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
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
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