases. He wrote about three categories of distortions known as cognitive bias, fallacies and heuristics. These distortions lead to beliefs, feelings and actions that are often not in our best interest and can keep us from taking more effective action or drawing more accurate conclusions.

Cognitive Bias

Cognitive bias is a pattern of poor judgment or a lapse in good judgment that is often triggered by a situation. For example, a mob or herd mentality may lead us to take an action that we might not ordinarily take because everyone else in the group is taking that action. This is known as the bandwagon effect. Sometimes cognitive bias can be effective in making quick decisions without having to think the decision through every time we face a similar set of circumstances. Often misapplication occurs, though, and a fixed decision is applied to a different set of circumstances and a person is unable to perceive that the circumstances have changed. Sometimes cognitive bias results from faulty human brain structure. Cognitive dissonance, an idea explained in a previous hub about Admitting a Wrong, is one of the theoretical causes of cognitive bias.


Fallacies, as you might recall from a logic course, are incorrect arguments in logic that result in unsound conclusions. An example of a fallacy would be to conclude, based on the knowledge that girls wear dresses that all persons wearing dresses are girls. While it is true that girls wear dresses, it is not necessarily true that all persons wearing dresses are girls. Generalizations are fallacies. A person who struggles with depression and anxiety often learns in treatment to recognize patterns of over generalizing, jumping to hasty conclusions or false conclusions without considering all of the facts. A common fallacy in the political arena and in unhealthy relationships is the ad hominem, which is attacking the arguer instead of the argument.


Heuristics are simple rules to live by or to be used for making decisions. They become hard wired in our brains as a result of evolution. Heuristics can be a rule of thumb, procedural guidelines or methods used to accomplish a goal. Cognitive heuristics happen without awareness when we are trying to solve a complex problem by solving a simpler problem. A person might be observed to be answering a different question than he was asked without being aware that he had made a mental substitution that was easier to answer. A model airplane is a heuristic model of an actual airplane. It is not identical to an airplane, but can be used to better understand airplanes. In corporate environments, professionals are often employed to develop algorithms that can be used to essentially replace the professional’s judgment with a technician who can follow the algorithm at a lower wage or salary – at least until circumstances change or an unanticipated event occurs. In politics, most people don’t exert a lot of effort to fully understand public and political concepts, but look to the media to simplify the concepts so that a person might seem to be more informed than he is. Using simplifying shortcuts, complex military and intelligence activity becomes a “war on terror” and any form of government assistance becomes “socialism.”

Launch Trailer

Book Trailer

You are Not so Smart

David McRaney’s blog was the beginning of a recently released book identified by The Atlantic magazine as one of the best psychology books of 2011. His book, You Are Not So Smart, lets us all know in a very fun-loving way that we are not as smart, logical and rational as we like to believe. We are all delusional and deceived, and reality is very often much different from the way we perceive it. We are, as he says in his blog, unaware of how unaware we are.

The launch trailer for his book illustrates the concepts in Chapter 5 on the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. It identifies the misconception that we “take randomness into account when [we] are determining cause and effect.” He identifies the reality or truth of the matter is that we “tend to ignore random chance when the results seem meaningful or when [we] want a random event to have a meaningful cause.” Chapter 5 walks us from misconception to truth, from delusion to sanity, all for naught possibly as our minds seem set to deceive us.

In the book trailer we learn that we have too many facebook friends if we have more that 150, that most of our memory is fiction, and 46 other ways we deceive ourselves. The book begins with an introduction that shows clearly that we all share a false belief that we are logical, rational and intelligent beings. We learn the truth that we all are deluded – and that’s ok.

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Comments 36 comments

Au fait profile image

Au fait 5 years ago from North Texas

Interesting and definitely food for thought. Well written. As a PSYC major however, I think we need to be careful about making generalizations (as you pointed out yourself, in your section on falacies) such as, "We learn the truth that we are all deluded -- and that's ok," (your last sentence). Not everyone is deluded all of the time. Excellent information overall.

Voting you UP and interesting!

Melissa McClain profile image

Melissa McClain 5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Intriguing! McRaney's blog and book are definitely something I'll look into. I've often wondered just how objectively I'm capable of looking at my own abilities. Apparently I'm not that capable and neither is anyone else!

diogenes profile image

diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico

This is a very interesting article. We haven't seen a lot of "self-help" psychological books around since the 1980's when there was a whole slew of them ("I'm OK: You're OK"..."The Naked Ape," are two that come to mind...there were many more).

If the author actually said "We are all deluded, and that's OK" it doesn't impart a lot of credibility to his writing, does it (He's just deluded, too).

The last wonderful book of this type I bought is Pinker's "How the mind works," which I recommend to one and all.

I am not subject (in my dotage) to take up crusades for any new author and his ideas, but I see your author is taking established psychological principles and blinging them up!

I'd like to read the book and may buy it


algarveview profile image

algarveview 5 years ago from Algarve, Portugal

Indeed our perception is totally clouded. I've often thought of this. But then, how to know what is true, what is not. Should we just embrace our faulty perception as reality? Very interesting hub and I'll check out the book. Voted up.

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

@Au fait. Thanks for reading and commenting. That last sentence was a continuation of the one before it about what the book shows....that we are all deluded and that's ok. The author actually uses "you" language. The actual introduction to the book begins with the "misconception" that "you are a rational, logical human being who sees the world as it actually is." He continues with the "truth" which is that "you are as deluded as the rest of us, but that's ok, it keeps you sane." It reminded me of the book that diogenes is talking about, "I'm ok. You're ok. And That's OK" about transactional analysis that I believe may have come out in the 70s. I suspect the author was intelligent and aware enough to recognize that he was generalizing, but I may have been projecting my own intelligence. It appears it was your own inference that "we are all deluded" means "we are all deluded all the time." I took it to mean that every one of us is, at times, deluded. And I believe the author makes a good case for the possibility that we may be deluded more often than not! We're so defensive....which is explained in the other hub noted above about making mistakes. Ironically, the more I learn the less I know:) Keep studying Au fait. I may re-word the last 2 sentences to make it more clear, because I was having a strong compulsion to finish this hub at 2:30 am so I could get some sleep. But then, if I change it, others won't understand this discussion. My hub is as imperfect as my brain, and that's ok:)

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

@Melissa McClain - I suspect we're even more delusional when it comes to assessing ourselves! I do believe that learning to recognize and correct these biases and mis-perceptions can help make us more rational and logical, but as explained in the other hub about making mistakes, our brains are just not as rational and logical as we like to think! All the more reason to work harder at it rather than to throw in the proverbial towel:) Thanks for reading and commenting Melissa McClain:)

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

@diogenes - ca-ching. you make my heart sing. buy the psychobabble with bling:)

I think the author sets himself up for a lot of defensive responses by using "you" language, but he does acknowledge that he is one of "us" and is quick to point out in his blog that he is a journalist with an interest in psychology, not an expert on the workings of the human brain. He even welcomes corrections. I think it is safe to say that we are all very vulnerable to being deluded and that we are all deluded more often than we realize. Have a great week end, Bob:)

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

@algarveview - thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I think it would be a fallacy to conclude that because we are all vulnerable to being irrational that we should not make an effort to be rational. I do think we can embrace our imperfect brains and our imperfect selves, while working toward being more rational and logical by learning to recognize and correct faulty thinking patterns. I also think we may be seeing a pendulum swing from an era in which we have exalted logic at the expense of emotion and spirituality to a more balanced way of perceiving and judging ourselves, others and the world. Have a happy...and illogical...New Year, algarveview. Thanks again:)

algarveview profile image

algarveview 5 years ago from Algarve, Portugal

Hello, again, I think you are right, it may be time to find a balance. Thank you and have a happy new year, also.

Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK

Interesting hub. I’ve been using 'The Work of Byron Katie’ to question beliefs for several years, and so have long been aware that much of what I think is nonsense. That’s a great relief in many ways, though I suspect there’s still plenty times I delude myself.

I found what you wrote about a person with anxiety jumping to conclusions very useful as it helps me to understand why a person close to me often does this.

Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

Hi Kim-well written article and I enjoyed the snipets you've included.

My curiousity was picqued: how did you come to discover this author and his book?

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

@Melovy - I'm not familiar with Byron Katie - will definitely look into him/her. Jumping to conclusions is a very common cognitive distortion. I thought I had linked a list of them on another hub, but I can't seem to find it. I may write another hub on just that. Thanks for the idea. if you google cognitive distortions or look for a workbook on anxiety and phobia, or even on depression, you'll find it....if you're interested. Thanks for reading and commenting Melovy.

Melovy profile image

Melovy 5 years ago from UK

Hi again Kim, I am half-way through a hub on Byron Katie, hope to finish it in a few days. Her life story is fascinating, but it’s the process she developed that is truly awesome. It has some similarities to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but there are significant differences.

I have read quite a bit about anxiety and cognitive distortions, but somehow how you wrote it just put it all into place for me with regard to my friend. So thank you for that - thanks a lot!

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

Hi Denise Handlon:) Thanks for reading and commenting. I suppose the story of how I discovered the author and the book could be a hub itself, but I'll do the reader's digest version. I publish a newspaper called Behavioral Health News which I have written a hub about, and I belong to quite a few social network groups related to behavioral health. I also follow a lot of behavioral health professionals on twitter, and google a lot of behavioral health topics - always on the look out for articles for the BH News, ideas for hubs and the latest in behavioral health. (see also my hub on the textbook of psychoanalysis and a dangerous method) Once I find something on a topic of interest, I google and search some more to find more information, see what's already been written, and look for a different take on the same topic. One of my connections at LinkedIn publishes a magazine on behavioral health care and posted a link with his comments to the Atlantic article mentioned above about the best psychology books in 2011. I read the article. This book was the first one featured in the article and was right up my alley. There have been a few other articles published recently about the book as well. I read those. I was curious about the author and googled the book title to find the web page that promotes the book because those always have "about the author" pages. I came across the author's blog where he posted how the book came about and about himself. I emailed him to let him know I was considering doing a hub about him and his book, and asked if he had any additional information or comments. I have since emailed him a link to this hub. Who knows, maybe he'll stop in and post a comment:)

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

thanks for clarifying Melovy. Apparently I jumped to a wrong conclusion!!! sometimes I'm slow getting around to reading because there is so much good stuff to read, so if you think of it, please let me know when you publish that. I'm very curious now.

Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

Dr Bill Tollefson 5 years ago from Southwest Florida

Another skillful HUB by you and great introduction to many to the book "You are not so Smart". I look forward to reading more from you and his book. Thanks.

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

thanks Dr Bill. I like the fresh look the book gives to cognitive distortions and just thinking about thinking. I hope your new year is blessed:)

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writeronline 5 years ago

"We all are deluded". Finally, a rational analysis of the human condition.

Thank God the rest of you are finally catching on. It's been a lonely 60plus years so far, out here in what most people generalise as LaLa Land.

Time now for you to get off the bandwagon, and lose the cognitive bias that allows you to reach false conclusions like, "You think differently to me. More people think like me. Therefore you are the idiot (or more charitably, wrong)."

Instead, recognise that one man's cognitive dissonance is another's rational alarm bell that what we're being told and sold (incl war on terror, etc) doesn't magically become true, just because more members of society's herd fail to question it.

Once you get past that groupthink / herd mentality, why not complete the transformation from mass cognitive bias to informed self-awareness, by Admitting You Were Wrong?

Don't need to do that in public, just to yourself. Get a sheet of paper and write down all the moral / ethical / judgmental / weird things (eg, facebook friends? there's an oxymoron), you've allowed yourself to believe to be true, simply because it's more comfortable being like everyone else.

Then review them one by one, and challenge yourself to maintain that self delusion and deception - based on this 'new knowledge', that we might not be as smart as we think we are.

Sorry, gotta go, the men in the white coats are coming back...

john000 5 years ago

On Heuristics and Cognitive Bias-

It reminds me of something helpful an old Navy chief petty officer once told me. He said that when everybody else is in a panic, try to relax. It is hard to do, but has helped me take care of problems on many an occasion.

This hub is very instructive and constructive. Thank you.

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

@WOL - LOL!!!ROFL:):):) (do people still use those acronyms? - if so i'll stop) What an incredibly effective summary of two of my hubs - and evidence that you've been paying attention, WOL. I doubt they are coming for you at this point. Is there anyone else at home? Have a very blessed and moderately happy new year, WOL...

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

@john000 - my favorite example of thinking clearly and remaining calm in a crisis is the movie apollo 13. It sounds like the petty officer was a positive influence in your life - then and now. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment john000. I appreciate it.

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writeronline 5 years ago

"Is there anyone else at home?" Hahaha, love it. My wife does only allow me limited access to my computer, but I've figured out how to break the childproof code and when she goes out, I'm all over it.

BTW, I actually have bit of a thing (not that, I already admitted that), about groupthink and herd mentality, and most of all, our collective willingness to believe what we want to believe, even, and often, in the face of available and apparent contradictory information.

Especially in times of war,(incl jingoistic war, like the War On Terror) when the need to feel secure and protected from The Enemy, coupled with the need to validate our own hostile acts (eg The Pre-Emptive Strike) gives rise to all kinds of cognitive bias, and false conclusions. Including religious ones.

I know you know what's coming...:) I wrote a Hub about it, called "Words of War and Deception. And the Untruth of God on Our Side." It's a bit of a treatise, so I'd understand if time prevents you; but if you're bored sometime...

Anyway, backatcha with the new year wishes, kim. It's been fun so far.(New Year's Day downunder where I am.)

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 5 years ago from United States

This is a very interesting article and it certainly gives you something to think about. Rated up!

sweetie1 profile image

sweetie1 5 years ago from India

Hi Kim, very nicely written hub. I have seen lots of self doubting person in life. Most are made to beleive they are no good. A friend of mine once said that it is not easy to be better than others so take easy way to bring them down to make yourself look good. But by this you make other person feel not smart.

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

@Pamela99 - Thanks for reading and commenting and rating:) Yes it gives us something to think about!

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

Hi sweetie1. self doubt, grandiosity, rating ourselves and comparing ourselves with others are all forms of self deception. Albert Ellis, known as the "father of rational thinking," wrote a lot of books about these. When a person has to put others down in order to feel good about him or her self, he is feeling really bad about himself! From what you say, it sounds like your friend has a belief that he has to be better than others. That's not really true at all. You're right. That is very harmful to others, and is a form of psychological abuse. That is why people stay so long in abusive relationships. After a while, they begin to believe that they are worthless! Thanks for your comment, sweetie1. That was a good example.

MosLadder profile image

MosLadder 5 years ago from Irvine, CA

"We are all unaware of how unaware we are." Thanks for an intelligent, well-written hub.

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

You're very welcome MosLadder. Thank you for reading it and commenting:)

Angela Kane profile image

Angela Kane 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

Very well written and interesting article. Cognitive bias is the one I dislike the most. People need to learn to not follow the crowd and do what is right and best.

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

Sadly, even when we have learned it, we still seem primed to herd mentality without even being aware. Often, if we don't, we experience shunning and social exclusion. Throw in a weak economy, and we do what we need to do to survive. I do agree that being aware that we have this bias, at least, can help us better choose to do what is right and best. thanks for reading and commenting Angela Kane:)

imatellmuva profile image

imatellmuva 5 years ago from Somewhere in Baltimore

I have moments where I think I'm smart, and other moments when I think I'm SUPER-SMART...then reality sets in!!

I think many people go through periods of self delusion and deception simply by convincing ourselves of what is... knowing fully well that it ain't!

We tend to keep those things close to us which are familiar. We are not daring, or not daring enough to break the cycle.

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago Author

Exactly! And then we tell ourselves, if it doesn't feel familiar, it doesn't feel right; and if does feel familiar, it must be right!

Interesting because familiar must come from family and i was thinking next time you do something just cause it's familia, imatellmuva:)

Thanks for commenting imatellmuva. I smiled when I saw your post.

Terri Meredith profile image

Terri Meredith 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Reality is so subjective and it's so easy to delude ourselves when there's a reward attached to the expected outcome. Personally, I believe we're so easily deluded because we are lazy. We mentally take the path of least resistance (as in everyone else is doing it, believes it, etc) because going a different way requires effort. Excellent piece of writing!

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 4 years ago Author

Thanks Terri Meredith:) I think more and more people are finding that the path of least resistance helps them keep their jobs in the current economy! It seems to me, anyway, that people are more cautious than usual about saying what they think, whether their thinking is delusional or not. So, perhaps it's easy to delude ourselves when there is a threat as well as when there is a reward. Interesting thoughts, Terri. Thanks for taking the time to share them.

Winsome profile image

Winsome 4 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

Hi Kim,

I've missed you, come see me some time y'here.

Thank you for these examples of ways in which we misthink. Perhaps this explains the results of so many elections. =: )

kimh039 profile image

kimh039 4 years ago Author

Hi Winsome:) Miss u 2. I'll be right over. I suspect a lot of people think they are right when they vote! ... but I could be mistaken.

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