Negotiating Tip #53:
How We Fool Ourselves
We humans are prone to self-deception and wishful thinking. A wonderful example of this is the basis for a new film, The Last Vermeer, about the true story of Dutch art expert Abraham Bredius and the forger who fooled him with fake Vermeers, Hans Van Megeren. The story, well known in the Netherlands, is also told in a Financial Times article by Tim Harford with the same title as this tip (“From forgeries to Covid-denial, Tim Harford on how we fool ourselves”, behind a paywall). There are lots of delicious twists: in the middle of World War Two, Van Megeren sold the painting, the most valuable in the world at the time, to Hitler’s Number Two Herman Goring for a fortune.
Bredius wanted the painting in question to be a Vermeer, so he convinced himself it was. This is an example of “motivated reasoning.” The Oxford University behavioral economist Guy Mayraz has run experiments which show how people regularly and overwhelmingly predict that what will happen will be what they want to have happen. We have all encountered this in real life – think of sports fans who are sure their team will win despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Experts are particularly prone to this problem. As France’s most famous writer Molière wrote, “a learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one.”
As Harford explains, the best defense against this problem is to pause to reflect on anything we hear that raises a strong emotional reaction, whether positive or negative. Take the time to consider what evidence is there really about the matter. This is no fool-proof solution, but it can be an important corrective to our built-in tendency to accept what we want to be true, even when the evidence is slim at best.