The Evolution of Misbelief

Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 32, No. 6, pg. 493-510, 2009.

Ryan T. McKay, Daniel C. Dennett

From an evolutionary standpoint, a default presumption is that true beliefs are adaptive and misbeliefs maladaptive. But if humans are biologically engineered to appraise the world accurately and to form true beliefs, how are we to explain the routine exceptions to this rule? How can we account for mistaken beliefs, bizarre delusions, and instances of self-deception? We explore this question in some detail. We begin by articulating a distinction between two general types of misbelief: those resulting from a breakdown in the normal functioning of the belief formation system (e.g., delusions) and those arising in the normal course of that system's operations (e.g., beliefs based on incomplete or inaccurate information). The former are instances of biological dysfunction or pathology, reflecting “culpable” limitations of evolutionary design. Although the latter category includes undesirable (but tolerable) by-products of “forgivably” limited design, our quarry is a contentious subclass of this category: misbeliefs best conceived as design features. Such misbeliefs, unlike occasional lucky falsehoods, would have been systematically adaptive in the evolutionary past. Such misbeliefs, furthermore, would not be reducible to judicious – but doxastically noncommittal – action policies. Finally, such misbeliefs would have been adaptive in themselves, constituting more than mere by-products of adaptively biased misbelief-producing systems. We explore a range of potential candidates for evolved misbelief, and conclude that, of those surveyed, only positive illusions meet our criteria.

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"Can Do" Attitudes: Some Positive Illusions Are Not Misbeliefs

Owen Flanagan

McKay & Dennett (M&D) argue that positive illusions are a plausible candidate for a class of evolutionarily “selected for” misbeliefs. I argue (Flanagan 1991; 2007) that the class of alleged positive illusions is a hodge-podge, and that some of its members are best understood as positive attitudes, hopes, and the like, not as beliefs at all.

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Adaptive Misbelief or Judicious Pragmatic Acceptance?

Keith Frankish

This commentary highlights the distinction between belief and pragmatic acceptance, and asks whether the positive illusions discussed in section 13 of the target article may be judicious pragmatic acceptances rather than adaptive misbeliefs. I discuss the characteristics of pragmatic acceptance and make suggestions about how to determine whether positive illusions are attitudes of this type.

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Why We Don't Need Built-in Misbeliefs

Carol S. Dweck

In this commentary, I question the idea that positive illusions are evolved misbeliefs on the grounds that positive illusions are often maladaptive, are not universal, and may be by-products of existing mechanisms. Further, because different beliefs are adaptive in different situations and cultures, it makes sense to build in a readiness to form beliefs rather than the beliefs themselves.

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Positive Illusions and Positive Collusions: How Social Life Abets Self-Enhancing Beliefs

Jonathon D. Brown

Most people hold overly (though not excessively) positive self-views of themselves, their ability to shape environmental events, and their future. These positive illusions are generally (though not always) beneficial, promoting achievement, psychological adjustment, and physical well-being. Social processes conspire to produce these illusions, suggesting that affiliation patterns may have evolved to nurture and sustain them.

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