Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception by Joseph T. Hallinan

I enjoyed listening to Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph Hallinan last fall so when his latest book, Kidding Ourselves came out I was interested to see what he had to say on self-deception:

Hallinan-Joseph-KIDDING-OURSELVESTo one degree or another, we all misjudge reality. Our perception—of ourselves and the world around us—is much more malleable than we realize. This self-deception influences every major aspect of our personal and social life, including relationships, sex, politics, careers, and health.

In Kidding Ourselves, Joseph Hallinan offers a nuts-and-bolts look at how this penchant shapes our everyday lives, from the medicines we take to the decisions we make. It shows, for instance, just how much the power of many modern medicines, particularly anti-depressants and painkillers, is largely in our heads. Placebos in modern-day life extend beyond hospitals, to fake thermostats and “elevator close” buttons that don’t really work…but give the perception that they do.

Kidding Ourselves brings together a variety of subjects, linking seemingly unrelated ideas in fascinating and unexpected ways. And ultimately, it shows that deceiving ourselves is not always negative or foolish. As increasing numbers of researchers are discovering, it can be incredibly useful, providing us with the resilience we need to persevere, in the boardroom, bedroom, and beyond.

Provocative, accessible, and easily applicable to multiple facets of everyday life, Kidding Ourselves is an extraordinary new exploration of our mind’s flexibility.

And thanks to the magic of NetGalley I was able to read it.  I found it be an interesting look at the role self-deception plays in our lives. Hallinan explores the various ways we unconsciously alter our perception of reality, past and present, so that it conforms to our preferred perspective. We tell ourselves lies and alter our memories in ways large and small. Most often we do it to retain a semblance of control, at least in our minds, in a chaotic world.

Interestingly, this can be a good and a bad thing. Persistent optimism, even if based on a less than accurate understanding of what actually happened or based on subtle bias on our part, plays a large role in success and achievement. Largely because it keeps us from giving up.

Heightened pessimism, even if it seems more like realism, is destructive for our health and success in many ways. Too much success and power, however, seems to lead us to a blind spot where we can’t seem to empathize with others or see the world from their perspective. We become so sure of ourselves that we ignore clear warning signs of danger and ignore the rules.

If I have a complaint about the book, it is that the fascinating data and research has a tendency to run on and on without much of a structure or story line. The book has the feel of an extended essay or series of essays rather than a book with a clear beginning, middle and end.

I am not alone in this. Publishers Weekly:

While the studies he presents will entertain any reader, such as why some people really do die of a broken heart or why your boss really is just a jerk, few really astonish. Hallinan’s attempts to legitimize his anecdotes through research and experiment fall flat and often amount to obvious explanations. Nevertheless, it’s accessible pop science that provides a good laugh and some great dinner conversation.

Kirkus has a more positive description:

Hallinan’s survey ranges all over the map, rarely stopping anywhere for more than a couple of paragraphs or pages, as he fits nearly everything under a big umbrella, from a variety of urban myths (and mass delusions) to the effectiveness of placebos to the refusal of some conservatives to admit that Barack Obama is not a foreign-born Muslim.A genial, occasionally glib guide to both the positive and negative effects of self-delusion.

I lean towards the Kirkus side but get what PW is saying.  YMMV, as the kids say.

A tad to anecdotal? Sure. Can it seem rather thin for a hardback book? Perhaps. But it is an easy read and full of any number of interesting hooks and tidbits.  So if you like pop science in bite -sized anecdotes this is the book for you.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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