One Dangerous Way Our Imagination Tricks Us

Image from wikipedia

Imagine the following scene: you’ve just completed your first marathon. It’s a warm summer day, the sun is shining, you cross the finish line, and your mind plays back the long journey that brought you to this point. Hundreds of hours of training, constant soreness, weird injuries, weight loss, weight gain, more weight loss, and a constant tedium of those daily runs on those regular routes.

It took so much work to get to this point. It is such an accomplishment. And now that it’s over, you look at your watch to check your time and feel a surge of pride. You finished just slightly above the four-hour mark. Better than you’d hoped!

You tell your friends. Many of them followed your progress and are happy to see you reach this goal. But one particular friend asks, What was your time?

You tell them.

They smile and say, Not bad. My first marathon was three-and-a-half hours.

An awkward silence ensues.

One-upmanship at its finest, right?

The effect might be inadvertent but, chances are, this new information diminishes your joy. Regardless of your perspective or your detachment, it weedles its way into your mind and makes you feel a bit insecure. Maybe for a minute. Maybe for an entire day.

It points to a beautiful expression that I’ve studied a few times when discussing social media, identity, and self-awareness. Attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, it reads as follows:

Comparison is the thief of joy.

There is a lot to this idea. One aspect is the beguiling nature of comparison. It would seem that simple data points, set side-by-side, gives us a clear depiction of reality. However, this is seldom the case. And rather than question the nature of truth, or some other crazy-making venture, let’s just consider the reasons why comparison is a useful-but-imperfect way of understanding anything.

Most Comparisons Are Not Fair

Steven Furtick captured this when he offered the following:

The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.

We understand his point when we look at all the carefully-curated selfies on social media. People put their best face forward and we stare at those images late at night after we’ve washed off our makeup and slipped into our pajamas. Comparative thinking emerges rather quickly in those moments. We imagine how exciting that trip, experience, meal, or new purchase must be. We then wonder why we haven’t had something like that lately. What’s wrong with us?


Specifically, nothing is wrong with us, as people, but much is wrong about what we perceive in that moment of comparative thinking.

True to Furtick’s idea, the highlight reel on social media gives us a snapshot of a person or event at a selected point in time. Even in that moment, details can be obscured. These portraits often lack what Oliver Cromwell referred to as “warts and all” when he became the first person to express some form of honest social vulnerability.

As you know, these images on social media don’t show the argument that a young couple had before the selfie was taken. We don’t see the discomfort of posing in that one spot, over and over, to get the lighting just right. We don’t see the rejected versions of the photo. We also don’t see the boring, tedious drive home on a clogged highway where the couple gets stuck in traffic, loses three good hours of a Saturday afternoon, and arrive home completely exhausted, frustrated, hungry, and yet capable of writing the image caption that says to the world “Loved this day! So much fun!”

None of that enters our mind though it easily could.

Why is that?

Most Comparisons Are Built On Faulty Data

Here are two important things to remember about oral information:

We have a very natural tendency to believe what people say to us.

We have a very natural tendency to believe what we say to people.

And if you’ve ever watched Akira Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon, you know that this tendency has its faults.

In the marathon scenario that started this article, a friend informs you that they ran their first marathon in three hours and thirty minutes. For most people, most of the time, this information causes immediate disappointment. We naturally take the person at their word and deem ourselves inferior.

But what if the person was wrong? What if their watch had been faulty?

Or what if the race conditions were more favorable?

Or what if the person had also spent thousands of dollars to have a running coach push them to that level?

Or what if the person just remembered it that way when, in fact, it wasn’t true?

This leads us to a very important idea that originates from the philosopher Immanuel Kant:

Perception without conception is blind.

Again, this is very important. Our perceptions are born not only from the signals we receive through information but also from the assumptions we create through imagination.

So when someone tells us “My first marathon was three-and-a-half hours,” we immediately conceive a highlight reel where this person did the same training, ran the same race, had the same body type and equipment, and basically lived the same exact life as us. We compare their experience using our experience. And thus we can’t help but conclude that they simply must be better people since they ran faster.

All of which is to say that Teddy Roosevelt was right:

Comparison is the thief of joy.

But let’s now consider following new adage by yours truly:

Comparison is the child of imagination.

This isn’t as eloquent or snappy so here’s another version:

Comparison is the child of bias.

Our imagination, along with our inherent biases, lead us to these faulty self-assessments and other false dichotomies. These things not only rob us of our joy, they do it with inaccurate information. I think that’s the worst part of all.

It’s one thing to be downtrodden for factual reasons. It’s far worse, and far more likely, to feel bad for reasons that just aren’t true.

Framing, Sequence, and Suggestion

While reviewing the book Nudge, I highlighted ways in which the sequence of information changed people’s perceptions and attitudes. This is what “nudging” was all about. There are strong framing effects that can change the way we view everything. This effect was described to great detail in the book and is now used in powerful ways throughout modern society. But I was never sure where the leverage in this effect occurs. Sure, there are biases that are manipulated and comparative thinking plays a big part in that.

But is there some deeper component to this activity?

The answer is yes and I think Daniel Gilbert gives the best explanation in his book, Stumbling On Happiness. It comes back to Kant’s idea of the inextricable link between conception and perception. Which is to say our imagination is to blame.

In fact, for just about every circumstance where we feel frustrated by our own thoughts, it isn’t the thought itself that we should blame, it’s the imagination that fuels it. Some call this our “perspective”. Others call it our “mindset”. Those words are fine but I think the clearer, more useful, more fundamental way to view our tortured self-thoughts is by keeping to the simple label of imagination.

Because if you can imagine things one way (i.e. terribly), you can imagine them another way (i.e., wonderfully).

Gilbert has a fantastic chapter about all the ways we let our imagination trick us. It comes down to this effect known as “filling-in.” As illustrated in the marathon scenario, we get small pieces of information (e.g., a person’s time in a marathon race) and let our imagination fill-in the details of everything that led up to and resulted in that information’s conception.

This happens with incredible speed. Milliseconds. In fact, we seldom even realize that we do it. This is why I chose to write this article in the first place. Most of us have no idea how much our imagination, our pure speculative baseless imagination, does this to us. We can’t help it. It’s as involuntary as our heartbeat. But we should be aware and monitor it just the same.

Imagination: Use With Caution

When our imagination “fills-in” the details from these little scraps of information (e.g., I ran a 3:30:00 marathon), the story emerges, our biases then attach themselves to the story, judgements are formed, and our perceptions are born. Those perceptions then lead us to feel the way we do.

It sounds complex and it sort of is. But to understand the anatomy of this tendency is helpful because it allows us to take these impressions with a healthy dose of skepticism. More bluntly, it helps us see the best point of intervention. Imagination sits at the root of the whole process.

Gilbert explains with the following:

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know — that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts. You are a very fine person, I’m sure. But you are a very bad wizard.

In other words, our mistakes form when we treat our initial impressions and perceptions as if they are perfect. We have no crystal ball. There’s much we can’t see. Especially when we derive our judgements from some quick, simple, imagined comparison between us and others.

Think about where it leads. False narratives follow. It happens in both directions. A person will feel better about their running abilities because they purportedly had a better time. Another person will feel worse. It’s as if these two people had a head-to-head race … without ever having a head-to-head race.

It’s better, of course, to avoid such thinking altogether and run your own race.


I am so grateful for Daniel Gilbert’s book. It helped me understand the powerful nonproductive qualities of imagination. This article barely scratches the surface. And until I stumbled upon his work, I hadn’t considered Kant’s philosophies as deeply as I should. I certainly hadn’t questioned the value of imagination in any way. My former thinking was a bit more one-dimensional: Imagination is great! Always! There’s nothing wrong with it!

Or so I imagined.

Gilbert’s insights amplify the need for us to take a more factful approach wherever possible. And so Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness, continues to stand relevant. Facts are always are friends.

Those facts are like dots. Our imagination draws the lines between those dots. The picture that emerges is something that we can interpret in many different ways.

I can’t tell you how to interpret those pictures. I only hope to help you see the picture for what it is: something far more imagined than you may realize.