Illusion and Well-Being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health

Authors: Shelley E. Taylor, UCLA; Jonathon D. Brown, Southern Methodist University

Publication: Psychological Bulletin

Year: 1988

Focus Area: Prevention, Persuasion

Relevance: This research points out that positive illusions – which could be seen as a risk factor for fraud victimization – are beneficial to mental health. A potential trade-off arises if prevention programs reduce these positive illusions in order to prevent victimization but simultaneously reduce mental health.

Summary: Overly positive illusions about one’s life can be advantageous to mental health, even though it has previously been thought that a clear and honest perception of reality was essential to ideal mental health.

  • Positive illusions can be characterized into positive views of one’s own characteristics, overly positive view of control on the world, and unrealistic optimism about the future. People who have truly realistic views of the positive and negative aspects of their lives may have worse mental health than people who lean towards these positive illusions.
  • Positive illusions contribute to increased happiness, ability to care for others, creative thinking, motivation and persistence – all of which are components of mental health.
  • “[…]the capacity to develop and maintain positive illusions may be thought of as a valuable human resource to be nurtured and promoted, rather than an error-prone processing system to be corrected.”

Abstract (from the authors): Many prominent theorists have argued that accurate perceptions of the self, the world, and the future are essential for mental health. Yet considerable research evidence suggests that overly positive self-evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control or mastery, and unrealistic optimism are characteristic of normal human thought. Moreover, these illusions appear to promote other criteria of mental health, including the ability to care about others, the ability to be happy or contented, and the ability to engage in productive and creative work. These strategies may succeed, in large part, because both the social world and cognitive-processing mechanisms impose filters on incoming information that distort it in a positive direction; negative information may be isolated and represented in as unthreatening a manner as possible. These positive illusions may be especially useful when an individual receives negative feedback or is otherwise threatened and may be especially adaptive under these circumstances.

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