RECOGNIZING MISLEADING ILLUSIONS
Adam Blatner, M.D.
Posted 6/10/11. (This is a a talk
given on June 9, 2005, to the
, a lifelong learning program.)
For more about illusions, see auxiliary
. In 2013, another webpage on illusions
part of a series about
Abstract in Program
Just as we are susceptible to being misled by optical and
sensory illusions, so, too, we can be misled by psychological
illusions. There are ways we can recognize different types of
illusions and from this we can then make choices that counter
Preparing for this lecture has led me in some different
directions: I was going to begin with a bunch of optical
I found that there are so very many of them, and they only point
sorts of other illusions, that I shifted my focus back to the
psychological illusions. (See references at the end, and just
"optical illusions" and you'll find tens of thousands of
Indeed, I came to realize that illusions pervade our lives. I used
think they were oddities, but now the dynamics of illusion---it
to be this, but it really is that---operates in many contexts.
-- optical illusions, auditory illusions, illusions
taste, smell, touch, balance, other perceptions
-- stage magic and other illusions as tricks, for
-- tricks for other activities, such as used by
spiritualist mediums and other so-called psychics
-- tricks played by the childish parts of one's mind
the more mature parts of the mind so that the person can retain a
of coherence, self-esteem, and the like.
-- tricks played by one person on another,
such as those mentioned by the psychiatrist Eric Berne in the
best selling book, "Games People Play."
-- roles people fall into in group dynamics, many of
are based on illusions
-- social roles and norms, what is considered
"attractive," "cool," "fashionable," "strong," "dominant,"
"authoritative," and so forth. Many status symbols and other
are illusions of rank or prestige. Uniforms, hats, scepters,
flags, and so forth, all indicate types of status. Even using big
can be phony and impressive, as noted in the lyrics of the 2nd
-- political propaganda, the sermons of
televangelists, the blandishments of advertisers in all media, all
on tendencies of the mind to flow along less-than-perfectly
channels. They seem reasonable enough, but on closer inspection,
are a wide variety of logical flaws. Indeed, the study of
ancient Greece dealt with the art of persuasion, and this art
included not just rational argument, but also appeals to illusions
embedded in our thinking. Those same tricks are used today by the
aforementioned fields and many others.
-- cultural norms can be illusory and yet pervasive,
are the subject of my website about oppression....
The point is that many elements in our culture are symbols, they
for something else, but they don't necessarily have to. Many of
elements also have emotional content, so that we feel more
for, say, a "bunny" than for a "rabbit." The field of
explores this way that words not only have matter-of-fact
but also emotional coloring, connotations.
There is an unclear boundary---probably some overlap---between the
the term "illusion" has evolved and the way the term "myth" has
so that in some cases the terms are interchangeable. Recent
cognitive psychology has brought to the surface scores of
ways the mind is inclined to drift into illusion.
Often what works for many situations or past situations becomes a
of mind, but in new situations with new requirements, the old ways
thinking no longer fit. Books about creative thinking, critical
thinking, good judgment, and the like often require a heightening
alertness to the many pitfalls involved in assessing a situation
making a decision. There may also be a blurring of the phenomena
illusion and the elements of groupthink, folly, popular fads, and
forth. Another technique is to slip from matter-of-fact into more
poetic metaphors without noting the category difference. It can be
skilfully but what is at the base is the illusion of
Cut To the Chase
My talk today therefore will not be a discussion of the types of
illusion. Oh, I may mention a few, but mainly I'm addressing the
implications of shifting from a world in which it seemed that
was an occasional phenomenon to a post-modern, more sophisticated
that recognizes that much of our social relations and our own
psychological functioning is based on illusion. How best to cope
that shift in awareness---that most of life tends towards
One common illusion is that the world today is not that different
the world fifty years ago when we were growing up, and in a few
may not be. But we've grown accustomed to many changes, though we
haven't always recognized how much they require a truly different
to think about things. What I'm talking about is becoming
aware of what it means to have moved beyond the modern world of
20th century and into the post-modern era. This shift involves an
accelerating rate of change in all areas. Along with
change is an expansion of information, population, new fields of
endeavor, games, inter-disciplinary ventures, the social
of culture-mixing, and all manner of other things.
The good news is that there is an answer. The bad news is that
knack that involves not just the rational mind—what you can learn
the sense of learn about—but also the non-rational mind—what you
learn in the sense of do, like swimming, riding a bike, hanging in
there and working out an argument in a friendly fashion with a
other—and lots of folks don’t know how to do that.
I want to suggest that the awareness of the pervasiveness of
must be properly understood and then this understanding responded
shifting your paradigm, your basic assumptions, indeed, your basic
instincts—about what is going on and what you should do about it.
best metaphor I have to offer is that it’s time to learn to swim.
What I mean here is that when I grew up, truth was sort of like
gravity. We didn’t know a lot of the formulas and stuff physics
teaches, but we knew it was there, and we could tell the
between standing and falling or tripping. And we might learn to
and dance, but there was still gravity. Reassuring, it was—one of
first things babies learn to cope with, gravity.
But in a more complex world there is something called swimming,
whatever you do to relate to gravity works quite different from
or dancing. There is no firm ground—if you let go of the side of
pool or move into water that’s deeper than your height. I want to
suggest that there’s a mental attitude and activity that is the
equivalent of swimming that can cope with the challenge posted by
awareness of the pervasiveness of illusion.
Swimming involves a host of physical maneuvers that are difficult
describe—it’s more learning by doing, coaching, getting the knack.
There are also different learning styles, so the instructions that
useful for one person or most people may not apply to you or any
Dealing with the pervasive nature of illusion involves a
learning-by-doing, too, so the best I can do in this talk is help
get oriented to the general themes. It need not be totally
and there are some useful guidelines.
First, there’s a holding on more loosely to what you know. It’s
letting go, nor is it gripping tightly, but somewhere in between,
water is in-between the elusiveness of steam as water gas and ice
There are human tendencies to overdo things, to hold on too
which leads to control-freak and freak-outs—because it’s too big
control, too many faceted by several orders of magnitude; but the
alternative isn’t to let go and become a slacker, because that’s a
cop-out. In the swimming metaphor it isn’t either trying to walk
water nor staying out of the water—it’s learning to swim.
In thinking, the truth is to let go of having to know a
once-and-for-all truth, and working with an in-between category,
I’ll call “provisional model,” “working model,” hypothesis. It
daring to think—pushing yourself to think—but also knowing that
you think will probably be the final conclusion. It partakes of
true wisdom of “become as little children” that Jesus spoke about
his parable-like teachings.
To become as a child, to entertain innocence, is not necessarily
deeply ignorant. Rather, it’s to know there’s more yet to be
It’s to shun the arrogance of thinking you’ve come to a
That indeed is a very fundamental illusion—that, first, there are
answers: and, second, you’ve become aware of what they are.
In light of the continuing progress of history in all fields, it
entirely likely that we’ll continue to make progress in all
light of the depth of change of worldview occasioned by technical
progress mixed with very basic shifts in world-view in the last
or so, it’s likely that we’ll continue to have more basic shifts
world-views! Whoa! That means that whatever we know may be
but at best it’s only partly true. The next world-view shift is
to offer new perspectives that make much of what we think we know
insufficient, only partly true. And some of what we discover will
some of what we thought we knew wrong, or maybe just irrelevant.
does history and technology evolve.
This proposition is hard to imagine if you don’t have the skills
changing, for imagination, for creative innovation—and those
famously not taught in our present dominant school programs. So by
orienting you to these skills, you can tell your kids and
the kids you mentor, nephews and nieces.
The first skill is that of learning to be creative, and that skill
includes a willingness to do two things we were taught not to do:
question authority, and don’t challenge what’s been created by
who have gone before. But these unspoken rules are deeply
They’re part of the illusion-filled background.
To innovate, to be creative—which is the only way to live in a
postmodern era—requires a fine balance of respect for what has
before—because you build on that platform, you stand on the
of giants—a metaphor attributed to Isaac Newton, but having a
The danger is to slacken your mind, lazily, and rely on what has
created by others. This is a cop out. The challenge is to ready
yourself to re-evaluate the situation.
Alerting to Illusions Analogy to Driving a Car
Now some perspective. Most of our lives, most of the time, we
have to re-think every situation anew. A fair amount of habit,
and trust makes civilization possible. But as you drive your car
the freeway, and as you go along with what seems to be normal
you can follow routines and expectations. Ideally, you keep a
edge of your mind—small but essential—on the lookout for
Traffic slowing, blinking lights, unusual signs, smoke billowing
and with such cues, you assess and consider alternative actions.
mind kicks into gear, and you think—and you think creatively! —
you’re text-messaging, in which case you plow into the stopped car
front of you.
The key is that edge of your mind, that alert part that can
control from 2% to 99% in a second. Wake up, danger. Nor need it
this urgent. Slowly, it dawns on you that x activity isn’t working
longer. It used to satisfy, but been there done that is happening;
the group has changed, or the mission has changed, or the
or other roles take precedence—life is changing! All I’m saying is
in the post-modern era the rate of change on average is just a bit
than what it used to be—but a crucial bit more, enough to require
re-think the way we think, to re-value the place of creativity in
Illusion and Truth
The problem of illusion is also the problem of truth. When I
there were a whole bunch of relatively unquestioned truths. As Yul
Brinner sings in his soliloquy song, “Is a Puzzlement,” in the
Broadway play and then movie, The King and I: "When
was young, what
was so was so
But in the postmodern world, we have suffered from a whole slew of
- Heroes are revealed as having feet of clay.
- Doctrines with fine-sounding virtues are
unpleasant extremes. I hear T.S. Eliot’s 1917 poem, The Love
of J. Arthur Prufrock, and the verse, “That is not what I meant at
- Common prejudices that seemed like social norms
being contested on all sides, and the arguments they bring up make
- Major socio-political changes, where the good guys
are not always good and the bad guys have some good points—very
...And so forth.
There is the common option of copping out, dropping out, becoming
increasingly distracted by television, and more recently, video
Millions are doing this instead of getting back into the game and
helping this become a better world. I personally don’t approve of
There’s a middle ground of moderate engagement. And a
stance of willingness to think, to re-evaluate, to re-consider.
itself on the edge of overwhelming, but part of that stress
not having many skills or much validation for using them.
What this lecture is about is to suggest the good news—there are
skills, and we want to support you and help you support each other
using them. These are the skills of innovation, creativity, and a
of science and philosophy and psychology—especially regarding this
The human mind works well enough in gentle situations so that it
by. In novel situations, or with strange variations—situations
happening more often in the postmodern world—it tends to get
in illusions! Know this is likely to happen.
It’s no worse than knowing in the contemporary computer scene that
need to use hygiene with your computers, anti-viruses, programs
crap cleaner, defragmenters, and so forth. You need to back up,
need to know there are threats out there. You don’t need to know
details of every threat, but just that some general rules apply.
(It’s something like knowing about food preparation and storage
hygiene, isn’t it?—as we heard this last Monday!)
So I’m saying the same thing: Politicians are fooling you,
news-magazines, television programs, advertisers, and so forth.
mind constantly fools itself. I could give three lectures or
the different ways the mind does this. I’ll post this on my
give you links.
The word “rhetoric” refers to the art of persuasion, and it
giving good arguments, but since the goal was persuasion rather
truth, it also offers a bunch of techniques that are a bit
They are logical fallacies. These tools are used by spin doctors
propagandists and advertisers all the time. Rhetoric was a
art learned by the ancient Greeks and Romans, so this art of
and also deception has been around for a long time.
You can fool yourself, others can fool you, words can fool you.
grew up, we generally thought words meant what they meant. Then I
upon the writings of S. I. Hyakawa, especially his book, Language
Thought and Action. It was about semantics—which is simply the
recognition that words don’t mean their definition, they mean what
are associated with emotionally. Cute, the American Flag, Mister
President, Truth, God, and on and on,---- so many words mean very
different things to different people. Wow, this really gave my
adolescence a boost. I was a quiet rebel in my own way—I enjoyed
to think out discrepancies I saw all around me. Indeed, as I
about it recently, my entire career has had this theme—questioning
stuff that on closer inspection turns out to be an illusion. It’s
implicit background theme in many of the papers on my website.
I was going to try to present you with how you fool yourself, what
common illusions are, but I quickly became aware that listing and
explaining them could take an unknown—but a lot—number of hours or
pages. I’d get something juicy and write a paragraph or two and
another one or two would occur to me and it didn’t stop. Yikes.
So just this week I cut to the chase, as I’m doing, and asked
if so—that illusions are pervasive—then what?
Knowing they are around, you watch for them. You watch for which
are likely to trip you up. Not all illusions are problematic.
I need to take a moment to note this. Many illusions work just
they add juice and spice and flavor to life and we should use the
in this way.
In the mid-20th century, for a while there, I as a psychiatrist
caught up in the glamour of taking down illusions, and someday,
we’re free of illusion, we’ll be truly free. But I came to see
differently. No illusion is too dry. It’s Waiting for Godot. The
problem wasn’t illusion per se, but illusions that don’t work in
present situation—don’t get mentally lazy and rely on them. To be
critical thinker one need not avoid falling in love, bonding with
babies or pets, enjoying sentimental theatre or movies. You bring
critical thinking to problems when they become problems, not to
We found this out about germs, too. In the early 20th century
clean was good, being germ-free was better, and then we discovered
germs are really important to maintain health. 95% of germs are
only harmless, but they fill in the spaces that don’t let the
ones get in. And they keep the immune system in tone. You want
bit. So there’s a balance.
The same for illusions. The game is to notice when a thought, a
a perception, becomes a problem. It involves the art of
re-evaluating, changing your mind.
The idea that you should be right to begin with and then hold your
ground, have the courage of your convictions—well, there are a few
situations where that works, but as a cliche it tends to be used
justify mere bull-headed stubborn-ness.
The Skills of Coping With Illusions
Know there are illusions. Know they’re tricky. What seems true
Don’t always believe everything you feel. Don’t feel everything
think. Don’t think everything you believe. Disconnect these
and check them out. Sometimes—frequently, in fact—there are errors
basic assumption if not the logic involved. This is part of
Learn more and more—you could spend your life learning more—about
the ways we fool each other and ourselves—in politics, religion,
propaganda, advertising, social traditions, family dysfunction,
Encourage your kids and grandkids to learn about penetrating
illusion—chances are, the idea is new to them and they haven’t
the seed planted.
Talk with a few others about what you love and hate, believe and
disbelieve—and consider that if on occasion they disagree with
well, maybe they’ve got a point. Maybe even they’re right and
Don’t get all prideful about being right. Know that you will be
as wrong for sure by future generations. You have a right to be
you don’t know the half of it. You must forgive yourself and move
No big deal. Your parents were wrong some of the time about
the best they knew in their world; you were mistaken about your
child-rearing thirty years or so ago; and your great grandkids
wrong when it’s their turn to raise their kids, because that’s how
history unfolds. Dare to be gently amused by it all.
But neither use this as an excuse to retreat into cynicism.
your partly wrong is no justification for quitting the game. Play
the best you can. Recognize that this is what courage is about.
Appreciate yourself and each other for bringing your open-minded
creativity to the process. It’s a game of exploration. What might
better way to live our lives?
In the coming semester, Late September through early November,
talking about this theme from another angle: How can we be upbeat
time of many problems? One way is by expanding our consciousness,
there are many avenues to this. The series will be titled, “What
Yet Become: Contemporary Visionaries” and I’ll talk about a number
people operating now and in the last century who dared to envision
more positive future.
Brafman, Ori & Brafman, Rom. (2008). Sway: the irresistible pull of irrational
. New York: Doubleday.
Chabris, Christopher & Simons, Daniel. (2010). The invisible gorilla and other ways
intuitions deceive us
. New York: Crown.
Hallinan, Joseph T. (2009). Why
. New York: Broadway Books.
Kaplan, Michael & Kaplan, Ellen. (2009). Bozo sapiens: why to err is human
New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Kida, Thomas. Don’t
everything you think: the six basic mistakes we make in thinking
NY: Prometheus Books. 2006.
LeGault, Michael R. (2006). Think!
crucial decisions can’t be made in the blink of an eye
Lehrer, Jonah. (2009). How we
Marcus, Gary. (2008). Kluge:
haphazard construction of the human mind
Tavris, Carol & Aronson, Elliot. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me):
justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts
Orlando, FL: Harcourt.
Van Hecke, Madeleine L. ( ). Blind
why smart people do dumb things
. Amherst, NY Prometheus
Block, Richard & Yuker, Harold. (1992). Can you believe your eyes?
Ernst, Bruno. (1992). Optical
. Germany: Taschen. (Translated into English by
Williams in London.)
Ninio, Jacques. (2001). The
(translated from the French edition in 1998
Franklin Philiop with the help of the French Ministry of
Culture). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Nurosi, Aki. (2004). Artful
illusions: designs to fool your eyes
. New York: Sterling
Paraquin, Charles H. (1977). The
best optical illusions
. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace
Shepard, Roger N. (1990). Mind
sights: original visual illusions with a commentary
W. H. Freeman & Co.
Unruh, J. Timothy. (2001). Impossible
optical illusions to confound and astound
York: Sterling Publications
Return to Top