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Capitol Rioters or Their Critics: Who Were More Delusional?

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In his novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut coined the term “foma” and defined it as “a harmless untruth, intended to comfort simple souls.” In times like these, sometimes it helps to tell yourself you’re awesome just to get out of bed. Who hasn’t needed a little dose of foma from time to time? Maybe the illusion that you’re good at something keeps you plugging away at it, and helps you go further than you otherwise would. Severe self-consciousness has probably kept any number of wonderful things from happening in life, art, and politics. Whatever one’s ultimate goal might be, having confidence that your goals are achievable can’t hurt in the effort to achieve them.

This is the premise for Shankar Vedantam’s Useful Delusions: The Power & Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain. Vedantam is the host of the Hidden Brain podcast, which explores how the unconscious mind defines the choices of everyday life. Useful Delusions suggests that “one reason people cling to false beliefs is because self-deception can sometimes be functional—it enables us to accomplish useful social, psychological, or biological goals. Holding false beliefs is not always the mark of idiocy, pathology, or villainy.”

One major example is the Church of Love, created by middle-aged writer David Lowry, who “invented dozens of fictitious women and wrote hundreds of love letters in their voices to thousands of men scattered across the United States.” Some shrugged it off, but others fell deeply for these imaginary women. As a “card-carrying rationalist,” Vedantam initially scoffed at this obvious con job, which had inspired lots of people to send millions of dollars to fictional pen pals and make Lowry rich.

What especially interested Vedantam was that at Lowry’s trial many of the people who got hooked into the Church of Love didn’t feel duped at all. They defended their decisions and even volunteered to testify in his defense. If anything, they were more hostile to the outsiders who were slamming the door on their emotional needs and became deeply unified in their collective fantasy. “They were part of the same tribe: they were the deluded members of an organization that the media treated derisively. The public mocked them. Reporters hurled questions at them. Onlookers laughed at them.”

As he tells the story of Joseph Enriquez, one of the men who became enamored of “Pamala,” “what initially seemed absurd slowly became brave, even beautiful.” Enriquez suffered wrenching family tragedy in his life and had always been a loner who loved escaping into horror movies. Pamala’s letters made him feel understood, sympathized with, and wanted. He had an emotional connection that he’d longed for all his life. In one letter, Pamala confided that she really cared for him and added “we all need someone, don’t we? Well, I think you and I need each other.” She told him that he was a good person, which he was, and that he needed a friend, which he did. And he wasn’t alone—“in response to concerns that the hoax had to be brought to an end, some said they had never belonged to another organization that provided better value for the money.”

But how far can a delusion go before it ceases to become useful and becomes dangerous? It’s a serious problem when someone’s emotional crutch morphs into a weapon and their emotional needs push them to demand their version of reality to the detriment of everyone else’s. Vedantam is certainly aware of this and points out the political implications by discussing the idea of “imaginary communities” that make up a nation’s essential idea about itself and its destiny. It’s a particularly concerning topic given how many of our fellow citizens doubled down on their delusions about what the “real America” is supposed to look like, and stormed the Capitol in part because of them. Maybe the line between essentially harmless, fanciful delusions and the more dangerous variety gets increasingly thinner the more people’s voracious emotional needs are fed.

The Daily Beast called Vedantam to talk about self-delusional thinking and its relationship to parenting, social media, the insurrection, and whether it’s you or the world that is crazy.

What inspired you to write the book?

A lot of people are worried about delusions. They look at their political opponents, their colleagues, and, sometimes, their friends and neighbors and think, “How in the world could anyone believe such nonsense?” If you spend time watching conservatives talk on Fox News or progressives talk on MSNBC, you will notice the same underlying subtext. Both sides are convinced the other side doesn’t care about facts, is indifferent to the truth.

Now, it’s possible that one side is entirely right, and the other side is entirely wrong. But what interests me is the fact that both sides believe they can see the truth very........

© The Daily Beast

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