The other day I was dancing naked to The Killers, limiting my gyrations to the two-foot radius of my stand-up tanning booth and holding my miniature space-alien goggles on with one hand, when it occurred to me: What the hell am I doing?
Not the naked-dancing part so much. More the exposing-myself-to-carcinogenic-rays-in-a-pathetically-shallow-attempt-to-change-the-color-of-my-skin part.
“Well,” I answered myself, “we got that terrible neck burn, remember?"
“So?” myself retorted.
“I mean – we have that wedding! We’re a bridesmaid!”
“What do you mean, ‘and’?! People will see our neck! The dress has no back!”
This went on for quite a while after the UVA and UVB bulbs shut of their glaring glow, the fans quieted and The Killers made way for some old Sheryl Crow. So long, in fact, that I began to wonder…how long had I let the potential risks of what I was doing go unquestioned? How had I been fooling myself all this time?
Fooling ourselves is, of course, a fundamental part of human nature. Show me someone who has no secrets from herself, and I will show you a vegetable.
One of the most common ways we manifest this self-fooling is known in the psychological community as “illusory superiority,” or the “above-average effect.” Put simply, if you are locked in a room with one other person, chances are good that you will “objectively” find yourself smarter, funnier and more sexually appealing than that other person. You will also think you’re a better judge of character, have a higher healthy to unhealthy activity ratio, are a better driver and are more adept at certain tasks. Most likely, you will even think you’re more honest with yourself.
Obviously, this can’t all be true. Certainly not in all cases, and probably not in most.
We fool ourselves in other ways as well: It’s fine to eat at McDonald’s a few times a week for the rest of ever, as long as I’m careful. He loves me, he just doesn’t say it that often…or ever. This tanning booth probably won’t give me cancer, since I only do it a few times a year.
At first glance, these seem like incredibly unhealthy behaviors. Shouldn’t a well-adjusted person be honest about his or her strengths and shortcomings?
As it turns out, no. Illusory superiority, in fact, is one of the hallmarks of a cognitively healthy individual, along with illusion of control and optimism bias. The former allows us to believe that scenarios in which we are really just actors are under our control (and may explain why so many of us experience fear in situations, like flying, that take that illusion away from us). The latter is a tendency to expect the best, not the worst.
Taken together, these human habits developed as evolutionary safeguards to protect us from the immobilizing knowledge that the world is a huge, scary place filled with unspeakably ferocious beasts and deadly acts of God.
Unfortunately, few Americans are in danger of being savaged by large animals. And while we are still at the mercy of God (or Nature, your choice), we minimize the impact with things like Astrodomes and evac protocols. In other words, we are left without many of the reasons for this evolutionary development, yet there it remains.
In a lot of ways, these self-fooling mechanisms are still quite helpful, allowing us to use our high opinions of ourselves to interact in society. As proven by those among us who don’t believe their own value, self-worth is crucial. However, this holdover invincibility complex also accounts for things like reckless driving, overeating and using tanning beds.
So what will I do? Well, I will definitely try to be aware of my own biases and resist the inner voice that tells me I’ll be fine, no matter what. And I’m also probably done with tanning.
After I fix that line on my neck. I’m in a wedding this summer, you know.