Controversy still exists in the literature regarding the adaptive function of positive illusions. On the one hand, they are believed to be a key element of mental health; on the other hand they are held to reflect neurotic defenses. Whereas an abundance of studies have been devoted to the study of affective adaptation in relation to self-enhancement, less is known about the cognitive schemas of the self-enhancer. The present paper examines the relationship of self-enhancement to psychological distress by taking into consideration both cognitive adaptation and defensiveness. Participants were a sample of non-clinical young adults (N=304). Cognitive schemas were measured through dysfunctional attitudes, irrational beliefs and automatic thoughts. Path analysis was used to detect more complex relationships between data. Although overall results indicated no differences between the genuine mental health and defensive groups regarding the level of self-enhancing beliefs and distress, self-enhancement of defensive persons were related to cognitive vulnerability and self-deception.
Keywords: self-enhancement, defensive denial, illusory mental health, cognitive vulnerability
After reviewing the social psychology literature, Taylor & Brown (1988), reached the conclusion that normal human functioning includes a variety of cognitive strategies that enable people to hold more favorable opinions of themselves than would be justified by accurate or realistic appreciation of objective evidence. These errors were named by the authors "positive illusions" and the process of adaptive self-deception, self-enhancement. Taylor and Brown defined three types of adaptive positive illusions: (1) overly positive selfevaluations (2) unrealistic optimistic perception of future or illusory optimism (3) unrealistic or illusory control. The authors succeeded in synthesizing social biases in an integrative model called the "Cognitive Adaptation Theory", pointing out that the essence of social cognitive errors is not, as it had been believed until then, the functional limitation of cognitive processes, but the preservation of positive self-image, and integrity of mental health. Shelly Taylor and her associates have studied the relation of self-enhancement to mental health for over 20 years gathering evidence for its many beneficial effects (Taylor, 2005). Selfenhancement proved to be beneficial in such areas as prolonging life (Reed et al., 1994); coping with chronic and terminal illnesses (Ransom, Sheldon, & Jacobsen, 2008; Taylor, Kemeny, Aspinwall, Schneider, Rodriquez, Herbert, 1992; Taylor, Helgelson, Reed, Shokan, 1991); stress (Taylor & Armor, 1996); adversity and trauma (e.g. Bonanno, Field, Kovacevic, & Kaltman, 2002). Selfenhancement also proved to be a positive resource that promotes feelings of happiness (Myers & Diener, 1995; Kobayashi & Brown, 2003); productive work and performance (Catina & Iso-Ahola, 2004); development of interpersonal relationships (Murray, Griffin, Holmes, 1996; Luo & Snider, 2009).
Despite the numerous studies supporting the benefits of selfenhancement, its critics proposed that the need for self-enhancement reflects defensive denial, indirectly being related to negative aspects of mental health (e.g. Myers & Brewin, 1996, Colvin, Block, & Funder, 1995). A series of studies suggested that highly self-enhancing individuals have a fragile self-esteem, are more vulnerable to stress, have more difficulties with social adaptation or exhibit heightened physiological arousal (Colvin, Block, & Funder, 1995; Paulhus, 1998; Robins & John, 1997; Robins & Beer, 2001; Shedler et al., 1993). In accordance to Shedler et al. (1993), among people who look mentally healthy (according to self-report measures of mental health), there are actually two subgroups: people who are "genuinely healthy" and the others who are "apparently healthy" but in fact, distressed, maintaining the "illusion of mental health" through denial. …