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Scientific American

Lies We Tell Ourselves

published February 2012 | comments (13)
How deception leads to self-deception
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In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, a skeptical Judas Iscariot questions with faux innocence (“Don’t you get me wrong/I only want to know”) the messiah’s deific nature: “Jesus Christ Superstar/Do you think you’re what they say you are?”

Although I am skeptical of Jesus’ divine parentage, I believe he would have answered Judas’s query in the affrmative. Why? Because of what the legendary evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers calls “the logic of deceit and self-deception” in his new book The Folly of Fools (Basic Books, 2011). Here’s how it works: A selfish-gene model of evolution dictates that we should maximize our reproductive success through cunning and deceit. Yet the dynamics of game theory shows that if you are aware that other contestants in the game will also be employing similar strategies, it behooves you to feign transparency and honesty and lure them into complacency before you defect and grab the spoils. But if they are like you in anticipating such a shift in strategy, they might pull the same trick, which means you must be keenly sensitive to their deceptions and they of yours. Thus, we evolved the capacity for deception detection, which led to an arms race between deception and deception detection.

Deception gains a slight edge over deception detection when the interactions are few in number and among strangers. But if you spend enough time with your interlocutors, they may leak their true intent through behavioral tells. As Trivers notes, “When interactions are anonymous or infrequent, behavioral cues cannot be read against a background of known behavior, so more general attributes of lying must be used.” He identifies three:

  • Nervousness. “Because of the negative consequences of being detected, including being aggressed against … people are expected to be more nervous when lying.”
  • Control. “In response to concern over appearing nervous … people may exert control, trying to suppress behavior, with possible detectable side effects such as … a planned and rehearsed impression.”
  • Cognitive load. “Lying can be cognitively demanding. You must suppress the truth and construct a falsehood that is plausible on its face and … you must tell it in a convincing way and you must remember the story.”

Cognitive load appears to play the biggest role. “Absent wellrehearsed lies, people who are lying have to think too hard, and this causes several effects,” including overcontrol that leads to blinking and fidgeting less and using fewer hand gestures, longer pauses and higher-pitched voices. As Abraham Lincoln well advised, “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Unless self-deception is involved. If you believe the lie, you are less likely to give off the normal cues of lying that others might perceive: deception and deception detection create self-deception.

Trivers’s theory adds an evolutionary explanation to my own operant conditioning model to explain why psychics, mediums, cult leaders, and the like probably start off aware that a modicum of deception is involved in their craft (justified in the name of a higher cause). But as their followers positively reinforce their message, they come to believe their shtick (“maybe I really can read minds, tell the future, save humanity”). Trivers misses an opportunity to put a more positive spin on self-deception when it comes to the evolution of morality, however. As I argued in my 2004 book The Science of Good and Evil (Times Books), true morality evolved as a function of the fact that it is not enough to fake being a good person, because in our ancestral environments of small bands of hunter-gatherers in which everyone was either related to one another or knew one another intimately, faux morality would be unmasked. You actually have to be a good person by believing it yourself and acting accordingly.

By employing the logic of deception and self-deception, we can build a bottom-up theory for the evolution of emotions that control behavior judged good or evil by our fellow primates. In this understanding lies the foundation of a secular civil society.

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13 Comments to “Lies We Tell Ourselves”

  1. Andyinbp Says:

    I’ve not long ago finished reading Hitchens’ God is not Great and, being an argumentative contrarian, was wondering if any corollary to his “religion poisons everything” statement could be found within an evolutionary context. My infant thesis is along the lines of religion, read self-deception if you wish, having an innate survival value and therefore an evolutionary imperative. As your article points out, there is certainly a benefit to trusting the actions of those within your immediate community, and the thought of a celestial “overseer” may have been one element in expanding the breadth of trust as communities grew too large for everyone to know everyone else. I seem to remember an argument for schizophrenia having a similar role with it’s constantly recurring 1%? If I remember correctly the argument for its evolutionary value also revolved around community distribution, shamanism etc…

  2. Bill Dietrich Says:

    “Although I am skeptical of Jesus’ divine parentage, I believe he would have answered Judas’s query in the affrmative.”

    He would have done no such thing. Christianity is a copy cat myth based on older myths in Egypt and Samaria. There is no historical evidence that the man Jesus Christ and his 12 disciples were real living breathing people and that those events actually took place. No archeology proof and no historians wrote of J.C., the disciples and those events during the first 60 years of the 1st Century. It was not until the late 1st Century that any Gospels appeared and that was myth making financially supported by the Roman ruling class in Rome who wanted to invent a new religion to replace Judaism and politically consolidate the Roman Empire with a common religion which took some 300 years to accomplish. No one can prove J.C. was a real person. It is all hearsay evidence that does not stand up to rigorous scientific analysis.

  3. Lynn Weeks Says:

    Thinking of he 2008 election, and how badly many of us wanted/expected Obama (change you can believe in) to be the mythological ‘good king,’ I guess we all are wired to choose the veils through which we look.

    I try to be a good person, and now as I consider this, my mind, perhaps too enamored with its self, spirals down, tighter and tighter. With an ironic chuckle, I pause the mental masturbation and write a check to Food Share.

  4. Ruti Lopata-Kurzweil Says:

    Thank you Mr. Shermer for this article, I enjoyed it very much as thought provoking issues often do, I am a simple, line person, as we say in Hebrew, and as such I tend to simplify, simplify…I think I just faced my biggest lie, I live simple, communicate clearly, the clay pots I create are real and the poems hold only my truth among their lines. I believe all this is a true simple expression, but I think i have been deceiving myself for years!
    I suppose if you are a naive optimist with a dash of skepticism for good measure , the self exception is to the most part harmless, it is the content of the empty glass we need to look out for, and that may be a shame but in the other hand , it is all about keeping a sensible balance, for each of us, it is accomplished in a very different way, nevertheless , it will be our very own survival skill, the one that will keep your head afloat in the vast human sea.
    In my humble opinion, the truth barometer is that soft spot between your rib cage, the place that let you know when you go to bed at night, how much of truth you lived today, hopefully, we listen, at dawn, we try to calibrate and do the right thing, at least for this day:-)
    Thank you kindly for the inspiration,

    Ruti

  5. Ruti Lopata-Kurzweil Says:

    Thank you Mr. Shermer for this article, I enjoyed it very much as thought provoking issues often do, I am a simple, line person, as we say in Hebrew, and as such I tend to simplify, simplify…I think I just faced my biggest lie, I live simple, communicate clearly, the clay pots I create are real and the poems hold only my truth among their lines. I believe all this is a true simple expression, but I think i have been deceiving myself for years!
    I suppose if you are a naive optimist with a dash of skepticism for good measure , the self deception is to the most part harmless, it is the content of the empty glass we need to look out for, and that may be a shame but in the other hand , it is all about keeping a sensible balance, for each of us, it is accomplished in a very different way, nevertheless , it will be our very own survival skill, the one that will keep your head afloat in the vast human sea.
    In my humble opinion, the truth barometer is that soft spot between your rib cage, the place that let you know when you go to bed at night, how much of truth you lived today, hopefully, we listen, at dawn, we try to calibrate and do the right thing, at least for this day:-)
    Thank you kindly for the inspiration,

    Ruti

  6. Bad Boy Scientists Says:

    If I understand Dr Schermer’s point, he’s basically saying that if you’re not aware that you’re lying you won’t give off as many ‘tells’ therefore deceiving oneself makes it easier to deceive others for extended periods of time.

    I agree.

    But self-deception is useful in many other ways, too. To take an absurdly cartoonish example: a man who convinces himself that he is attractive to women – regardless of the reality – will have more confidence and perseverance in approaching women and likely have more success than otherwise. (and if he’s not adept at birth control he will spread his genes ;)

    Self-deception also allows us to live with disappointment, guilt or a sense of obligation. We can use it as a balm for our pain or to justify our sacrifices. We tell ourselves lies to make life livable. How many professors, executives and politicians tell themselves that their contributions are worth sacrificing their familial relationships? How many ‘family men’ say good family time is worth having a dead-end career? (sure, a few of them are being honest but most are lying to themselves to make it easier to live with their choices.)

    There are other benefits of self-deception than these – so I’m not sure that being able to lie to others better would be the driving force in developing this trait.

  7. T Payne Says:

    When we think that we have the knowledge to formulate a theory on the evolution of emotions,….well how would we know if we are not just deceiving ourselves?

  8. G Ramirez Says:

    Telling lies to children is probably the most common case where adults show how skilled they are in the art of deception, specially when they are dealing with hard topics that religions authorize them to lie about.
    I think religion is something that should be kept out of the reach of children specially if there is an adult present. I would like you to review this presentation and comment on it: http://www.slideshare.net/guiramirez/imagine-no-religion

  9. RICK Vierhus Says:

    I volunteer at a community organization formed to aid people dealing with mental illness (including people with mental illness, relatives, friends, associates, employers, etc.). Their struggles are profound, stigma is crippling, lives are shortened, other illnesses increased. In an evolutionary sense this all seems unwarranted and should result in extinction of these afflictions. Yet rates of some mental illnesses remains constant (see earlier reference to 1% rate of schizophrenia) or increasing (Bipolar Disorder). So mental illness must have an evolutionary advantage. But what does that mean? Are these people, despite their deficits, valuable to the success of our kind? Would the elimination of all their (and our associated) suffering diminish our survival. There is literature that supports this thesis (A First-Rate Madness, by Nassir Ghaemi, Exuberance by Kay Redfield Jamison). The human condition needs role models, mentors, leaders, heroes, seers, shaman, mentally ill? Where is the deception in that.

  10. BillG Says:

    To a degree, we lie to ourselves constantly. If we didn’t live in some fashion of delusion, day to day would be tedious if not a mental struggle. Without distractions or this mild form of self denial, (some artificially induced by medication) social and personal function could not be maintained. While mental illness has many forms, could being free of all delusions and pretentions be another?

  11. murray Says:

    great article. i love the combo of game theory applied to evolution. the observation about open and shut eye cold readers was also a nice touch.

    i watched an rsa video with martin nowak around the evolutionary advantage of cooperation as a distinguishing trait for the human species. it got me thinking a lot, so i’m glad i came across this post. i’ll definitely give this book and “the science of good and evil” a look.

  12. Helga Vierich Says:

    I spent some time with hunter-gatherers, and so i would tend, based on that experience, to agree that deceit -as well as selfishness, lack of compassion, and other less than admirable traits – are pretty quickly apparent. Incidents that illustrate these personal failings are made much of, and there are often weeks of mockery and teasing involved. Not sharing food, losing one’s temper to the point of actual aggression, and carelessness with weapons or fire that could have serious consequences, are all seen as personal failings to be exposed as publicly and often as possible.

    Children are carefully watched for any tendencies departing from the expected generous and altruistic norms. Psychopathology is not tolerated and tends to be subject to lethal correction eventually. I believe it was Robert Salposky who advanced the thesis that a certain incidence of cognitive abnormality associated with visions and hallucinations (epilepsy, schizophrenia) might have been adaptive, within the context of whole human cultures, in providing communal myths and aiding in “faith-based” healing rituals. However, a certain low level of these kinds of cognitive impairments might also be explained by the extreme sensitivity of the developing brain in prenatal life – even a small deficit in Vitamin D or and exposure to toxins or viral disease might explain the persistence of these kinds of defects. It does not all have to be genetic.

  13. Truthful David / Doğrucu Davut Says:

    English: Hi Michael! A few paragraphs from this article was used in a question at KPDS Spring 2012 exam (country-wide TOEFL-like English test) in Turkey. Your text is very famous now. Now you see us, too. See you later alligator! ;)

    Türkçe: Merhaba Maykıl! Bu makaleden birkaç paragraf Türkiye’de KPDS 2012 İlkbahar sınavındaki (yurt çapında TOEFL benzeri İngilizce testi) bir soruda kullanıldı. Şu anda yazın çok meşhur. Artık bizi de görürsün. Hoşça kal hoş çakal! ;)

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