Most people think of the “mentally disordered” as a delusional lot, holding bizarre and irrational ideas about themselves and the world around them. A mental disorder is an impairment or a distortion in thought or perception. This is what we tend to think, and for most of modern psychology’s history, the experts have agreed. More recently, however, research has arisen that challenges this common-sense notion.
In 1988, psychologists Shelly Taylor and Jonathon Brown published an article making the somewhat disturbing claim that positive self-deception is a normal and beneficial part of most people’s everyday outlook.
They suggested that average people hold cognitive biases in three key areas: a) viewing themselves in unrealistically positive terms
b) believing they have more control over their environment than they actually do
c) holding views about the future that are more positive than the evidence can justify.
The typical person, it seems, depends on these happy delusions for the self-esteem needed to function through a normal day. It’s when the fantasies start to unravel that problems arise.
Studies into eating disorders and clinical depression have yielded findings, leading to the development of an intriguing, but still controversial, concept known as depressive realism. This theory puts forward the notion that depressed individuals actually have more realistic perceptions of their own image, importance, and abilities than the average person. While it’s still generally accepted that depressed people can be negatively biased in their interpretation of events and information, depressive realism suggests that they are often merely responding rationally to realities that the average person cheerfully denies.
It’s an uncomfortable notion. It’s certainly easier to think of the mentally disordered as locos running about with their own crazy beliefs than to imagine them coping with a piece of reality that a “normal” person can’t handle.
The concept that we routinely ignore the truth about ourselves and our world is not an enticing one, though it may help to explain our tendency to ostracize the abnormal and fear the unknown. Perhaps the reason we are so eager to reject any departure from this fiction we call “reality” is because we have grown dependent on our comfortable delusions; without them, there is nothing to insulate us from the harsh cold of reality.