PP UK PP Theory Optimism Just how positive are positive illusions?

Just how positive are positive illusions?
(8 votes, average 4.63 out of 5)
Jennie Simmons

The following article aims to critically discuss the contribution of “positive illusions” to the field of positive psychology. In order to do this, we will begin by examining how the concept arose and what we mean by the term, as well as considering the suggested benefits of positive illusions. We will then move on to an exploration of how “positive illusions” compares to other pertinent constructs within positive psychology (and psychology generally). This will lead us to a critique of the concept which will enable us to consider the contribution that our understanding of “positive illusions” has made to positive psychology. Finally, we will conclude with consideration of how we might fruitfully continue developing the idea of positive illusions.

So, how did the concept of positive illusions arise? Carr (2004) points out that, up until the late 1970’s, optimism was generally seen as “a psychological deficit, a sign of immaturity or weakness of character” (p. 76). Peterson (2006) concurs arguing that this view on optimism as a deficit is reflected in writings as diverse as those of Sophocles, Nietzsche and Freud. Indeed Taylor and Brown (1988) show that for decades, psychology has accepted the view that well-adjusted people engage in reality testing while those whose understanding of events includes their own illusions are either vulnerable to, or already suffering from mental illness.

Against this backdrop, however, in 1978 Matlin and Stang precipitated a paradigm shift when they (in “The Pollyanna Principle”) integrated a large amount of research data which showed that, actually, people generally think in an optimistic way – they recall positive things more quickly than negative, use more positive than negative words and evaluate themselves more positively than they evaluate other people (Carr, 2004). Tiger (1979) took this understanding forward by arguing that being able to think optimistically was in fact adaptive from an evolutionary viewpoint – being optimistic motivates us to continue to struggle to survive (even given the eventual inevitability of our death) (Carr, 2004).

Taylor and Brown (1988) then went on to review a great deal of social cognition research ultimately concluding that “contrary to much traditional, psychological wisdom… the mentally healthy person appears to have the enviable capacity to distort reality in a direction that enhances self-esteem, maintains beliefs in personal efficacy, and promotes an optimistic view of the future” (p.204). Indeed, it was Taylor and Brown (1988) who went on to suggest the term “positive illusions” which they defined as the “pervasive tendency to see oneself in the best possible light” (Peterson, 2006 p.117).

Taylor and Brown (1988) defined positive illusions as “unrealistically positive self-evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control and unrealistic optimism” (p. 194). They believe that these illusions are maintained through biases in encoding, interpretation and retrieval of information (i.e. selective attention and benign forgetting), cognitive drift (whereby beliefs change temporarily and then “drift” back to their original state), acknowledging pockets of incompetence (i.e. accepting a lack of talent in certain areas of life while maintaining belief in a general competence) and negative self-schemata which enable people to simply avoid situations in which they lack talent – in other words they construct a self enhancing world in which to live (Taylor and Brown, 1988).

Taylor (1989) argues that there are a range of benefits to be gained from these positive illusions and argues that they are related to (and indeed foster) happiness, the ability to care for others, creative and productive work (through increasing motivation, creativity and the ability to develop relevant skills), the ability to function under stress, physical health and the ability to cope with trauma. Building on this, much recent research has emphasised the benefits of positive illusions in relationships. For example, Murray and Holmes (1997) found that “positive partner illusions predicted greater satisfaction, love and trust (as well as less conflict and ambivalence) in both dating and marital relationships” (Swami and Furnham, 2008 p. 3).

When reviewing these conclusions, however, it is important for us to be clear on what we mean by positive illusions. From the definition provided by Taylor and Brown we see that there is some considerable overlap between “positive illusions” and other important constructs in psychology, specifically self-esteem (self-evaluations), locus of control (perception of control) and optimism. Each of these is an important concept and area of research in its own right. Taylor and Brown (1988) and Taylor (1989) do not explicitly articulate how they see their concept of positive illusions as being separable from a simple combination of this triad: self-esteem, locus of control and optimism. However, it is clear that their emphasis is on illusion i.e. inaccuracy through unrealistically positive views. They contend that “evidence indicates that self-enhancement, exaggerated beliefs in control and unrealistic optimism can be associated with higher motivation, greater persistence, more effective performance and ultimately, greater success” (p.199).

A great deal of research has been conducted which demonstrates the importance of each element of the above triad to well being. For example, Carr (2004) shows that we have better subjective well-being and physical health when we have high self esteem, he also argues for the beneficial effects for most people of an internal locus of control” and Carver and Scheier (2002) note that “optimists are less distressed when times are tough, cope in ways that foster better outcomes, and are better at taking the steps necessary to ensure that their futures continue to be bright.” In other words – positive self-evaluations, perception of control and optimism are beneficial in their own right. Comparatively, very little research has focussed on the importance of positive illusions per se. A search on the PsycINFO and PsycARTICLES databases reveals that while a total of 180 articles can be found for a search of “positive illusions,” 5,560 articles are available on “optimism”, 16,814 for “locus of control” and a staggering 33,013 on “self esteem”!

Psychologists agree that each element of the “triad” is important to wellbeing in its own right. If we then take positive illusions as being different to these constructs in that they are “unrealistic” then it becomes important to consider whether or not this lack of realism provides a benefit over and above the established benefits of the triad. Taylor and Brown (1988) in their review do not show how realistic views are controlled for such that we can be certain that it is the unrealistic illusions which are causing the positive effects that they explore. None of the articles found on the search of the PsycINFO and PsycARTICLES databases examined whether or not the benefits of positive illusions could simply be ascribed to the triad of positive self-evaluations, perception of control and optimism (although many use these terms within their analysis).

Bearing in mind that we cannot be certain as to how much of the impact of positive illusions comes from this underlying triad, we can however consider the work that has been done on the impact of positive illusions as a whole. To begin, we must ask ourselves how we know whether the positivity described is illusory. Much of Taylor and Brown’s 1988 article recounts evidence for positive illusions provided by people comparing themselves to their perceptions of the average person, however, as Colvin and Block (1994) argue, surely what is important is their perception of themselves compared to reality!

If we are comparing to reality, then it becomes important to ask just how unrealistic the positive illusions should be in order to be of benefit? Taylor et al. seem to become more cautious over the years and in their 2000 article they note that these illusions are “mild” (e.g. pg 100). Indeed in their rebuttal to Colvin and Block they make this even more clear stating “at extreme levels…illusion may well be maladaptive” (Taylor and Brown, 1994, p. 24) and that “it is absolutely clear that certain illusions or distortions (e.g. delusions of grandeur) are associated with mental illness” (p.25). It is also worth noting that Taylor distinguishes between denial and repression as being maladaptive because they distort reality while positive illusions are adaptive because they allow people to know negative information but to perceive it in the best possible light (Carr, 2004). The literature on positive illusions in relationships is also clear that “most authors tend not to view positive illusions as a phenomenon that distorts participants' view of their relationships” (Swami and Furnham p. 3) and Murray, Holmes and Griffin (2003) state that they “never believed that positive illusions cloud people’s ability to understand their partner” (p. 3).

So then, how much distance from reality is “mild”? Taylor and Brown do not provide an empirical definition of “mildness” and this is further confounded by the fact that by examining a group of people on average we would expect that some people would have high positive illusions and that some people would have low positive illusions and that, of course, the average of all of this might well be “mild!”

Robins and Beer (2001) note that a growing body of evidence shows that on average most people do have inflated self beliefs, however that when these are compared to explicit external criteria, they are found to be relatively small (presumably “mild”). Their study also showed evidence that there is substantial individual difference with regard to the degree of positive illusion experienced.

Even when we don’t move into the extremes of delusions and distortions, we find that unrealistic self enhancement is linked to narcissism, which is considered to be a personality disorder (Robins and Beer, 2001). Additionally, Baumeister, Smart and Boden (1996) show that when people have high but unstable self-esteem levels they are much more likely to respond to ego threats with violence. Adding to this, Baumeister et al (2005) have shown that high self esteem is not a major predictor or cause of school performance, superior social skills or task performance and is somewhat related to an increase in risky behaviour.

We have seen that positive illusions are underpinned by a basis in the “triad of self-esteem, locus of control and optimism” which are beneficial in their own right, and that to the extent that people experience illusions, these should be “mild.” However, there is another important point to consider – that of causality. Simply because a characteristic, such as positive illusions, is prevalent in the general population does not suggest that it causes well being (Colvin and Block, 1994).

Robins and Beer (2001) found, through the combination of laboratory and longitudinal methodologies, that “positive illusions have both adaptive and maladaptive consequences” (p. 350.) Overall they found that in the short term, people that thought they did better at a task than they actually did, felt happier after the task than usual, also self-enhancers tend to experience more positive feelings about themselves. However, they argue that this advantage lessens over time showing that the self-enhancers’ ratings of their well-being and self-esteem were on a downward trajectory when compared to those individuals with accurate self perceptions and further that self-enhancers tended to disengage in areas where they were not meeting the goals that they had set unrealistically in the first place. They also found that those with self enhancement bias showed no correlation with better performance, indeed they were slightly less likely to graduate college than those with realistic appraisals of their ability. The longitudinal nature of this study provides a clue as to causality and is suggestive of a long term negative impact on wellbeing caused by unrealistic positive illusions (Robins and Beer, 2001). (As an aside, we again note the overlap in terminology with the “triad” discussed earlier).

Taylor and Gollwitzer (1995) themselves have asked whether the self-serving illusions that help to bolster self esteem in the short term might “set people up for disappointment and failure in the long run” (p.213). They raise a potential resolution in the possibility that there may be times when people are better at recognising negative feedback and are more honest with themselves. They draw on Heckhausen’s (1986) theory of action phases to argue that the “predecisional phase” is characterised by a deliberation mindset where people carefully appraise goals and their feasibility (i.e. are more accurate in their appraisals of themselves) while the “postdecisional phase” is characterised by an implemental mindset that musters motivation, resources and cognition (i.e. a time when positive illusions are exaggerated) (Taylor and Gollwitzer, 1995). This helps to begin refining our understanding of how and when positive illusions might be adaptive, particularly given their clearly demonstrated prevalence.

In summary, we have seen that psychology traditionally viewed optimism with suspicion but that in the late 1970’s a paradigm shift occurred and it became seen as adaptive. Within this context the idea of positive illusions was developed and it was suggested that these are associated with human wellbeing. Further analysis of these results has shown that it important for positive illusions to be mild and realistic in order to predict positive consequences.

Considering these findings, what can we conclude regarding the contribution that “positive illusions” has made to positive psychology? Crucially, Taylor and Brown in their original (1988) article helped to bolster the general sea change in the consideration of optimism within psychology. Specifically, they helped to develop the idea that optimism might be a good thing and that holding positive views about yourself (even if they are slightly unrealistic) might well be adaptive. This has informed a growing body of research and ultimately our understanding of well-being.

We have seen that most people are fairly accurate in their self assessments when compared to objective measures, and that this realistic appraisal is most adaptive. This is an exciting finding in that it points to the importance of authenticity. Seligman (1995) argues the point that trying to create feelings of worth in the absence of actual mastery is creating a vulnerability to depression in our children. This points toward future interventions that combine the development of authentic positive self regard (i.e. positive self regard that is based on an objective reality) whilst recognising that these (mildly unrealistic) positive illusions are still adaptive.

The evidence presented above suggests that a strong case could be made that the greatest benefits for wellbeing can be found through the development of a (relatively) realistic and authentic positive “triad” of self-esteem, locus of control and optimism. Perhaps our positive illusions are merely a symptom of this triad – the positive personal narrative that we construct for our lives. Even Taylor (1989) argues that positive illusions “simply interpret (reality) in the best possible light” (p.126). Further research is important in truly understanding the concept of “positive illusions.”

Going forward, there are important implications for our continued study of positive illusions particularly as this pertains to the development of positive psychology as a whole. Firstly, we see how important rigorous methodology is in order to be certain of our claims. Secondly, we are reminded of the importance of examining individual differences. This is key given how important the individual is in positive psychology (not only in the “subjective” nature of wellbeing but also within the three levels of positive psychology (namely the subjective, the individual and the group level) as described by Boniwell (2006). Thirdly it is enticing to see all things “positive” as “good” but this analysis provides us with a caution, here in the extreme of positive illusions we see that there certainly can be “too much of a good thing”. Fourth, we have considered causality and have seen that the prevalence of a characteristic in a population does not necessarily mean that characteristic causes positive outcomes. Given how recently we have moved to a focus on positive psychology, it is unsurprising that there are not yet many longitudinal, real-world studies to draw on and so we must rely on the strength of correlations, going forward, longitudinal designs will be of increasing importance. Finally, we are reminded that “normality” and “wellbeing” are not necessarily the same thing, this is an important point raised by Seligman in the stated focus of Positive Psychology in how to move, for example, from plus two to plus seven in life (Seligman, 2003).

There is much work to be done on defining positive illusions more clearly as well as in understanding the specific circumstances, specific individuals and specific domains in which positive illusions are adaptive as well as exploring which mechanisms mediate positive illusions toward either adaptive or maladaptive outcomes (Robins and Beer, 2001) In addition, it will be important to understand more about how and when positive illusions are formed and crucially, how to ensure that these are developed as authentically as possible.

References

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