Excerpted from Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain
In the winter of 2011, my wife, my daughter and I set out on a road trip from Washington, DC, to Toronto to visit some close friends. It was a beautiful drive that took us through the lush foothills of the Allegheny Mountain Range, and eventually past Lake Erie and Niagara Falls. But first we had to make a stop just outside of Pittsburgh, where I had an appointment with a felon.
His old U.S. Marshall–issued “WANTED” poster noted that he was the founder of “a cult-type organization” called the “Church of Love.” It would be more accurate to say he was a con artist who had managed to pull off one of the most bizarre and inventive scams in American history. His name was Donald Lowry.
Lowry first came to my attention some months earlier, as I was reading an obscure academic paper. In passing, the paper mentioned some elements of Lowry’s peculiar scheme, which it described, dryly, as a “rather inventive direct-mail program.” I was intrigued and started to look for more information. Much to my surprise, there was a lot of it. If you are old enough to have read newspapers or watched television news in the late 1980s, you might have heard of the Church of Love. Lowry’s case found its way into the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, several national magazines, and the big four television networks. He was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly on Inside Edition and by Maury Povich on A Current Affair. His trial was covered by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and by the magazine Paris Match, the largest newsweekly in France. His scam was the subject of an early and iconic episode of Geraldo.
The story was weird and captivating: A balding, middle-aged writer in a small Midwestern town had assumed the personas of dozens of fictitious women. He had written love letters in their voices to tens of thousands of men—the “inventive direct mail program.” Each woman had her own unique writing style, vocabulary and backstory. The letters were printed en masse, but they featured numerous personal touches. Lowry used fonts that imitated actual handwriting, and the letters were often printed on paper tinted in delicate pastels. The notes featured girlish expostulations and whimsical digressions. Lots of men who received the love letters wrote back. In the course of weeks, months and sometimes years, they poured out their hearts to their fictitious correspondents.
Many fell in love, and believed they had found their soulmates. They sent in hundreds of thousands of dollars to Lowry and his organization in order to keep the love letters coming. Some wrote wills bequeathing their estates to their imagined soulmates. Federal investigators eventually estimated that, by the end, Lowry’s scheme had garnered millions of dollars. His business occupied the entirety of one of the most prominent downtown office buildings in Moline, Illinois, and he owned printing presses large enough to publish a medium-sized newspaper. His organization had 50 employees. By the time Lowry was arrested, he owned a fleet of twenty automobiles, including Rolls-Royces and Jaguars. He had a full-time personal mechanic.
I’ve always been intrigued by stories about con artists. Like art forgers, these criminals tend to be colorful, and their outlandish tales usually make for interesting journalism. But there was something about this case that struck me as completely unbelievable: When Lowry’s scheme was unmasked, and he was brought to trial on charges of mail fraud in 1988, members of his love letter subscription service came to a courthouse in Peoria, Illinois—to defend him. Some testified that the “Church of Love” had kept them from addiction and loneliness—two members said the love letters had saved them from suicide. One man railed against the investigators who were trying to protect victims like himself. “The Postal Inspector ruined my life,” he said.
What on earth was going on? Once the con was revealed, why would the marks show up to defend the con artist? It was as though deceiver and deceived were in it together, bound by a pact of complicity.
What began as curiosity morphed into a quest to understand the power—and paradox—of self-deception. It eventually led me to challenge fundamental aspects of my worldview. Somewhere along this journey, I realized that I had spent much of my adult life working on the subjects of delusion and self-deception. My book The Hidden Brain, which eventually led to the Hidden Brain podcast and radio show, is all about peeling back the layers of lies that keep us from seeing reality clearly and from becoming our best selves. The virtue of uncovering mental errors and biases seem self-evident. We live in times that showcase the terrible effects of lies, scams and self-deception. Surely, all of us want to separate what is true from what is untrue. How then to understand the members of Don Lowry’s love-letter subscription scheme, who not only fell for an outlandish deception, but fought to preserve it when it was revealed to be a hoax?
The simplest answer to that question was the one showcased on Geraldo and by the media hordes that covered the case: Lowry’s victims were poor, pathetic rubes. They were too weak to stand up for themselves when they discovered they had been taken for a ride. In one episode of his show, Fox impresario Geraldo Rivera brought in a member of the Church of Love, a model who worked for Lowry, and an assistant writer who helped with the letters. Rivera held up one of the love letters that had been mailed to members and described an “elaborate hoax.” He read from it in a mock-seductive voice: It somehow seems I’ve been living just for this moment. Your kisses were passionate, but not demanding, threatening. I lay down on the sofa and you lay beside me, almost on top of me. The rain beat a rhythmic tattoo on the roof. The wind whistled overhead. It was a night made for love. It was a night made for us.The camera panned to Carl Cornell, an eighty-four-year-old Arkansas man who was a long-standing member of the Church of Love. It was Cornell’s birthday, Rivera noted, and the trip to the studio in New York was his first on an airplane. Cornell listened patiently as Geraldo disparaged the love-letter scheme. When he finally got a chance to speak, his eyes flashed anger: “You paid my fare up here. If I’d have known it’d be this kinda show, I wouldn’ta come.”
“Carl, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, I’m talking about facts,” Rivera said.
“You’re not hurting my feelings,” Cornell responded. “You’re hurting my friends.”
When I first stumbled on the story of the Church of Love, I subscribed to the conventional explanation that Lowry was a clever con artist, and that his victims were gullible fools. But after interviewing members of the Church of Love and reading their testimonies at Lowry’s trial, after interviewing Lowry himself during that 2011 trip, and after reading hundreds of research papers in medicine, psychology and economics, I came to doubt the conventional narrative. For one thing, I began to see that the self-deception of the members, their complicity in Lowry’s scheme, was far from an aberration. Similar examples abounded. Most were less dramatic. Many were clothed in respectability—no one would go around calling them “scams” or demand they be prosecuted in the courts. All involved dances of complicity between deceivers and deceived. These pacts of deception and self-deception were sometimes explicit but, far more often, implicit and unspoken.
The ubiquity of these examples prompted me to revisit another fundamental assumption: Was it possible, I asked myself, that for at least some members, the Church of Love had provided a valuable service? That couldn’t be the case, could it? The whole thing was a hoax. But what then to make of members who said the love letters had saved their lives, or kept them from addiction and suicide? A disturbing question popped into my head: Could self-deception ever lead to good outcomes? Again, the moment I asked this question, I began to see plenty of examples. I realized that one reason people cling to false beliefs is because self-deception can sometimes be functional—it enables us to accomplish useful social, psychological or biological goals. Holding false beliefs is not always the mark of idiocy, pathology or villainy.
As I started to question my assumptions, I began to see cracks in the façade of the Temple of Rationality. I saw that pacts of complicity between deceivers and self-deceivers are not only ubiquitous, but often useful, regularly functional and sometimes essential. They can shape the quality of our relationships. They can underpin the success of our groups. They can even predict how long we’ll live.
Believing what we want to believe and seeing what we want to see, I slowly came to understand, is less a state of mind, or a reflection of one’s intelligence, and more a response to one’s circumstances. Foregoing self-deception isn’t merely a mark of education or enlightenment—it is a sign of privilege. If you don’t believe in Santa Claus or the Virgin Birth, it’s because your life does not depend on your believing such things. Your material, cultural, and social worlds are providing you with other safety nets for your psychological and physical needs. But should your circumstances change for the worse, were the pillars of your life to buckle and sway, your mind, too, would prove fertile ground for the wildest self-deceptions. There are, as we say, no atheists in foxholes.
At the core of our troubled relationship with the truth lies a dilemma: We need hope in order to function, but the world gives us endless reasons not to be hopeful. For most people on the planet, to forswear self-deception is to invite despair and dysfunction. This is especially clear when you step back and look at the big picture: If all life on earth was mapped on a timeline that stretched one hundred yards in length, humans arrived on the scene an eighth of an inch from the very end. If you step back even further, and look not just at life on earth but at our planet itself, human beings vanish into insignificance: Earth is one of a hundred billion planets, and that’s just in our galaxy. Our own existence as individuals? That’s even more fragile, by many orders of magnitude. Understanding something about the scale of time and space can produce wonder. But awareness of our own insignificance can also be a source of deep terror and dejection. In the very near future lie irrelevance, oblivion and erasure.
This is not a useful attitude when it comes to ensuring our survival and the survival of our genes. If we are to roll the Sisyphean boulder up and down the hill, as required for our survival and the well-being of our progeny, it isn’t helpful to feel our lives are useless or unimportant. This is why, in every culture around the world, people reach for beliefs that tell them that their lives have purpose and meaning. Nations and tribes convince us that, by becoming part of large groups, we can transcend our own brief existence as individuals. Nearly every religion in the world offers reassurances about what happens to you after you die. Poking holes in these claims is easy, because they are often illogical and far-fetched. Books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins advise us to peer fearlessly into the void, to accept our irrelevance with good cheer. But this belies the real challenge: Most people find it difficult to think of their own unimportance with equanimity.
In fact, in a meeting at his beautiful home at Oxford some years ago, I asked Dawkins this question: Separate from whether the claims made by religions are true, should a person experiencing great suffering, but who feels their life is made bearable by a religious belief in the afterlife, be stripped of the comfort of their convictions? Dawkins was silent. If you’re the kind of person who believes people with terminal illnesses should be stripped of their illusions about a heavenly afterlife, you sound the way I sounded in my twenties. Fine. But remember this: If self-deception is functional, then it will endure, regardless of all the bestsellers that criticize it. Life, like evolution and natural selection, ultimately doesn’t care about what’s true. It cares about what works.
Consider this simplest of examples—the organ you are using to read this. In any given second, the human eye collects about a billion bits of information. This flood of data is compressed a thousand times, and only one million bits of information are sent to the brain via the optic nerve. The brain keeps just forty bits of this data, and discards the rest. As the cognitive psychologist and author Donald Hoffman explains, this is like taking an actual book, compressing the chapters into CliffsNotes, then taking those notes and throwing away nearly everything until you are left with a blurb.
The amazing thing is not that your brain reduces books to blurbs on a moment-to-moment basis: It is that your brain gives you the illusion that you are seeing everything, that you are taking in the whole book. It turns out there are excellent reasons for your eyes and brain to do all this filtering. Indeed, to see reality clearly would leave us worse off, not better. Our eyes and brain are not in the truth business; they are in the functionality business, and discarding nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and sixty bits of data out of every billion is extremely functional.
"As I started to question my assumptions, I began to see cracks in the façade of the Temple of Rationality."
What happens with visual information also happens in nearly every part of our mental lives. We think we are seeing, hearing and processing the truth, but we often are not. As with our eyes, it turns out there are excellent reasons to prioritize functionality over reality in every domain. Yes, this means you miss the truth, but it gets you to the real goal: Your brain has been designed to help you survive, to forage for opportunities, to get along with mates and friends, to raise offspring to adulthood, and to avoid feelings of existential despair. From the perspective of evolution, objective truth is not only not the goal, it is not even the only path to the goal.
Sigmund Freud once compared the mind to the city of Rome. Like the actual city, he said, the mind has layers, each built atop the last. Many of Freud’s notions have been discredited by empirical neuroscience and psychology, but there is a great truth in this elegant idea. As the product of a lengthy process of evolution, the faculties of our brains have emerged layer by layer over millions of years. Some faculties are virtually brand new. Others, like our fear circuits, are ancient. The mental faculties that were the last to evolve—the newest buildings in this very old city—do things that are inconceivable for other species: We can anticipate and imagine what will happen far into the future. We can carry out plans whose outcomes won’t be seen for decades. We are unrivaled in our capacity to exercise reason and logic. For example, when our scientific instruments show us that reality is not as it seems—that an earth that looks flat is actually spherical—we have the capacity to overrule what feels true in favor of what we know to be true. These newest mental abilities make us proud—and they should. They are responsible for the achievements of science and technology; they have helped us form self-regulating political systems of great stability; they are the lifeblood of art and philosophy.
But the brilliance of our newest mental faculties has caused many intelligent people to believe a startling untruth—that logic and rationality are all that matter. Many of us—and I long counted myself among this group—believe that the world would be a better place if we could simply use reason and rationality to solve every problem. What this worldview fails to comprehend, what I failed to comprehend, is that reason and logic might well be the pinnacle of our mental faculties, but they are only the newest settlements atop a much larger, ancient city. That older city, often invisible, establishes the boundaries of what we see and what we fail to see. If reason and logic tell us how to play the game, the invisible city defines the rules of the game. It is the template, over which the skyscrapers of reason and rationality loom.
I argue that across many domains today, and especially where we see the forces of culture and reason and logic besieged by unreason, tribalism and prejudice, we are really seeing projections of a war raging inside our own heads. When the skyscrapers of reason and rationality act as though they are the entire city, they invite rebellion. That’s because human thriving is deeply reliant on the workings of the ancient brain. For all the contempt the rational brain might have for its irrational and illogical counterparts, the new and the old systems in the brain are inextricably yoked together.
If the forces of logic and rationality often seem ineffective at fighting superstition, delusion and conspiracy theories, it’s because the “new city of Rome” speaks a different language than the “old city of Rome.” The two cities have different value systems. They have different ways of knowing. When the rational brain claims to have all the answers, it often ends up being misunderstood, undermined or ignored. To create a world that produces the best in human beings, we must certainly be informed by reason, rationality, and science, but we must also deploy the insights of logic using aspects of our minds that are prone to storytelling, symbols—and self-deception.
Lots of books have been written about the negative consequences of delusion and self-deception. Their authors see the catastrophic consequences of gullibility in politics, business and personal relationships. I share their concerns about the great costs exacted by deception and self-deception. My goal is not to reject rationality—or to defend con artists, hucksters, and liars—but to make the argument that just because self-deception can lead us to ruin, it does not necessarily follow that it has no role to play in ensuring our well-being.
Rather than seek to annihilate self-deception and all it represents, a better goal would be to think carefully about what it does, and ask ourselves how we can work with it. In other words, we ought to care less about whether something is simply true or untrue and ask more complicated questions: What are the consequences of self-deception? Whom does it serve? Do the benefits justify the costs? Even if your goal is to fight self-deception, you cannot do it without first understanding its profound power.
The psychological forces that made it difficult for the members of the Church of Love to see reality accurately fill all our lives. If we seem less credulous, it’s only because circumstances have not tested us to the same extent. Put another way, those poor, pathetic rubes—but for a few strokes of luck—are us.
Excerpted from Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain. Copyright © 2021 by Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Shankar Vedantam is the host of the Hidden Brain podcast and radio show. He’s the bestselling author of The Hidden Brain: How our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives and served as a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
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