domingo, 5 de junio de 2011

¿Las ilusiones positivas favorecen la salud mental? / Do positive illusions foster mental health?

by  María Hernández-Lorca

La premisa de que las ilusiones positivas favorecen la salud mental es apoyada por muchas investigaciones, recogidas en la revisión de Taylor y Brown en 1988. Pero hay investigadores que han cuestionado dicha premisa y han llegado a conclusiones diferentes, tales como Colvin y Block. El debate sigue de actualidad, intentemos acercanos a la respuesta de "¿Las ilusiones positivas favorecen la salud mental?"
The premise that positive illusions foster mental health has been supported by a large amount of research, exemplified in Taylor and Brown review article in 1988. But there are also researchers who have questioned this and have reached opposite conclusions, such researchers include Colvin and Block. This debate is still alive. Let's try to give some more light to the question “Do positive Illusions Foster Mental Health?”

Taylor and Brown published an article in 1988 where they reviewed anterior research suggesting an opposing view to the current established one concerning the relation between positive illusions and mental health. The view previously considered to be the most accurate links contact with reality as a characteristic of mental health. Therefore, according to this view, the person who holds a self-perception very close and accurate to reality is the one who is mentally healthy. In contrast, Taylor and Brown (1988) considered that positive self-perceptions and positive illusions were adaptative and could serve to retain a mentally healthy mind.
Other studies have reached other conclusions though, about the question whether positive illusions foster a mental health or not. Colvin and Block (1994) have reviewed this huge amount of literature and reached the conclusion that “it remains unproven that positive illusions foster mental health”.
Taylor and Brown – “Illusion and Well-Being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health” (1988)
Taylor and Brown published their article in 1988 and in it they make clear what they believe the positive illusions to be and the effect they have on the individual. All this apparently solidly based upon a number of studies conducted before their revie
To start with, they explain what the consensus about mental health was believed to be, i.e. that most of the theories maintain that a psychological healthy person is one who is in close contact with reality. Therefore, they write, “although it is not the only theoretical perspective on the mentally healthy person, the view that psychological health depends on accurate perceptions of reality has been widely promulgated and widely shared in the literature on mental health.”
They substitute the terms “error” and “bias” for “illusion” and they take the definition of illusion from Stein (1982) as “a perception that represents what is perceived in a way different from the way it is in reality. An illusion is a false mental image or conception which may be a misinterpretation of a real appearance or may be something imagined”.
The general term “positive illusions” covers three main illusions that Taylor and Brown labeled as unrealistically positive views of the self, exaggerated perceptions of personal control, and unrealistic optimism.
Unrealistically positive views of the self refers in sum to “the perception of self that most individuals hold is heavily weighted toward the positive end of the scale” (pp.195). This also means that there is a tendency to see the self better than the others and than the average. On the other hand, individuals who have low self-esteem, are moderately depressed, or both, usually tend to have rather balanced self perceptions.
While taking this pattern into account, the authors define illusions of control and say that these kinds of illusions lead people to act as if they had control in situations determined by chance. They also stress the difference when it comes to people severely depressed who appear to be less vulnerable to the illusion of control.
When they explain the unrealistic optimism, they suggest that most people are future oriented and believe that the present is better than the past, and that the future will be even better. Again “mildly depressed people and those with low self esteem appear to entertain more balanced assessments of their likely future circumstances”
One section in the article by Taylor and Brown is called “Mental health promoting aspects of illusions” where they explain how the illusions are beneficial to mental health. Using the formulations of mental health from anterior researchers (i.e. Jahoda, 1958 and Jourdad and Landsman, 1980), they identify some general characteristics of mental health and they find a link between positive illusions and the criteria mentioned above. As a result, they talk about Happiness or Contentment as the first trait and they relate it to positive illusions in the way that “perceptions of happy people are compared with those of people who are relatively more distressed, happy people have higher opinions of themselves (e.g., Beck, 1967 ; Kuiper & Derry, 1982; Kuiper & MacDonald, 1982; Kuiper et al., 1985; Lewinsohn et al., 1980; see Shrauger & Terbovic, 1976), are more likely to evince self-serving causal attributions (Kuiper, 1978; Rizley, 1978), show exaggerated beliefs in their ability to control what goes on around them (Abramson & Alloy, 1981; Golin et al., 1977; Golin et al., 1979; M. S. Greenberg & Alloy, in press), and are more likely to be unrealistically optimistic (Alloy & Ahrens, 1987)”. Besides this, they talk about the consistency of the association, even though it appears to be correlational instead of causal.
Ability to take care of the others: evidence indicates that positive illusions are connected with an improvement in social functioning and they also affect the ability to take care of the others by having the capacity of generating positive mood. Hence, people are more likely to help others, to chat with others and express positive evaluations of the others. They name some researches that present evidence supporting these results.
Capacity for creative, productive work: the authors believe that the positive illusions could promote the capacity for creative, productive work in two ways. The first way (facilitation of intellectual functioning) would refer to memory which tends to be organized egocentrically. That seems to be good for the system, especially for a rapid retrieval of information. They do admit though, that this assumption is rather unclear. They call the second way “motivation, persistence and performance” and they say that “self-enhancing perceptions, a belief in personal control, and optimism appear to foster motivation, persistence at tasks, and ultimately, more effective performance.” It appears rather likely that to have high expectations of success prompts to work harder and longer.
Taylor and Brown look for a space of understanding, where the two contradictory views can achieve some integrating lines. They propose the space to lie in “those circumstances under which positive illusions about the self and the world may be most obvious and useful. The nature of these circumstances is suggested both by social cognition research itself and by research on victims of misfortune”.
Apart from that, they cover researchers about management of negative feedback, hence they wonder about “how the process of rejecting versus accommodating negative feedback occurs and, how people negotiate the world successfully and learn from experience without the full benefit of negative feedback”. They structure this section in four parts.
The first of the four parts of the aforementioned section is called Social construction of social feedback. Here, by a thorough investigation of previous research, Taylor and Brown establish as a fact that even when people are unwilling to give feedback, it nonetheless tends to be positive when it is given, or ambiguous in case they have to communicate negative feedback. Taylor and Brown also make it clear here that people select friends and intimates who are relatively similar to themselves, something which leads to the confirmation of one's beliefs. When one chooses one’s friends, one usually does it in such a way that one is superior to them at tasks that one consider the most important, whereas one can tolerate, allow and accept inferiority at tasks which one does not priority. This in order for people to uphold very positive self-evaluation.
The second part of the section is called Biases in encoding, interpretation and retrieval. Here Taylor and Brown argue that interpretation and recollection of information tend to be consistent with people’s prior beliefs, and contradictory information does not get into de cognitive system. In the same way, negative feedback is not considered as true as the perception people usually have of themselves.
Cognitive drift is the third part of the section, and its function is to drift back again the prior beliefs after negative feedback since they might have changed after negative feedback.
The fourth and last is Acknowledged pockets of incompetence, and that is about acknowledging and dealing with the negative information that the person holds.
Taylor and Brown conclude the article with the assumption that the mentally healthy person is the one who has a distortion of reality in positive way about himself and has an optimistic view about the future. But they wonder something of important consideration: “Are positive illusions always adaptative?” The answer might be not that positive, since that might lead people to forget some important health habits and not be prepared for negative events. Despite of that, they finish with the postulation that “the capacity to develop and maintain positive illusions may be thought of as valuable human resource to be nurtured and promoted, rather than an error prone processing system to be corrected”
Randall Colvin and Jack Block – “Do Positive Illusions Foster Mental Health? An Examination of the Taylor and Brown Formulation” (1994)
Randal Colvin and Jack Block publish a review article in 1994 where they examine the article that I have just presented “Illusion and Well-Being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health” written in 1988 by Taylor and Brown. Their main conclusion is that it is unproven that positive illusions foster mental health. To achieve that conclusion they describe the way Taylor and Brown study the literature and then they evaluate the evidence given for the three illusions that Taylor and Brown had labeled and described before in their study. They end up concluding “that the conjecture of positive illusions as fostering mental health is unproven at best and at worst may be seriously wrong in many circumstances”
When Colvin and Block examine how Taylor and Brown analyze the literature in order to draw the three main positive illusions they find that there are three main steps that Taylor and Brown follow to get there. Step A points out the tendency of the participants in the experiments (university students most often). Step B engrosses that “the behaviors observed to typify the group must be based on the presence of positive illusions in most individuals”. Then in Step C they find “a connection between positive illusions and mental health by citing research in which the normative (i.e., typical, commonplace, or prevalent) illusion does not occur or occurs to a lesser degree in individuals who are depressed or who have low self-esteem”. They also say for this last step that “the relative absence of self-serving illusions in people who exhibit dysphoric tendencies was taken as affirmative evidence that such “positive” illusions are present in individuals who are psychologically healthy (i.e., the absence of depression implies mental health)”
Once they capture this general pattern that, according to them, Taylor and Brown follow, they scan all the evidence that it is provided by Taylor and Brown to justify the three main positive illusions.
Next section it is called “Our Evaluation of the Evidence Advanced by Taylor and Brown” and it is focused on the Step C. Their argument is “the crucial, counter-intuitive, attention-attracting step in their reasoning, however, is Step C, which asserts that the regular use of reality-distorting positive cognitive illusions is related to enhanced levels of mental health”. They review the entire literature one by one where they think Step C is applicable as they “provide equivocal support for a relation between unrealistically positive views of self and mental health”. An example for the illusion Unrealistic Positive views of the self could be when they observe that Taylor and Brown use the article written by Watson and Clark (1984) to present support to their thesis and Colvin and Block argue that “Watson and Clark suggested that individuals high in negative affectivity exaggerate failure experiences and accept negative information about themselves, whereas individuals low in negative affectivity seem to exhibit “a healthy defensiveness that helps them to maintain a pleasant mood” (p. 482) [cursive added]. They noted, however, that there are … very little data to indicate which group has the more realistic outlook, and those which do exist are inconsistent (p. 482) [cursive added]”.
They do exactly the same with the two other illusions. Besides, they illustrate their arguments reviewing not only the literature that Taylor and Brown use, but also some posterior literature that appears to support that hypothesis. Therefore, Colvin and Block’s arguments come out strongly.
In addition to the three Steps about the weakness of the arguments of the relation between positive illusions and mental health that I have already mentioned, Colvin and Block see other inconsistencies in the arguments that Taylor and Brown present in their article. That comes for the reasons that Taylor and Brown define a behavior as an illusion, the supposition that illusions in cognitive processing characterize the functioning of normal and healthy individuals and the conception they have of mental health.
Problems With Declaring That Certain Typical Behaviors Are Illusional. “Their Step B, wherein certain typical behaviors are said to be illusional, also warrants consideration and questioning. Specifically, we take issue with the reasoning Taylor and Brown often used to conclude that a positive illusion exists” To exemplify this analysis the authors use some of the literature that Taylor and Brown had used for their article and they criticize the interpretation that the first authors did. They allege that the “the way an investigator interprets a situation is not necessarily the way a subject interprets the same situation”, that would happen (according to the authors) when they interpret that a subject is valuating “his performance better than the experimenter’s theory-based presumption of how the subject should evaluate his or her performance, an error of perception is typically attributed to the subject by the experimenter” (e.g., Abramson & Alloy, 1981; Abramson et al., 1981; Alloy & Abramson, 1979; see also Miller & Ross, 1975).
Also, within this section, they mention problems with the “operationalization of cognitive illusion described by Taylor and Brown”, they declare that Taylor and Brown put in the same group people that are objectively more skilled than the average and they consider themselves as that and people that consider themselves better than the average but they are not. Moreover, they critique how ambiguously it is asked in researches about happiness and, according to the authors, everybody can find a category in his life that feels he is happier than the rest or, as it is said in the article: “better off than most”. The third, and last critique in this field comes when they say that people are asked to compare themselves with an unclear group of people and it is also vague the domain that they are asked to rate themselves with the rest. All those evaluations make Taylor and Brown's assumption about the presence of illusions uncertain.
Human Errors in Cognitive Processing. The authors say that the view that sees the human cognitive processing flawed and Taylor and Brown use in their article is now being questioned. Colvin and Block come with some examples of researches to say that human cognitive system is flawless. And they add that “whereas Taylor and Brown suggested that people use cognitive illusions to prolongedly maintain and enhance their level of mental health, we suggest that although people may often distort reality—especially in instances in which there is no feedback—they also will often use a corrective strategy whereby later, convergent, more valid information is assimilated that overrides and rectifies the initial distortion. We do not accept the pervasive dismal view of the human mind as being untuned to reality detection”
On the Construct and Operationalization of Mental Health. The authors do not see reasonable the conceptualization of Mental Health that Taylor and Brown used. They argue that in some cases the absence of a disorder like depression gives the individual a good mental health whereas nondepressed does not mean mentally healthy. They also mention that “the Taylor and Brown explanation of how illusions contribute to mental health depends entirely on their prior conclusion that positive illusions are associated with mental health. To the extent that this conclusion can be seriously questioned, it follows that their explanation loses cogency”
They finish the article with a general conclusion where they say that “although they cited numerous books and articles, only a few of these references proved to be germane to their essential argument”. They admit that positive illusions may affect mood and may give relief when negative experiences, but they do not believe that “cognitive distortions about oneself and one's social surroundings can result in adaptive behavior over long periods of time in a world that provides feedback or reacts back on the individual”
Other researches
Colvin and Block’s article made Taylor and Brown review the theoretical model in an article called “Positive Illusions and Well-Being Revisited: Separating Fact From Fiction" (1994) where they also examined Colvin and Block's article and brought up issues that had to be resolved. As an answer, Colvin and Block write some time later “Positive Illusions and Well-Being Revisited: Separating Fiction From Fact" (1994) where in a short essay they confirm their position and invite readers to examine both articles vis-à-vis.
But apart from those papers from Colvin and Block and Taylor and Brown, there has been conducted a huge amount of research (Colvin and Block talked about more than 250 from the first article in 1988 to the publication of their article in 1994) that have tried to test this controversial view.
If the dialectical theoretical model that Taylor and Brown proposed on positive illusion and mental health is valid, there must be some factors behind it that provoke this connection, even Taylor and Brown themselves talk about a correlational instead of causal relationship. Therefore, it is not unwise to review researches that have been done in the field of biological profiles and the relation of positive illusions and mental health.
Suzanne Segerstrom, Shelley Taylor, Margaret Kemeny and John Fahey (1998) found that “optimism may also be associated with immune change during stressful circumstances” and they specified those changes due to a bigger amount of “helper T cells, an essential immunoregulatory cell that mediates immune reactions to infection”
We find some answers about how it is the relation between stress and regulatory systems in the article written by Shelley E. Taylor, Jennifer S. Lerner, David K. Sherman, Rebecca M. Sage, Nina K. McDowell, (2003). They explain this relation in the section called Mediation of Self-Enhancement and Biological Stress Regulation. The concrete relation that they find is "beneficial or adverse effects of self-enhancement on stress regulatory systems might be mediated”.
The authors state that Psychological Distress could be a mediator since “anxiety and depression have been associated with abnormal diurnal rhythms in HPA responses to stress (Chorpita & Barlow, 1998; Chrousos & Gold, 1992), and negative affective states such as hostility have been tied to heightened heart rate and blood pressure responses to stress”. Then they argue that “If positive illusions keep negative affect at low levels, or conversely, if self-enhancement defensively masks anxiety or other negative emotions, then these negative emotions may represent the pathway whereby self-enhancement influences biological stress systems”
The second mediator would be psychological health since “self-enhancement may contribute to mental health, which in turn mediates beneficial effects on biological responses to stress. The well-documented comorbidities between mental and physical health outcomes may reflect this relation.”
The third mediator is psychosocial resources. And they present the following argument: “Psychosocial resources may enable people to guard against or offset stressful events before their implications may be felt or may enable people to cope more actively with stressful events and minimize their adverse physiological and neuroendocrine consequences; alternatively, if self-enhancement represents a defensive neurotic process, then the psychological resources of self-enhancers may be impoverished.”
The authors of the article find that “baseline cortisol differences suggest a healthier HPA axis profile for high self-enhancers, and analyses of autonomic responses showed lower levels of arousal among high self-enhancers during the stress tasks as well”. These results provide evidence for the formulation that “positive illusions may be associated with lower autonomic responses to stress and with lower resting HPA axis levels [which would mean that] positive illusions [is related] to healthier physiological and neuroendocrine functioning”
There are many different fields where positive illusions have been tested. From now I am going to try to illustrate some of them in order to have a better representative idea about what issues positive illusions´ benefits have been tested.
There has been research about positive illusions in mindset. In this field, Shelley E. Taylor and Peter M. Gollwitzer (1995) found that “People use relatively realistic thinking when setting goals and more positive thinking when implementing them”. The use the following explanation: “Mindset would influence self-perceptions and the perception of invulnerability to risk (unrealistic optimism) as well as the illusion of control. By contrast, implementation may be a time when positive illusions are mustered, even exaggerated, in service of the motivation needed to bring about goal achievement” The results of their experiment provide “support for the contention that deliberation may be a time when people are relatively realistic about their talents and shortcomings and the resources and limitations of the environment” and they add that “perceptions of one’s skills and talents may be affected by the temporary induction of a deliberative or implemental mindset. There is evidence that perceptions of one's vulnerability to both controllable and uncontrollable risks are affected by mindset”
Randall Colvin, Jack Block and David Funder (1995) found in the article "Overly Positive Self-Evaluations and Personality: Negative Implications for Mental Health" that “in the longitudinal studies, self-enhancement was associated with poor social skills and psychological maladjustment 5 years before and 5 years after the assessment of self-enhancement. In the laboratory study, individuals who exhibited a tendency to self-enhance displayed behaviors, independently judged, that seemed detrimental to positive social interaction” and later they add that “self-enhancement, while aiding one's self-esteem, is over the long term an ineffective interpersonal strategy with both friends and acquaintances and, therefore, the growth or development of self. A vicious cycle is generated whereby self-enhancement is rigidly and frequently used to maintain positive self-regard but at a continual and cumulative cost of alienating one's friends and discouraging new acquaintances”
So, What should we think?
It is very obvious that there is a general debate about the main and central question that it is brought here: Do Positive Illusions Foster Mental Health? The general discussion between the groups one leaded by Taylor and the other leaded by Colvin and Block brings a confrontation in the social psychology scene. The arguments that both groups have presented individually have both strengths and weaknesses. I am going now try to discus these in order to see where are those points that we can trust and those that we should improve and look through. O
The two articles that I have described in depth here have some points that are important to stress. Both teams, Taylor and Brown and Colvin and Block, talk about how people rate their happiness, but non of them fall in the point that it is logical that people that think that they are skilled, they will have a great future and will be happy. Consequently, they are going to rate themselves as a happy people. In this way, the assumption that I am working in this paper makes sense: to consider yourself skilled, with a great future and better than the average should contribute to your mental health.
The findings in the articles concerning the biological aspects that would be involved in the assumption that positive illusions foster mental health give some support to this thought. These data are very important because we cannot forget that we are talking about a correlational relation and, thus, there must be at least one element underlying the two elements of the premise (positive illusions and mental health). If this (or these) element(s) is (are) found the assumption that we are testing gains a big support. In any case, one must be very critic and cautious as the social and psychological factors are usually very difficult to separate one from others and, thus, very difficult to know which exactly factors are having some kind of influence in biological variables.
Since Taylor and Brown presented their article a lot of researchers seem to be interested in the new theoretical approach. A lot of research has been carried out with contradictories results.
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