- “Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self Deceiving Brain,” is filled with personal stories and draws on new insights in psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy.
Journalist and author Shankar Vedantam’s latest book, “Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self Deceiving Brain,” examines the positive and negative effects of belief and illustrates how self-deception plays a vital role in one’s success and well-being. Vedantam has co-authored the book with science writer Bill Mesler.
“The lies we tell ourselves sustain our daily interactions with friends, lovers, and coworkers,” says the book’s synopsis on Amazon. “They can explain why some people live longer than others, why some couples remain in love and others don’t, why some nations hold together while.”
“Useful Delusions” is filled with personal stories and draws on new insights in psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy.
At the center of the book is the story of Donald Lowry, a Chicago conman who concocted the Church of Love. From 1965 to 1987, he and his assistant Pamala St. Charles, mailed love letters from made-up women to thousands of men. The two were convicted of bilking thousands of men around the United States out of millions of dollars with false stories of a garden paradise called Chonda-Za, inhabited by love angels.
However, some of the men who got conned by Lowry, did not care when they learned the truth, the book notes. Some actually reported that their lives had been transformed for the better. Eventually, when Lowery was brought to trial on charges of mail fraud, some even came and testified in his defense and argued that the love letters had kept them from depression and suicide.
“If you think of benevolent deception and optimistic self-deception not as vice and weakness, but as adaptive responses to difficult circumstances, it is not hard to imagine that many of us — confronted by immense pain — might choose the hope of lies over the despair of truth,” the authors write in the book, according to the Post.
“Useful Delusions” is presented in Vedantam’s voice. The Washington Post says there’s something about Vedantam’s “spoken voice that’s both soothing and authoritative. It could be his cadence and pitch. It could be that he sounds like the world’s nicest guy. Whatever it is, when Vedantam tells stories on his podcast and radio show, ‘Hidden Brain,’ even when he’s imparting highly disturbing truths about human behavior, he’s a joy to listen to.” The Post continues: “It would seem difficult to duplicate that effect with the written word, but he manages to do just that. He explains the phenomenon of deceit in general, and self-deception in particular, with the same plain language and gentle authority that his listeners have come to rely on.”
Using the pandemic as an example, Vedantam told WHYY-FM radio station: “I know speaking just for myself, I have told myself through the last 12 months of the pandemic, every month I have said, you know, liberation is one month away. And the fact that I told myself liberation is one month away might be a delusion, but it’s been a useful delusion in the sense that it’s helped me psychologically cope with the difficulties of the pandemic.” It is one of “the deep insights” he’s tried to explore in the book “that, in some ways, the ability to do away with delusions, to stand away from beliefs, could be seen as an act of privilege.”
In an interview with NPR, Vedantam talked about how we fool ourselves more often than we may realize; on deluding oneself when faced with serious illness; and on the collective benefits of self-deception. Speaking about the benefits of delusion, he gave an example about parenting and what parents experience when a child is born. “Nearly every parent has the experience that I had when my daughter was born, which is that you believe that this child is the most special child in the universe,” he told NPR. “And of course, when you step back and look at it, you know that this belief has to be a delusion, even though for me it doesn’t feel like a delusion. But there’s a reason that our brains produce this delusion when we have children,” he said. “Parenting is incredibly hard and time-consuming and costly and difficult. And when parents are deeply invested in their children, when they see their children as unique and special, parents are willing to invest the time and effort needed to raise children properly.”
Vedantam is NPR’s social science correspondent and best known as host of the podcast and radio show, “Hidden Brain,” which “explores the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior and questions that lie at the heart of our complex and changing world.” The podcast launched in 2015 and is one of the nation’s fastest-growing shows, with two to three million downloads per week. The podcast remained at NPR until October 2020, and is currently produced by Hidden Brain Media. The radio program of the same name, which started in 2017, continues on NPR. “Much like many of my print and radio stories, along with my 2010 book ‘The Hidden Brain,’ the podcast seeks to link psychology and sociology research with people’s everyday lives,” Vedantam wrote in a blog on Nieman Reports, after his podcast launched.
Vedantam uses journalism and research to inform the public on social science issues, focusing on human behavior and the social sciences, and how research in those fields can get listeners to think about the news in unusual and interesting ways. “For the last several years, first at the Post and now as an NPR science correspondent, I’ve been writing about the ways hidden factors shape our perceptions and behavior,” Vedantam wrote on Nieman Reports. “My goal is to connect the rigor and insights of academia to the public’s concerns and interests.”
Vedantam spent 10 years at the Washington Post (2001 to 2011), writing its “Department of Human Behavior” column from 2007 to 2009. He then wrote an occasional column called “Hidden Brain” for Slate. He has written plays, fiction, and nonfiction as well. His comedy “Tom, Dick and Harriet” was produced by the Brick Playhouse in Philadelphia in 2004. In 2005, he published “The Ghosts of Kashmir” in 2005, a collection of short stories discussing the divide between Indians and Pakistani.
Five years later, in 2010, he published a book titled “The Hidden Brain,” which focuses on how people become influenced by their unconscious biases. The book received the Edward R. Murrow Award and incorporates Vedantam’s experiences working as a reporter at the Washington Post. “While reporting for The Washington Post in 2004, I interviewed Harvard psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji about work she had done to uncover people’s unconscious prejudices. I was so inspired by her research and so shaken by the findings that I changed the trajectory of my career,” he wrote on Nieman Reports.
Vedantam served as a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in 2009 and 2010. He participated in the 2005 Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship on Science and Religion, the 2003-2004 World Health Organization Journalism Fellowship, and the 2002-2003 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship. During his career, he has been recognized with many journalism honors including awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors, the South Asian Journalists Association, the Asian American Journalists Association, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, and the American Public Health Association
Vedantam has lectured at Harvard University and Columbia University, served on the advisory board of the Templeton-Cambridge Fellowships in Science & Religion, and been a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He has served as a part-time lecturer at Harvard University and Columbia University. He has also served as a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
He earned an undergraduate degree in electronics engineering in his native India, and a master’s degree in journalism at Stanford University. He is married to Ashwini Tambe, Professor in the University of Marylan’s Department of Women’s Studies. She is also the editorial director of the journal, Feminist Studies, a premier venue for interdisciplinary feminist scholarship and creative expression.