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The Three objects of your Illusions

When I studied the world of magic and illusions, I was fascinated to learn the variety of methods that can be used to fool people. From manipulating your attention to tricking your visual perception system to influencing you to accept false information, magicians have a lot of, well, tricks up their sleeves.

Often the secret behind an amazing magical illusion is disappointingly simple, because the human brain can be very easy to fool. If I use the right tools (a glance, a motion, a clever turn of a phrase) at the right time (at a moment when your guard is down) I can create the impression of doing the impossible.

I also learned that the brain is in a near constant state of fooling itself. We have two brain systems with different agendas and one of them regularly tricks the other one into misperceiving the world. Its agenda is a good one - to keep you alive - but it comes at a cost. The cost is that we fail to see things as they really are. We are living with illusions caused by our subconscious system (system 1) waving a magic wand at our conscious system (system 2).

Those brain-based tricks can keep us from reaching our conscious, higher-level goals, such as reaching our potential as leaders, team members, partners, parents, and friends. Or keeping our decisions and behavior aligned with our core values.

Most of our most detrimental illusions fall into one of three categories, defined by the object of the illusion: information, other people, ourselves.

Illusions about information

Information takes many forms and we use it to make decisions and take action. Unfortunately, it is usually tainted. First, it may be “corrupted” by the sender either intentionally or unintentionally. It may be presented as pure fact, but is completely or partially untrue, inaccurate, incomplete, or exaggerated.

Secondly, we interpret the information using complex filters that combine our beliefs, preferences, and invisible system 2 biases. The result is often an illusion about the information, its meaning, and its importance. When we make decisions and act on this tainted information, we may be undermining our ability to achieve our goals.

Illusions about other people

One branch of magic I performed is called mentalism. Rather than using visual illusions, mentalists demonstrate impossible mental feats, such as mind reading. Audiences are fascinated by the idea that a person can know another person’s hidden thoughts. In fact, we practice mind reading all the time and think that we can accurately know what other people are thinking or what their motivations or intentions are. That’s an illusion because we can’t. We can surmise based on what they do and say, but we get it wrong as often as not.

We tend to misinterpret other people’s actions, often ascribing them to ill-intent when in reality the person just acted on different (or less) information that what you have. A better approach is to heed Hanlon’s razor, which says we should “"never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

We also make poor assessments about other people depending on our emotional state. This is called the empathy gap and it occurs when we are in one mental state, such as angry, and we fail to understand the perspective or predict the actions of someone who is in a different state, such as happy or calm.

Illusions about ourselves

A variety of studies have shown that we tend to overestimate our own knowledge, skills, and competence compared to other people, thinking we are better than we really are. Whether it’s our driving skills, how much we give to charity, or how well we do our job compared to others, we tend to have a sense of “illusory superiority” that the facts don’t bear out.

We also have an overconfidence bias that gives us false certainty about our beliefs and ideas. We underestimate the probability that our assessment of a situation or piece of information could be wrong. This illusion can damage our trustworthiness and our reputation as well.


Do you see your own illusions in these examples? Are you more prone to illusions about information, other people, or yourself?

Be vigilant in your self-reflection and you will have a better chance of recognizing your brain’s magic tricks so that you can keep its illusions from leading you away from your goals and your values.

Think well and be well!

- Steve Haffner

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