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Are Positive Illusions Adaptive?

Psychologists used to maintain that an accurate perception of reality is vital to mental health. In recent years, however, this view has been challenged by research on the mechanisms of self-enhancement. Consistently, as we have seen, people preserve their self-esteem through biased beliefs, self-handicapping, BIR- Ging, and downward comparisons. The result: Most people see themselves as better than average. Are these strategies a sign of health and well-being, or are they symptoms of disorder?

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When Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown first reviewed the research, they found that individuals who are depressed or low in self-esteem actually have more realistic views of themselves than do most others who are better adjusted. Their self-appraisals are more likely to match appraisals of them made by neu- tral observers, they make fewer self-serving attributions to account for success and failure, they are less likely to exaggerate their control over uncontrollable events, and they make more balanced predictions about their future. Based on these results, Taylor and Brown reached the provocative conclusion that posi- tive illusions promote happiness, the desire to care for others, and the ability to engage in productive work—hallmark attributes of mental health: “These illu- sions help make each individual’s world a warmer and more active and benefi- cent place in which to live”. People with high self-esteem appear to be better adjusted in personality tests and in interviews rated by friends, strangers, and mental health professionals.

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