Evolution: Lies we tell ourselves

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Stuart West is inspired by Robert Trivers' evolutionary argument that self-deception is crucial to deceiving others effectively.

Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others

Robert Trivers Basic Books/Allen Lane: 2011. 352 pp. / 320 pp. $28/ £25 ISBN: 9780465027552

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Nature is filled with exquisite examples of deception. Fireflies mimic the flashes of others to attract and eat them; birds make fake alarm calls to scare competitors away from their lunch; male fish mimic females so that they can sneak sex while avoiding the wrath of larger males. In Deceit and Self-Deception (US title The Folly of Fools), Robert Trivers, one of the most influential evolutionary biologists since Charles Darwin, invites us to look closer to home to find a more surprising form of deception — one in which we fool ourselves.

In this provocative and wide-ranging book, Trivers examines the evidence that self-deception occurs, theorizes why it happens and shares the insights that can be gained from looking at human behaviour. In discussing the science of deception, he doesn't shrink from giving his views on areas in which it has implications, such as drug addiction.


Trivers starts by making a clear and powerful case that conflict — common at all levels of interaction, from groups to individuals and genes — favours deception. If an individual can mislead others, they gain an advantage, whether in a competition for mates or in division of labour.

A strong theme is that deception drives detection mechanisms, which drive better deception and so on, in a deceitful co-evolutionary dance. So we should not be surprised that humans have evolved sophisticated methods for producing and detecting deception. Trivers argues that deception itself may have been an important evolutionary force in selecting the large brains and intelligence that now allow us to study it.

The book goes beyond the evolutionary literature by arguing that individuals can be selected to deceive themselves. The idea that we, or any other organism, should deceive itself is arresting. Why should we go to the trouble of having elaborate sensory and neurobiological systems that obtain and process information about the environment, only to throw away or hide that information in exchange for a distorted view?

Trivers' theory is that individuals mislead themselves because it helps them to deceive others more convincingly. Imagine two individuals, human or other species, wrangling over a resource such as food, territory or mates. Each displays their quality and assesses the other's. The result is that the one least likely to win backs down. Trivers argues that if one individual thinks that they are bigger and stronger than they are, they will display as such — and in a way that makes them more likely to fool others.

To examine this idea, Trivers brings together neurophysiology, behaviour, immunology and psychology. Behavioural data show that some classes of individual are more likely to misjudge factors such as their own intelligence or sexual orientation. Neurological data suggest that the conscious mind has a positively biased view of self, relative to the subconscious mind. Immunological studies show that deception has costs to immunological function. And psychological studies suggest that biased memory, denial and projection are common.

Trivers relies heavily on data obtained by methodologies from brain scans to immunological assays to plethysmographs that measure organ volume. He aims to stimulate research and debate, raising more questions than he answers. How might we model self-deception from an evolutionary perspective? How do we distinguish the psychology of deception from that of self-deception? Could we test for it in non-humans? What are the competing hypotheses? How do we test the costs and benefits? What are the psychological consequences?

A common theme in his examples is that deception has been selected because of its benefits at the individual level, but that this can lead to disastrous consequences at, say, industrial or national level. Trivers offers much food for thought on these topics, in chapters that are likely to provoke controversy. He suggests that self-deception has a major role in the initiation and justification of wars, the development of false historical narratives and the existence of religion.

Deceit and Self-Deception has broad appeal and a well-structured narrative. Trivers adds numerous anecdotes, such as what to do when being searched by the police (look away), or why you should avoid walking with him near squirrels (in case he makes a sudden lunge, provoking an attack).

Trivers touches on wide-ranging issues: the role of evolutionary biology in the social sciences; the placebo effect; lie detectors; genocide; the scientific method. But he conveys a powerful and focused message: if we can learn to recognize and fight our own self-deception, we can avoid negative consequences at levels from the individual to the national, and live better lives.

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  1. Stuart West is professor of evolutionary biology in the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, UK.

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  1. Report this comment #28588

    oliver elbs said:

    Deceit and Self-Deception (see Nietzsche) simply boils down to a skillful play with maps and map-makerS (vulgo: "brains").
    And those who have the best maps in these highly selected games...

  2. Report this comment #30036

    Peter Gibson said:

    Stuart West in his review of the book by Robert Trivers, DECEIT (NATURE, 478, 20 October 2011, pp. 314-315), supports his thesis that deceiving ourselves and others gave us an evolutionary advantage. Were this so it would appear to be a double negative where one deception counteracts the other. Deception can only have an advantage if we consciously deceive others. In practice most people are aware of lying and cheating. Game theory shows what is perfectly obvious that deceit is advantageous. Much of our commerce is based on deceit. We think we can get a better deal if we manipulate others by deceiving them. Bargains are struck where both parties think they have an advantage. Other animals, as Trivers points out, deceive and this is under the guidance of selfish genes. If this is the case then it applies to humans. So there appears to be a contradiction for deception in humans appears to depend on consciousness.
    Trivers possibly unwittingly raises the possibility that the evolution of language is based on deceit. The explanation is that it evolved for co-operation for our betterment: the happy bunny theory. Since we are in an evolutionary arms race with one another co-operation is unlikely. The idea of co-operation is opposed by the socio-biology principle of kin selection: that all acts are selfish. An explanation for deceitful genes is given by the Hawks and Doves paradigm. Language has a genetic basis, as pointed out by Chomsky and others, and probably evolved due to the advantage it confers through deceit (see Peter Gibson blogg: online NATURE, 4 June 2009, doi:10.1038/news.2000.541). A popular explanation for evolving a larger brain is the advantage language gives in co-operation (see Pinker: NATURE, 478, 20 Oct 2011, pp. 310-311 and online blogg by Peter Gibson). This is a group selectionist approach and is without support.
    Language is a clumsy tool for conveying information. (Bentley was hanged for saying ?Let?m have it?.) It is, as others have pointed out, highly redundant and repetitive when compared with that of, for example, the lyre bird or a blue whale. The human brain is large but simple. It contains the evolutionary remnants of the brains of our vertebrate ancestors. Not even the neo-cortex, in spite of its name, is new. It is laid down early in development and continues developing in juveniles. Its wiring is much the same as that found in other mammals: its units are diffusely repeated so there are no clearly defined structural centres. If one region is destroyed, say that for speech, another can potentially take over. The brain evolved for correlating information and the larger it is more it information it can coordinate. The number of units is probably repeated by HOX genes: this is trivial.
    A large brain may have evolved for bipedal locomotion and associated motor skills. These processes are, in all probability, more complex than talking. The ancestral brain therefore had large numbers of neuronal interconnections, as ours have, which were pre-adapted for memory and language. Walking and talking involve similar neuronal processes. Speech has only recently evolved. We lack a speech organ and the muscles used in eating are used for talking. In effect we eat our words. Compared to the lyre bird and a whale we grunt. Lyre birds due to weight restrictions could not evolve large heavy and brains such as ours. However, even with relatively small brains they still manage to steal and deceive. Also, large brains are metabolically expensive and therefore increased size is limited. The solution in humans has been to use of technology to manufacture tools for hunting, foraging and farming.
    A popular misconception is that the manufacture of tools depends on being smart. This is not so since technology is found in many other animals. Our evolution is not one of brilliance. HOMO HABILIS with half that brain capacity of humans produced tools. Technology has developed through our ability to take advantage of accidents rather than through intelligence. Technology is limited in other animals because they that do not have our correlative ability and motor kills.
    Our dubious success as a species therefore appears to be based on an ability to correlate large amounts of information and to manipulate one another through deception using a simplistic language.
    Dr Peter Gibson, University of Edinburgh

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