One out of eight men believes that he could score against Serena Williams in a tennis match. This, to me, is the epitome of delusion.
Saying that someone is delusional often conjures up images of raging schizophrenics, completely absorbed by illusions of grandeur and hallucinations of voices from nowhere, people who don’t exist and events that never happened. But in reality, self-delusion is more subtle and ordinary. It’s the belief that you “totally could’ve gone pro if it wasn’t for your knee injury” or “definitely could’ve gone to an Ivy League if I cared in high school.” It’s that little voice telling you that you’re on the precipice of being great at whatever thing you’re mediocre at. It’s the voice telling one out of eight men that he could outplay Serena Williams.
According to this definition I, for one, am highly delusional. This diagnosis rests on the fact that I wholeheartedly believe that I could get a 180, a perfect score, on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) with no preparation. To most, this may seem insane and completely unfounded given that (A) I have no intentions of ever going to law school, let alone taking the LSAT; (B) 0.1% of LSAT takers score a 180; (C) at the time of writing this, I have no familiarity with the sections of the LSAT and (D) I have embarrassingly limited knowledge about the inner workings of the U.S. legal system
To these limitations, I offer one rebuttal: puzzle games.
I am excellent at puzzle games, and I say this objectively. Sudoku puzzles were my first love in the fifth grade; my teacher used to assign them in lieu of extra credit. From there my obsession spiraled into Words with Friends, The New Yorker’s Cryptic Crosswords, The New York Times’s Spelling Bee and, of course, Wordle and its many variants. Everyday, I go through the same repertoire of puzzle games: Wordle before bed, sudoku while I eat breakfast, The New Yorker crossword to kill time in class and NYT’s mini crossword in the evenings.
The one thing I do know about the LSAT is that there’s an analytical reasoning section, better known as “logic games.” Peers, typically those who are not familiar with the LSAT, will occasionally make remarks like “the LSAT is basically all just puzzles.” I’m sure they don’t mean that literally. But on some level, I must’ve internalized that notion. And thus, my delusional confidence that I’m destined for a perfect LSAT score was born.
I wasn’t serious the first time I pronounced my belief. My roommate was talking about their upcoming LSAT test day, and I jokingly told them I thought I could get a 180. It wasn’t something I had thought about before, but when I said it, it felt right. Other people score 180s for all sorts of reasons — studying hard, natural ability, etc. Why was a dedication to puzzles any less of a justification? And just like that, a delusion was born.
Perhaps many delusions are born everyday without us realizing. In my experience, University of Michigan students are particularly susceptible to them. We go to a top school but not the top school. A lot of us do well in our classes but don’t have perfect grades. Many Wolverines might not get into their first-choice graduate program or land their top internship, but they usually manage to come out relatively successful. I think this phenomenon of excelling without ever being number one — making the podium but always scoring bronze — is a recipe for delusion.
In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger developed social comparison theory, which holds that humans have an innate drive to compare themselves with others. Within this theory are two types of comparison: downward (comparing yourself to someone “worse” than you to boost your self-confidence) and upward (comparing yourself to someone “better” than you to motivate yourself).
Festinger had clearly never met a University of Michigan student, or at least a delusional one, because many of us seem to do the opposite. When the typical Wolverine doesn’t land the internship they wanted, they don’t seriously reflect on how much effort they put into their résumé or if the position was even a good fit. Instead, they convince themselves that they never wanted it in the first place, or that the company isn’t even that good, or any number of justifications designed to protect their sense of self. To the delusional mind, upward social comparison isn’t about motivation, it’s about re-calibration. If you’re literally incapable of comprehending that someone might be better than you, then you need to upwardly adjust your perception of yourself accordingly.
Our collective status as under-achieving over-achievers, as students of a “Public Ivy,” means that our lives are packed with downward and upward social comparison. But constantly comparing yourself to others and feeling uncertain where you stand relative to your peers can shake a person’s sense of self. Cognitive dissonance theory, another idea of Leon Festinger’s, “postulates that an underlying psychological tension is created when an individual’s behavior is inconsistent with his or her thoughts and beliefs.” This tension motivates people to adjust their actions and beliefs to be consistent with one another. For example, a more psychologically grounded student might improve their study habits to align with their belief that they are a successful student.
But it seems that my fellow delusional Michigan students and I have chosen to adjust just our beliefs. It’s easier — and more comfortable — to overinflate your self-perception than to genuinely work at bettering your abilities. Increasing your abilities means confronting your actual skill level and trying to bridge the gap between your constructed and actual self. Self-delusion, on the other hand, requires no such negotiation.
Moreover, positive self-perception can quickly become arrogance, as evidenced by forum posts deliberating whether or not Michigan students are actually “stuck up” and “toxic.” For Michigan students, this arrogance often stems from their inability to see themselves clearly. Our sky-high self confidence comes off as delusional, arrogant and untethered from reality.
Like the onset of my LSAT belief, it takes only one comment, one moment of fantasizing, to internalize an absurd belief. Rather than concluding that other people have different professional goals or aptitudes than me, I decided that I must be equally as skilled as those dedicated to scoring well on this rigorous test.
In acknowledging my delusion, I set out to see just how unrealistic scoring a cold 180 actually was. My LSAT delusion was not well received by those familiar with the test.
Law School student Ryan Comrie began studying for the LSAT before his senior year of college and bought multiple test-prep materials.
Beyond gaining familiarity with the test format, he learned that “the time component is a huge part of (the LSAT).” Each section is just 35 minutes, so being able to solve problems quickly is crucial for scoring well. “The first time that I did a logic game, I took as long as I needed,” he explained. “Then, the challenge is figuring out how to do them quickly.”
Comrie was skeptical of my puzzle-based strategy, saying, “I guess if you were really good at puzzles, like really good, like historically good, you could do really well (on the LSAT) on the first try, in that time constraint.” He did say that my natural talent would give me a leg up on the logical reasoning section … if I were to actually study.
My roommate, who is applying to law school next year and has taken the LSAT, put it more bluntly in a text: “Getting a 180 on the LSAT would be like me performing a quadruple bypass and nailing it because I watched ‘Grey’s (Anatomy),’” he said.
My boyfriend let me down the most gently. “I know you test well,” he said. “But I think that you thinking that you can get a perfect score on the LSAT without any practice is unfair to lawyers who spend half a year studying — those are some pretty smart people as well.”
The only thing left to do was, well, take the LSAT. Objective assessments are the enemy of self-delusion. When there’s no clear measure of success or ability, it’s easy to convince yourself and others that you’d excel. But confronting the hard score, seeing it on the screen, leaves no room for fantasies. I sat down in my room to take the LSAT, equipped with only a Diet Coke, my unearned self-confidence and the two sudoku puzzles I had done to prepare.
A disclaimer: I technically did not take the LSAT; I took the free Khan Academy practice test. I am committed to the bit, but not committed enough to pay $200 for the test. And because the writing section is unscored and just used to demonstrate your writing ability, I didn’t take it.
Right before beginning, I felt a wave of anxiety. At that moment, I realized how comfortable it was to live in delusion, to embrace an overinflated self-image and imagine myself as the most successful, most capable person I could be. I wondered what else I would uncover about myself if I allowed even one delusion to unravel. What would I think of myself if I began to test all my delusions?
As a surprise to no one, I did not get a perfect score on the LSAT. I scored a 164, which falls into the “respectable but not brag-worthy” range. I scored roughly in the 90th percentile, but that number is slightly misleading. Due to the fact that law school graduates far exceed the number of legal jobs available each year and law school tuition continues to increase annually, the general consensus among prospective law school students is, unless you’re receiving a massive scholarship, the “T-14” are the only law schools with a good return on investment. The T-14 refers to the Top 14 law schools in U.S. News’s ranking. To be virtually assured admission into one, your LSAT score needs to be within the 95th percentile at minimum.
That 5% jump is bigger than it seems. Combined with my GPA, a law-school-predictions calculator gives me a 13% chance of getting into U-M’s law school and a 3% chance of being admitted to Harvard Law. If I raise my score to the 95th percentile, my chances jump to 48% and 18%.
Ultimately, the debunking of my LSAT delusion serves as a cautionary tale in regards to the more subtle and ordinary delusions any of us hold. In my case, there was an objective measure I could use to confront my belief: You either get a 180 or you don’t. But when it comes to more ambiguous goals or self-assumptions — being smart or funny or likable — there’s no objective way to have the truth uncovered, the delusion deconstructed.
A 1981 survey found that 88% of Americans think they’re an “above average” driver. People think that their relationships are happier, their lifestyle is healthier and are better students than the average person. But what does it actually mean to be in a happy relationship, to live a healthy lifestyle or to be a good student? The most powerful, persistent and maybe dangerous delusions are ones possessing no yardstick or baseline to measure yourself against.
Occasionally, I wonder if all my other beliefs are nothing but a mirage, too. The voice in my head telling me that I’ll get into graduate school if I apply, that I’ll be able to meet my goal time in my upcoming half-marathon, that I’ll ace that hard class I’m thinking of taking: Are these all self-delusions? Have I ever been able to see myself clearly? Harshly, with all my flaws and inaptitudes?
On a certain level, I don’t think I’ll ever shed all my delusions. I’m not ashamed to admit that I prefer the comfortable, easy world of self-inflation to the cold, hard truth that I could fail. Teetering the line between self-delusion and self-confidence is a constant balancing act, a never-ending cycle of self-assessment and recalibration. Even if I wanted to see myself clearly, I don’t think it would be possible to. Some things are too subjective, too immeasurable, to ever get clarity on. In the meantime, I try to ground myself by evaluating myself where I can and doing my best to resist the stereotypical Michigan-student arrogance.
I don’t know where the right balance lies. But to all my fellow Wolverines, I say believe in yourself, but not too much. It’s time we confront the lack of self-reflexivity on some parts of campus.
If there’s anything to be learned from my LSAT endeavors, it’s that perhaps we should believe in ourselves a little less.
Statement Columnist Haley Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.