Chapter Three: The Power of an Illusion

The capacity of the human mind for self-deception is astounding.  Until we accept this fact, and consciously choose to look inward at our own personal belief systems (rather than attempting to identify the illusions that might plague friends, family and coworkers), there is little hope for positive growth and change.  For this reason, it is necessary to conduct a thorough examination of the ease with which sincere, educated and intelligent people accept utterly baseless beliefs. In Melbourne, Australia, in the 1970’s a teacher named Rosemary Crossley, who specialized in working with severely disabled children, became convinced that many of her students possessed far greater mental capacities than they were physically able to demonstrate.  Because her students were unable to speak, and lacked the hand to eye coordination necessary to write, she developed a procedure known as “Facilitated Communication” (FC) in which she grasped the child’s wrist and held it “for support” suspended above a typewriter keyboard.  Her assumption was that the children knew what they wanted to write, but lacked the motor skills to consistently type the desired keystrokes.  She believed the assistance of a facilitator would improve accuracy.  Amazingly, the children began to type out answers to questions that far surpassed all prior assessments of their ability.             As a result, a social movement was born that swept across North America in the 1990s.  The Facilitated Communication Institute was established at Syracuse University in 1992.  Thousands of facilitators were trained in all fifty American states, and millions of dollars were spent implementing the procedure.  Hundreds of schools and centers for the disabled adopted the procedure.  ABC News called it “a miracle.”  The CBS Evening News said, “It could be a breakthrough.”  One severely autistic fourteen-year-old child who had been unable to speak or write was suddenly, through FC, able to move directly into a normal seventh grade class.1   The estimated IQ of a student in Atlanta, Georgia, was raised from 35 to 106 after several months of facilitation.2    One mother exclaimed, “I feel that I loved a teddy bear for fifteen years, and suddenly I’ve met this young man who has everything I wanted my son to have.”3   There seemed to be no limits to the level of emancipation these disabled children might experience.  But troubling inconsistencies, as it turned out, were being explained away or ignored.   When it was reported that some disabled children seemed to know the innermost thoughts of their facilitators, the children were deemed to be exceptionally sensitive to their surroundings.  When skeptics asked how a child who had never been taught to read or write suddenly began to do so in flowing, grammatically-correct sentences with impressive vocabularies, supporters claimed the children were the beneficiaries of years of watching Sesame Street.  When some noted that many of the children were apparently able to “type” the correct answers (through their facilitators, of course) without even looking at the keyboard, suggestions were made that perhaps the autistic children were not merely brighter than expected, but actually geniuses.  To this day, there is a large and active FC movement, which any internet search will quickly reveal. Sadly, the entire movement is an exercise in self-deception, and a case study for the power of an illusion.  Several autistic children, typing through a facilitator, accused their parents of sexual abuse leading to legal charges, foster homes, and ruined reputations.  But when several of the sexual abuse charges were proven demonstrably false, objective tests were devised to evaluate whether the messages being typed were originating with the student or with the facilitator.  The tests were quite simple.  The child was shown a letter which the facilitator was not allowed to see, and asked to type that letter.  There was a 100% failure rate!  Whenever the facilitator could not see the letter, the child “typed” the wrong letter every time!  When the facilitator was allowed to see the letter, the result was correct every time.  Only one conclusion could be reached: the facilitators were unconsciously guiding the students’ hands to type the messages, and the students were completely unaware what was being typed.  When presented with the results of one such study, a trained facilitator and ardent advocate of FC said, “I was devastated.  I think I wished the floor would open up.  When I looked at the piece of paper, and there was nothing to validate that communication, I had to believe it because there it was in black and white.  But I couldn’t match it with the year of typing we had done with those individuals.  It was just very upsetting.”4                                                                                                      How could she, along with thousands of intelligent, honest, educated people have hoodwinked themselves for years, actually believing that they were passive “supports”, while they were actually typing virtually all of the answers themselves?  The answer is that illusions can be very powerful and persuasive.  The purpose of this chapter is not to embarrass or criticize proponents of Facilitated Communication, but to underscore how all of us are deeply susceptible to self-deception.           Another example of this phenomenon is found in the Parker Brothers board game, “The Ouija Board.” [still second best seller?]  Over the past forty years, the movement of a small plastic indicator across a slippery board has convinced millions that supernatural or paranormal forces are at work.  In reality, the participants simply push the planchette (the indicator) from letter to letter in order to get the message or answer they desire.  A simple test will prove this.  By blindfolding the participants so that they cannot accurately direct the indicator, one can easily determine that the source of the board’s messages is anything but spiritual.  The resultant “message” is always gibberish, because participants cannot see where to push the indicator!  The results become even more hilarious when the board is secretly rotated 180 degrees after the blindfolds are applied.  Participants routinely try to (blindly) push the planchette toward their desired answers even though those letters and responses are now located at the opposite end of the board!  In addition to the Ouija Board, a host of other common practices could be cited as proof that the capacity of the human mind for self-deception is almost limitless: water witching, reflexology, astrology, feng shui, séances, psychic power, and many weight-loss products, to name only a few.           A not-very-bright person once said, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”  His dumber cousin echoed the sentiment by adding, “Ignorance is bliss.”  These two clichés are excellent examples of illusions.  The Columbine tragedy and the September 11, 2001 hijackings prove these common proverbs to be utterly false.  Those who squandered years deluding themselves with “facilitated communication” found them to be untrue, too.  People who make calamitous decisions based on absurdities like their horoscope or fortune tellers know firsthand that ignorance is anything but bliss.  The grand and unmistakable reality is this: what you don’t know can profoundly harm you.  In some cases, it can even kill you.  For this reason, it is vital to tell yourself the truth.  But why do we find it difficult to abandon our illusions? There are many reasons that we cling to our illusions.  First, it is simpler, easier and more comfortable to do so.  To continue to believe a lie may be more pleasant in the short run.  But decisions made under the influence of an illusion inevitably bring greater pain in the long run.  A man who feels chest pains might immediately reduce his anxiety level by telling himself, “It’s probably just indigestion.”  But the short term relief brought on by the illusion of health is far outweighed by the long term consequences of a heart attack.  It is much easier to tell yourself that abdominal discomfort is “nothing to worry about” than it is to pick up the phone and make a doctor’s appointment.  It is much more convenient to shrug off disturbing symptoms than to take time off work to keep that appointment.  It is also cheaper, since the doctor can’t charge you for an office visit that you don’t make.  But when weighed against the long-term costs of doctors, hospitals, surgery, and weeks or months of missed work (not to mention death), the benefits of facing reality (or even potential reality) are clear. A woman whose husband consistently takes hours to supposedly run errands that could easily be completed in twenty minutes might feel better when she reassures herself, “He’s just taking his time, or stuck in traffic.”  But far wiser is the wife who tells herself the truth early on: “My husband seems unfulfilled in our relationship, and doesn’t seem to enjoy coming home.  He’s not as nice to me as he used to be.  I wonder if I can initiate changes that will improve our marriage.”  The effort required for enhancing her marriage, the expense of getting counseling, and the discomfort associated with change are much more challenging than simply denying the truth.  But these short-term costs are far less taxing than facing the pain of an affair, divorce, and broken home a few years later.  Decisions based on the truth almost invariably result in greater success, comfort, and happiness, even if they induce pain and require sacrifice in the short term.     Curiously, some people cling to painful illusions, even when the truth is actually more pleasant.  For example, some people wallow in the illusion that they are destined for failure, incapable of succeeding, or fated to die unloved, etc., when the joyous reality is that they might easily find success or love by changing their outlook and behavior.  However, they cling to their painful illusions because they cherish the freedom from personal responsibility afforded by their illusions more than they desire the benefits of success in work or love.  They fear the risk of failure which is implicit in any attempt to succeed more than the pain of actually being a failure.  Why?  Because remaining a failure requires no effort!  Furthermore, it can easily be blamed on other people or circumstances.  One can always console himself with the thought, “I could be successful, but I just don’t want to try that hard.”  But once one actually tries his best, he is much more likely to experience a greater sense of personal responsibility for failure than one who never tried at all.  It becomes more difficult to blame his lack of success on other circumstances.  Once again, the relative comfort of the illusion wins out over the discipline and hard work which would be required by a person who tells himself or herself the truth. THE MOST BASIC REASON THAT PEOPLE CLINGTO THEIR ILLUSIONS IS THAT IT IS DIFFICULT AND EMBARRASSING TO ADMIT THAT YOU ARE WRONG. It is not that our illusions, by themselves, are necessarily harmful.  It is the way they affect our behavior that renders them potentially damaging.  The negative impact of our mental myths is directly proportional to the stubbornness with which we cling to them, and the role they play in our decision-making processes.  It is quite normal and healthy to allow fanciful illusions to flit through our minds, and then dart away as suddenly as they came.  All of us have used the power of imagination as a catapult to supposed wealth, stardom, or irresistible sex appeal.  But such daydreams that melt away with nothing more than the ringing of a nearby phone or the barking of a neighbor’s dog are harmless.  It is the illusions that linger, however, which are the focus of this book.  Illusions that refuse to go away, even resisting years of therapy, are potentially ruinous.  Most of our illusions lurk somewhere in the gray twilight between those two extremes, inflicting unnecessary pain and causing otherwise avoidable trauma.           Choosing to live with one’s illusions is, at best, unproductive and, at worst, devastating.  This is because an illusion, by definition, is a deception, an untruth.  Therefore, to believe in one is foolish.  For many years, as a professional magician, I have been creating classic illusions on stage, cutting women in pieces, floating them in the air, performing feats of apparent mind reading, etc.  The audience knows that the woman has not actually been dismembered.  But they are entertained by the fact that it looks like she has, and they have no idea how the illusion is created.  Such illusions are good, for one simple reason: the audience recognizes them as exactly what they are, falsehoods.   There is, therefore, no chance whatsoever that they will make any decisions based on the assumption that a woman really can be cut in half and put back together safely (thank heaven!).  A harmless illusion is one which is seen as such, and therefore will never affect anyone’s decision-making processes.           However, on occasion I have been approached after a performance by a reality-challenged audience member who really believes that I utilize paranormal or spiritual forces on stage.  I worry about these people.  Because if they believe I use such powers (despite my open and unambiguous statements to the contrary), they are easy targets to be fleeced by con artists such as phone psychics, palm readers, mediums and their ilk.  By embracing illusions and resisting the truth, they render themselves vulnerable.           These people provide an excellent, if extreme, example of how illusions can become the downfall of much saner and balanced people like those who might read this book.  But our illusions, being far more subtle and difficult to detect, are potentially even more damaging.  It is in their invisibility that their power lies.  Hidden in the crevices of one’s cerebellum from childhood they form a paradigm, a grid, a set of lenses through which we view our world and upon which we base life’s most important and most minuscule choices.  And it is on such choices that life turns.  Given life’s myriad of choices, a person who clings to his or her illusions is slowly, almost imperceptibly taking his or her life in a direction that is quite possibly catastrophic.  Hence, one’s most deeply entrenched illusions, if left unexposed, also constitute one’s destiny.           Think of Hans Christian Anderson’s emperor who believed he was wearing beautiful new clothes visible only to the wise, while he was actually unclothed.  Though all evidence, including what his own eyes told him, screamed that he was naked, this fictional character denied the truth and clung to an illusion.  But this is more than a funny children’s story.  It is a parable of life highlighting the folly of clinging to (or even flaunting) beliefs that are patently and obviously false.   Other children’s stories are also built around the concept of foolish beliefs.  Remember Little Red Riding Hood who was almost done in when she fell for the wolf-dressed-as-grandmother routine.  Consider Icarus who believed he could fly to the sun, only to fall to earth when his wax wings melted, or Chicken Little who interpreted the drop of an acorn as the sky falling.  For the lucky ones, surrendering to an illusion is merely embarrassing.  For most it is harmful or worse.  These fairy tales all teach the same difficult lesson which will be reiterated again and again in this book and in life: illusions are almost always dangerous and are therefore to be rejected.  Life’s grand illusions are to be counteracted and overcome by embracing even “grander realities.” Perhaps more convincing than fairy tales are their parallels in the following true-to-life examples.  Members of “The People’s Temple” lived under the illusion that psychopath Jim Jones was a prophet of God.  Consequently, they followed him to their gruesome deaths in a hellhole in Guyana.  Similarly, members of the “Heaven’s Gate” sect genuinely believed a myth too absurd even for a fairy tale, that the Hale-Bopp comet concealed a spaceship that would beam them aboard as they took their own lives.  Neville Chamberlain, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, clung to a fantasy that an evil dictator could be trusted.  Touting the illusion of “peace in our time,” he credulously fell for Adolph Hitler’s promise to cease further aggression in Europe.  This blunder allowed the evil Fuhrer time to gain enough momentum to become nearly invincible, and eventually to plunge the world into a horrendous war.  Just as believing these illusions resulted in tragic and unnecessary deaths, accepting one’s own mental myths as true can precipitate the death of your most precious dreams and treasured relationships.           Millions of people live and die under the illusion that they are helpless to control their own behavior, or that they are unlovable, or destined for mediocrity or even failure.  Others agonize under the persistent imagination that they are physically unattractive, or socially unacceptable.  Still others carry with them throughout life an abiding fear of being abandoned by those closest to them.  Illusions that a given person harbors about himself or herself create a set of problems that are unique and distinct from false beliefs about the outside world. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy I once interviewed someone to work for me who was intelligent, highly-motivated, and capable.  For the purposes of this book, we will call her Susan.  The only red flag on her resume was that she had moved to a new job every couple of years throughout her career.  She seemed to have a good explanation for each move, however, so I hired her anyway.  True to form, she succeeded admirably then marched into my office eighteen months later to explain that she had decided to resign.  What reason did she give?  “No one appreciates me!”  I was shocked.  This, I knew, was untrue.  We had expressed tremendous appreciation for her not only verbally, but in action and in salary.  How, then, could she be so mistaken?  The answer, I realized, was what I have come to call her “Grand Illusion.”  As the result of a challenging upbringing with unloving parents, she carried deep in her subconscious mind a single overarching illusion that she would never be genuinely loved and accepted.  Consequently, she had mentally constructed an elaborate grid of filters designed to reinforce that illusion, and no amount of appreciation could ever convince her otherwise.  Quite the contrary, all attempts to demonstrate appreciation to Susan were followed by curious behaviors on her part intended to make us reject her.  The only solution to her vexing problem was disillusionment, the voluntary acknowledgement and rejection of the illusion, and the slow and taxing trip back into objective reality.  Fortunately, my friend was willing to begin that arduous journey and eventually stayed with that organization as long as I did.           Disillusionment is better than living under illusions.  And it is considerable cause for celebration when a wise person takes the time and effort to voluntarily and proactively identify his or her own illusions, and become disillusioned before circumstances suddenly and brutally do it for them.  Failure to renounce such illusions sets in motion a process with inevitably harmful consequences. 1 CBS’ Sixty Minutes, Volume 26, Number 23, Transcript, February 20, 1994, p. 7-8 2 CBS’ Sixty Minutes, Volume 26, Number 23, Transcript, February 20, 1994, p. 8 3 CBS’ Sixty Minutes, Volume 26, Number 23, Transcript, February 20, 1994, p. 8 4 CBS’ Sixty Minutes, Volume 26, Number 23, Transcript, February 20, 1994, p. 13

Written by billyriggs