Delusions shape our reality

The hidden value of delusions

We tend to think of delusions as factually inaccurate. However, we don’t often consider how, by invalidating them, we also undermine the agency of those who hold them. This is a mistake, argues philosopher Lisa Bortolotti. If we examine the content of our delusions against the environment which influenced them, they reveal the very ways humans engage in active meaning-making, the ultimate mark of human agency.


How do we tell science from pseudoscience? When is a drawing art? What makes a novel a classic? The quickest way to answer these types of demarcation questions is to do so based on people’s reactions. Scientists are given authority and credibility, charlatans are not. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings are admired at the National Gallery; my scribbles end up in the bin at the end of the day. If readers still appreciate a book a hundred years after it was written, then it means that the book stood the test of time.


But there are times when our reactions are disproportionate, and our demarcation judgements are not driven by the qualities of the thing to be evaluated.


Such demarcation judgements often reflect specific qualities of the thing to be evaluated. A research programme following a rigorous method, whose results are published after peer review, may be considered science because it meets the appropriate requirements and withstands the relevant tests. The da Vinci drawings show a technique and a talent that my scribbles lack. A novel may be read by people in the future if it addresses issues that are relevant to the human condition and not just to its contemporary readers, and so on. We have ways of determining whether we consider things worth taking seriously, or not.

But there are times when our reactions are disproportionate, and our demarcation judgements are not driven by the qualities of the thing to be evaluated. Take delusional beliefs. Here, I am not thinking just about beliefs that are considered symptomatic of poor mental health, but also other beliefs that we find implausible, although people who endorse them defend them from challenges and even build their lives around them. Examples range from systematic distortions of reality such as the optimism bias to beliefs in conspiracy theories. So, we may call delusional Laura’s claim that her partner is unfaithful because the second lamp post on the right is unlit; Jay’s belief that he is a better driver than average even if he has been involved in several car accidents; or Rashid’s conviction that the tornadoes causing disruptions across the United States are caused by the US government who can control the weather.

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But what makes a belief delusional? One way of determining this is to observe how we tend to behave when faced with a delusional belief. When we’re presented with beliefs that sound implausible to us, but are obstinately and often passionately held by others, we disengage. Why? When we call a belief delusional, we do not just imply that the belief is most likely to be false and irrational, but that we fail to understand how anybody could have that belief. In other words, by attributing a delusional belief to the speaker, we express some sort of disapproval towards them, as the philosopher Sam Wilkinson says. The implication is that people who report delusional beliefs are not merely confused or mistaken, but “make no sense” or “are out of their minds”. They are not like us. Calling their beliefs delusional is not a neutral description of the features of their beliefs, but a judgement that, if they hold those beliefs, then they lack the capacity to produce and share knowledge.


When we call a person’s belief “delusional”, we assume that that person’s capacity to exercise agency is compromised.


What does it mean that our reaction to a delusional belief is disengagement? When the speaker is attributed a delusional belief, this attribution discourages us from further exchanging ideas and pursuing common projects with the speaker. This is because the attribution of a delusional belief suggests that there is more than a mere difference of opinion between the speaker and us. It suggests that, because of the delusional belief, the speaker should be disqualified from collaborative projects involving the production and sharing of knowledge. We won’t trust Laura because her reasons to believe that her partner is unfaithful do not sound like reasons at all. We won’t be curious about how a driver who claims to be as excellent as Jay does always ends up in an accident when taking their car out. And we won’t discuss meteorology (or US politics) with Rashid if we can avoid it.

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But what makes it the case that a delusion disqualifies the speaker from further engagement? When we call a person’s belief “delusional”, we assume that that person’s capacity to exercise agency is compromised. So, we may recognise that the person has a unique perspective on the world, but it won’t seem to us as a valuable perspective. We may realise that the person has concerns, but we won’t think of those concerns as legitimate and worth addressing. We may come to the conviction that, due to the delusional belief, the person is not in a position to affect change or participate in decision making because their grasp on reality is tenuous. If they were simply mistaken about something, we could correct them. If Laura thought that a latte at the local coffee shop costed £2.50 when it costs £3.50, we could show her the price list and set her straight. But her belief that her partner is unfaithful because the lamp post is unlit cannot be corrected that way, because what Laura considers evidence for the claim is not likely to overlap with what we consider evidence for it. When this happens, and we feel that there is no sufficient common ground for a fruitful exchange, we may see Laura as a problem to be fixed or a patient to be diagnosed and treated, as opposed to an agent with a multiplicity of needs and interests, and a person worth interacting with.

I challenge the assumption that delusional beliefs are marks of compromised agency by default and I do so based on two main arguments. First, there is nothing in the way in which delusional beliefs are developed, maintained, or defended that can be legitimately described as a dysfunctional process. Some cognitive biases may help explain why a delusional explanation is preferred to alternative explanations, or why it is not discarded after a challenge. For instance, people who report delusional beliefs often jump to conclusions. Rashid might have the belief that the US government strives to manipulate citizens’ behaviour and concludes that the tornadoes are created for this purpose, without considering arguments against the feasibility of a machine that controls the weather with that precision. Also, people who report delusional beliefs tend to see meaningful connections between independent events—as Laura who takes the lamp post being unlit as evidence for her partner’s unfaithfulness. But these cognitive biases are a common feature of human cognition and not a dysfunction giving rise to a pathology: they tend to be accentuated at stressful times when we may be strongly motivated to come up with a quick causal explanation for a distressing event.


Our agency is at play when we interrogate an initially puzzling reality and come up with ways to understand it that makes sense to us


Second, and more importantly, the fact that delusional beliefs emerge when people seek an explanation of a significant, often distressing event, suggests that the formulation of delusional beliefs is an affirmation and manifestation of agency, not an act that defies agency. Our agency is at play when we interrogate an initially puzzling reality and come up with ways to understand it that makes sense to us, thereby managing the challenging situations we might find ourselves in. This does not mean that we always have perfect or ideal agency. We often make basic reasoning mistakes or settle for explanatory hypotheses that are incomplete or too simplistic. We may be misled by appearances or give in to social pressure. This is not surprising given our well-documented perceptual and cognitive limitations, and the numerous affective influences on our reasoning and decision making., But when we formulate delusional hypotheses, we do so because we are in the business of understanding the world around us. Even when we get it wrong, we are not passive automata or broken engines but curious explorers who sometimes lose their way.

When we settle on an explanation that other people describe as delusional it is because the explanation makes sense to us based on our past and current experiences but strikes others as implausible, often even impossible. Laura may think the unlit lamp post is not a coincidence, but a secret message available to her alone, confirming her suspicions about her partner’s infidelity. Jay may struggle with low self-esteem and defensively build a picture of himself as confident and competent, creatively reinterpreting the negative feedback and the evidence for his poor driving skills.  Rashid may have stopped trusting the government when he experienced discrimination and exclusion growing up as a member of a stigmatised ethnic minority. This contributes to him seeing enemies everywhere. Although delusions are often misleading maps of the world, they can bring some hidden benefits to us: for instance, they may quell our anxiety by providing an explanation for a mysterious occurrence or embody our values. These benefits are often just temporary because the gulf delusions create between ourselves and others brings exclusion and isolation.

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So how should we react to delusional beliefs? Some suggest that we should stop using the word “delusion” because it is stigmatising. I see the reasons in favour of this proposal, of course, though changing our language is not sufficient to change our practice. What if we reclaimed delusions as an integral part of human agency? We do not need to accept them as true beliefs about the world or the speaker. But we can stop assuming that they are where agency goes to die. Remaining curious about the speaker’s perspective, where it comes from and what it means to them, is always the best policy.

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