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Reality...really?

Part 1

If you’re not sick to death of what’s laughingly called reality, then you’re just

not normal. I mean, come on! Reality sucks!! It’s scary, and depressing,

and no one can even agree about what it even is! No wonder most of us are

like, Wake me up when all this is over!!


What we do want, of course, is hope. In other words, fairy tales. You can

be whatever you want to be, if you want it enough. And if somehow that

doesn’t happen, it’s some other guy’s fault, and if you can get rid of him,

you’ll be okay.


No wonder this famous cartoon strikes home:


Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” along with almost every scientist

on the planet, told us that our planet was in trouble and we’d have to make

some changes to rescue it from disaster. Some, proud of their virtue, went

along with this. But for far too many, and for a little bit of all of us, we

stood in line for the reassuring lie. Reality was just too much.


But here’s the joke on us. Ever since Freud, psychotherapists from pretty

much every school of thought have held up one golden standard of mental

health, one beacon towards which we’ve tried to guide our patients and

clients:


to see, acknowledge, and accept reality

and learn to cope with it.


Everything short of that was seen as, well, not mental health.


And this means that if I have a problem with reality, I’m a nut. And so are

you. To be sane is to see things clearly.


It is NOT to be like the poor people a South Dakota nurse, Jodi Doering,

talks about in a story ripped from today’s headlines. Her patients are dying

of COVID-19. Which is horrible and sad enough. But here’s what Jodi says

in the article:


Doering says some of her patients are...willing to believe almost anything

else has made them so sick. “People want it to be influenza, they want it to

be pneumonia, we’ve even had people say, ‘I think it could be lung

cancer,’” she said. The nurse said that when she offers to hook some

patients up with family by FaceTime for a last conversation, they say, ‘No,

because I’m doing fine.’”


She goes on to say, “Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening,

it’s not real.’”


Now if you say, “Well, this isn’t me. I’m famous for being a realist,” then I

say to you, as I have to say to myself many, many times, welcome to

modern psychology. Where we ALL live joyously in an escape from reality of

a magnitude we can barely imagine.


Take, for example, the phenomenon of confirmation bias. Here’s how this

little fantasy fomenter works. Let’s say you believe something. Now since

we here at the Chestnut Hill Institute are totally non-partisan, let me

struggle to think of a non-controversial example... Okay, let’s say that

based on your experience as a kid and your success as an adult you think

that playing video games growing up is harmless, within reason.


Now from time to time you might see pieces online confirming this and

pieces disconfirming this (Headline: “Playing video games more than one

hour a day causes kids to grow up to be idiots”). Now confirmation

bias—which has been tested and proven over and over again—says you will

notice the pro-video games headlines and will generally not even notice the

anti-video games headline. Your brain—all of our brains—are wired to take

in information that confirms what we think we know and to not even see

evidence to the contrary.


And if you tell someone they’re subject to confirmation bias, they’re always

like, MOI??


You want more evidence of our flight from reality? Here’s a rogue’s gallery

of tidbits about our being unrealistic about ourselves:


  • In a survey of faculty at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 68% rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability.

  • In Kruger and Dunning's experiments, participants were given specific tasks (such as solving logic problems, analyzing grammar questions, and determining whether jokes were funny), and were asked to evaluate their performance on these tasks relative to the rest of the group, enabling a direct comparison of their actual and perceived performance. Results were divided into four groups depending on actual performance and it was found that all four groups evaluated their performance as above average, meaning that the lowest-scoring group (the bottom 25%) showed a very large illusory superiority bias. The researchers attributed this to the fact that the individuals who were worst at performing the tasks were also worst at recognizing skill in those tasks. 

  • A study surveyed 161 students in Sweden and the United States, asking them to compare their driving skills and safety to other people's. For driving skills, 93% of the U.S. sample and 69% of the Swedish sample put themselves in the top 50%; for safety, 88% of the U.S. and 77% of the Swedish put themselves in the top 50%.

  • In one study, participants were given detailed questionnaires about their friendships and asked to assess their own popularity. Using social network analysis, researchers were able to show that participants generally had exaggerated perceptions of their own popularity, especially in comparison to their own friends. Despite the fact that most people in the study believed that they had more friends than their friends, a 1991 study by sociologist Scott L. Feld on the friendship paradox shows that on average most people have fewer friends than their friends have.

  • A survey was attached to the SAT exams in 1976 (taken by one million students annually), asking the students to rate themselves relative to the median of the sample (rather than the average peer) on a number of vague positive characteristics. In ratings of leadership, 70% of the students put themselves above the median. In ability to get on well with others, 85% put themselves above the median; 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.

So! Are you starting to hate me now? I wouldn’t be surprised! That would

be a very normal reaction. It’s where the expression “Don’t shoot the

messenger” came from. We don’t want to hear bad news, and we only want

to hear a hopeful message. And if we do hear bad news, we want it to be

about other people.


But I AM bringing you good news!! Remember what I said earlier about

realism and mental health? It’s also the case that mentally healthy people

do better in life and feel better about their lives. That’s quite a paradox,

isn’t it?: Reality sucks, but mental health, which is based on embracing

reality, is the best game in town.


In Part 2 we’ll see how seeing reality, instead of driving you crazy, can make

you sane.

Contact Us

At this point we are limited in our ability to respond to new requests for our services. You can contact us at info@chestnuthillinstitute.com for further information. We can not, unfortunately, give advice about your situation via email. But there’s an excellent chance that the help you need is sitting right there in one of our 15 books. That’s what they’re for!

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