The story of Donald Lowry and the “Church of Love” is weird and captivating: a balding, middle-aged writer in a small Midwestern town had assumed the personas of dozens of fictitious women. He had written love letters in their voices to tens of thousands of men.
Each woman had her own unique writing style, vocabulary and backstory. The letters were printed en masse, but they featured numerous personal touches. Lowry used fonts that imitated actual handwriting, and the letters were often printed on paper tinted in delicate pastels. The notes featured girlish expostulations and whimsical digressions. Lots of men who received the love letters wrote back. In the course of weeks, months, and sometimes years, they poured out their hearts to their fictitious correspondents. Many fell in love, and believed they had found their soulmates. They sent in hundreds of thousands of dollars to Lowry and his organization in order to keep the love letters coming. Some wrote wills bequeathing their estates to their imagined soulmates.
Federal investigators eventually estimated that, by the end, Lowry’s scheme had garnered millions of dollars. His business occupied the entirety of one of the most prominent downtown office buildings in Moline, Illinois, and he owned printing presses large enough to publish a medium-sized newspaper. His organization had 50 employees. By the time Lowry was arrested, he owned a fleet of twenty automobiles, including Rolls-Royces and Jaguars. He had a full-time personal mechanic.
I’ve always been intrigued by stories about con artists. Like art forgers, these criminals tend to be colorful, and their outlandish tales usually make for interesting journalism. But there was something about this case that struck me as completely unbelievable: when Lowry’s scheme was unmasked, and he was brought to trial on charges of mail fraud in 1988, members of his love letter subscription service came to a courthouse in Peoria, Illinois—to defend him. Some testified that the Church of Love had kept them from addiction and loneliness—two members said the love letters had saved them from suicide. One man railed against the investigators who were trying to protect victims like himself. “The Postal Inspector ruined my life,” he said.
When Lowry’s scheme was unmasked, and he was brought to trial on charges of mail fraud in 1988, members of his love letter subscription service came to a courthouse in Peoria, Illinois—to defend him.
What on earth was going on? Once the con was revealed, why would the marks show up to defend the con artist? It was as though deceiver and deceived were in it together, bound by a pact of complicity. The simplest answer to that question was the one showcased on talk shows and by the media hordes that covered the case: Lowry’s victims were poor, pathetic rubes. They were too weak to stand up for themselves when they discovered they had been taken for a ride.
When I first stumbled on the story of the Church of Love, I subscribed to the conventional explanation that Lowry was a clever con artist, and that his victims were gullible fools. But after interviewing members of the Church of Love and reading their testimonies at Lowry’s trial, after interviewing Lowry himself, and after reading hundreds of research papers in medicine, psychology, and economics, I came to doubt the conventional narrative. For one thing, I began to see that the self-deception of the members, their complicity in Lowry’s scheme, was far from an aberration. Similar examples abounded. Most were less dramatic. Many were clothed in respectability—no one would go around calling them “scams” or demand they be prosecuted in the courts. All involved dances of complicity between deceivers and deceived. These pacts of deception and self-deception were sometimes explicit but, far more often, implicit and unspoken.
The ubiquity of these examples prompted me to revisit another fundamental assumption: Was it possible, I asked myself, that for at least some members, the Church of Love had provided a valuable service? That couldn’t be the case, could it? The whole thing was a hoax. But what then to make of members who said the love letters had saved their lives, or kept them from addiction and suicide? A disturbing question popped into my head: Could self-deception ever lead to good outcomes? Again, the moment I asked this question, I began to see plenty of examples. I realized that one reason people cling to false beliefs is because self-deception can sometimes be functional—it enables us to accomplish useful social, psychological, or biological goals. Holding false beliefs is not always the mark of idiocy, pathology, or villainy.
One reason people cling to false beliefs is because self-deception can sometimes be functional . . . Holding false beliefs is not always the mark of idiocy, pathology, or villainy.
Sigmund Freud once compared the mind to the city of Rome. Like the actual city, he said, the mind has layers, each built atop the last. Many of Freud’s notions have been discredited by empirical neuroscience and psychology, but there is a great truth in this elegant idea. As the product of a lengthy process of evolution, the faculties of our brains have emerged layer by layer over millions of years. Some faculties are virtually brand new. Others are ancient. Circuits in our brains that produce the emotion of fear, for example, are very similar to brain circuits that regulate fear in species that evolved millions of years before humans did. Our brains duplicate—or conserve—systems that helped our evolutionary ancestors survive. The mental faculties that were the last to evolve—the newest buildings in this very old city—do things that are inconceivable for other species. We can anticipate and imagine what will happen far into the future. We can carry out plans whose outcomes won’t be seen for decades. We are unrivaled in our capacity to exercise reason and logic. For example, when our scientific instruments show us that reality is not as it seems—that an earth that looks flat is actually spherical—we have the capacity to overrule what feels true in favor of what we know to be true. These newest mental abilities make us proud—and they should. They are responsible for the achievements of science and technology; they have helped us form self-regulating political systems of great stability; they are the lifeblood of art and philosophy.
But the brilliance of our newest mental faculties has caused many intelligent people to believe a startling untruth—that logic and rationality are all that matter. Many of us—and I long counted myself among this group—believe that the world would be a better place if we could simply use reason and rationality to solve every problem. What this worldview fails to comprehend, what I failed to comprehend, is that reason and logic might well be the pinnacle of our mental faculties, but they are only the newest settlements atop a much larger, ancient city. That older city, often invisible, remains. Not only is it still with us, it plays a vital role in many aspects of survival, reproduction and adaptation. The invisible city establishes the boundaries of what we see and what we fail to see. If reason and logic tell us how to play the game, the invisible city defines the rules of the game. It is the template, over which the skyscrapers of reason and rationality loom. The buried city of ancient Rome is the blueprint, the map, of modern Rome. Believing that reason and logic are all that matter is like imagining that a great city is only about its present, that the past does not matter and plays no role in shaping it.
Rather than seek to annihilate self-deception and all it represents, a better goal would be to think carefully about what it does, and ask ourselves how we can work with it.
Rather than seek to annihilate self-deception and all it represents, a better goal would be to think carefully about what it does, and ask ourselves how we can work with it. In other words, we ought to care less about whether something is simply true or untrue and ask more complicated questions: What are the consequences of self-deception? Whom does it serve? Do the benefits justify the costs?
Indeed, even if your goal is to fight self-deception, you cannot do it without first understanding its profound power. We are not just in a war with con artists, conspiracy theorists, and demagogues. We are in a war with ourselves. Our minds are not designed to see the truth, but to show us selective slices of reality, and to prompt us toward predetermined goals. Even worse, they are designed to do all this while giving us the illusion that we are seeing reality. We can believe that we are thinking clearly, acting rationally and fighting for the truth, even as we are beguiled into seeing what is functional for our groups, our families and ourselves—and imagining it to be the truth.
The psychological forces that made it difficult for the members of the Church of Love to see reality accurately fill all our lives. If we seem less credulous, it’s only because circumstances have not tested us to the same extent. Put another way, those poor, pathetic rubes—but for a few strokes of luck—are us.
Excerpted from Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain. Copyright (c) 2021 by Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.