June seems so far away now – a miraculous moment now fading with the miasma of the Delta variant that is reversing the gains that were made. We were so close to being able to be a bit safer, a bit freer. How is it possible that so many people in this country are so willing to risk their own lives and the LIVES OF THEIR CHILDREN by choosing to forego vaccination against COVID-19.
I have been more than perplexed by this conundrum. It makes no rational sense. However, I recently read an article written by Shankar Vedantam that shed some light on this issue.
Shankar Vedantam is the NPR host of the podcast “Hidden Brain”. He is interested in the issue of delusional thinking, and his latest book, Useful Delusions: The Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain, presents a fascinating look at events that illustrate the protective power of self-delusion. Although the buzzwords of the last few years – alternative facts, fake news, QAnon – are not mentioned, these concerns hover in the background of the stories like malevolent fairies just waiting to become visible.
Vedantam cites the story of one Donald Lowry, the founder of the infamous Church of Love that made millions of dollars in the 80s on the backs of lonely men. Lowry essentially impersonated women who wrote letters to men who subscribed to the program, assuming a variety of personas and including many personalized touches to the letters he sent. He was eventually caught and prosecuted, but the strange twist to this was that men who were members of his love letter subscription service CAME TO THE COURTHOUSE TO DEFEND HIM. The men said the letters had saved their lives, stopped addiction, even stopped suicidal behavior.
Vedantam states in an article written for Psychotherapy Networker:
“Foregoing self-deception isn’t merely a mark of education or enlightenment – it is a sign of privilege…your material, cultural, and social worlds are providing you with other safety nets for your psychological and physical needs. But should your circumstances change for the worse, were the pillars of your life to buckle and sway, your mind, too, would prove fertile ground for the wildest self-deceptions.” (Psychotherapy Networker, July/August 2021, p. 23)
So, what to do when we see the pillars of rationality challenged by what to many of us can only seem completely without merit. Vedantam suggests that we are dealing with an evolutionary process in which “old” brain responses are at war with “newer” brain responses. The two states of the brain have different value systems, and when rationality is seen as the only way of knowing, it is often ignored.
Humans have spent eons using the processes of narrative and storytelling and use of symbols – when we don’t use these processes and rely totally on rationality for truth, we lose sight of much that makes us human. Joseph Campbell’s monumental work in defining the power of myth in human history is an example, as is Carl Jung’s exploration of the archetypes that live in the collective unconscious of humanity.
So, what does self-deception do for us? In its best form it protects us when things are just too fragile, too out of control, too frightening. Self-delusion gives us something to hold onto in a scary world. It can create a sense of meaning and a sense of community. We need to think carefully about what self-delusion does, and we need to figure out how to work with it. How does this self-deception help the believer? What are the consequences of the belief? Without this insight, it will be hard to create any kind of traction for change.
So, you don’t believe in vaccinations? Tell me more about that – what are your hesitations? Oh, your church community is against it? Oh, you feel a strong bond with your fellow church members and wouldn’t want to be different? Oh, your grandfather was involved in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis research experiment? That helps me understand. I still disagree with your choice, but it makes better sense now. Let me explain to you my experience – would you be willing to listen?
Vedantam closes his article with quite a statement:
“The psychological forces that make it difficult for the members of the Church of Love to see reality accurately fill all our lives. If we seem less credulous, it’s only because circumstances have not tested us to the same extent. Put another way, those poor, pathetic rubes –but for a few strokes of luck –are us.” Psychotherapy Networker, July/August 2021, p. 25