PINKER ON ROBERT TRIVERS
very pleased to hear that Edge is
having an event highlighting
the work of Robert Trivers
on deceit and self-deception.
I consider Trivers one of the
great thinkers in the history
of Western thought. It would
not be too much of an exaggeration
to say that he has provided
a scientific explanation for
the human condition: the intricately
complicated and endlessly fascinating
relationships that bind us
to one another.
In an astonishing burst of creative brilliance, Trivers wrote a series of papers
in the early 1970s that explained each of the five major kinds of human relationships:
male with female, parent with child, sibling with sibling, acquaintance with
acquaintance, and a person with himself or herself. In the first three cases
Trivers pointed out that the partial overlap of genetic interests between individuals
should, according to evolutionary biology, put them in a conflict of psychological
interest as well. The love of parents, siblings, and spouses should be deep
and powerful but not unmeasured, and there should be circumstances in which
their interests diverge and the result is psychological conflict. In the fourth
case Trivers pointed out that cooperation between nonrelatives can arise only
if they are outfitted with certain cognitive abilities (an ability to recognize
individuals and remember what they have done) and certain emotions (guilt,
shame, gratitude, sympathy, trust)—the core of the moral sense. In the
fifth case Trivers pointed out that all of us have a motive to portray ourselves
as more honorable than we really are, and that since the best liar is the one
who believes his own lies, the mind should be "designed" by natural
selection to deceive itself.
These theories have inspired an astonishing amount of research and commentary
in psychology and biology—the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology,
Darwinian social science, and behavioral ecology are in large part attempt
to test and flesh out Trivers' ideas. It is no coincidence that E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology and
Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene were published in 1975 and 1976
respectively, just a few years after Trivers' seminal papers. Both bestselling
authors openly acknowledged that they were popularizing Trivers' ideas and
the research they spawned. Likewise for the much-talked-about books on evolutionary
psychology in the 1990s—The Adapted Mind, The Red Queen, Born
to Rebel, The Origin of Virtue, The Moral Animal, and
my own How the Mind Works. Each of these books is based in large part
on Trivers' ideas and the explosion of research they inspired (involving dozens
of animal species, mathematical and computer modeling, and human social and
ideas are, if such a thing is possible, even more important than
the countless experiments and field studies they kicked off. They
in the category of ideas that are obvious once they are explained,
yet eluded great minds for ages; simple enough to be stated in a
few words, yet
with implications we are only beginning to work out.
point that partial genetic overlap among individuals leads
to partial conflicts
of interests in their motives
explains why human life is so endlessly fascinating – why we love,
and why we bicker with those we love; why we depend on one another, and why
of us mistrusts the people we depend on; why we know so much about ourselves,
but can't see ourselves as others see us; why brilliant people do stupid
things and evil men are convinced of their rectitude. Trivers has explained
social and mental lives are more interesting than those of bugs and frogs
and why novelists, psychotherapists, and philosophers (in the old sense of
commentators on the human condition) will always have something to write
Trivers is an under-appreciated genius. Social psychology should be based
on his theory, but the textbooks barely acknowledge him. Even in his
he has been overshadowed in the public eye by those who have popularized
his ideas. An Edge event with other leading third culture thinkers
focusing on his work will be a major contribution, and begin to give
this great mind
the acknowledgement it deserves.
Johnstone Family Professor
Department of Psychology
FULL-FORCE STORM WITH GALE WINDS BLOWING
A Talk with Robert Trivers
Robert Trivers Edge Video
scientific work has concentrated on two areas, social theory
based on natural selection (of which a theory of self-deception
is one part) and new work on selfish genetic elements (which
leads to certain kinds of internal genetic conflicts). His early
work—offering unifying theories on reciprocal altruism,
parental investment, sexual selection, parent-offspring conflict,
the sex ratio, and deceit and self-deception—has now been
cited more than 7000 times in the scientific literature. His
work on selfish genetic elements has appeared in several articles.
He is the author of Social Evolution, Natural Selection and
Selected Papers of Robert Trivers.
was cited in a special Time issue as one of the 100 greatest
thinkers and scientists of the 20th Century.
here for Robert Trivers' Edge Bio Page.
FULL-FORCE STORM WITH GALE WINDS BLOWING
the last ten or fifteen years, I've been trying to understand situations
in nature in which the genes within a single individual are in disagreement—or
put differently, in which genes within an individual are selected in conflicting
directions. It's an enormous topic, which 20 years ago looked like a shadow on
the horizon, just as about a hundred years ago what later became relativity theory
was just two little shadows on the horizon of physics, and blew up to become
major developments. In genetics it's fair to say that about 20 years ago a cloud
on the horizon was our knowledge that there were so-called selfish genetic elements
in various species that propagated themselves at the expense of the larger organism.
What was then just a cloud on the horizon is now a full-force storm with gale
An enormous amount of work is pouring out on this topic with an appreciation
that, far from being an unusual, rare exception, this is a minority phenomenon
in all organisms, including ourselves, and must by logic and by evidence have
been an important problem throughout the evolution of the genetic system: namely,
how to control and prevent the further spread of such selfish elements. There's
a dynamic relationship between these elements and the rest of the organism—or,
put in genetic terms, all the other non-linked genes in the organism, which will
tend to be selected to suppress these elements, and will then select on the part
of the elements for further tricks in a co-evolutionary struggle.
The more we have worked on this the more it has seemed analogous
to social interactions at the level of individuals within
groups. Some of the same terms we find useful
in the latter context, like cooperative, selfish, spiteful, or altruistic behavior,
can also be applied to genetic interactions within the individual that run
into conflict with each other. There can be spiteful genes,
there can be merely selfish
genes, there is a whole bunch of cooperative ones, and there are narrowly altruistic
ones that only help copies of themselves and not other non-linked genes. This
is a deep and important subject and we are, at last, becoming able to see a
unified whole and to relate the different parts to each
Genetics is extremely difficult, but it is also very rewarding.
You get an exactness out of genetics, beginning with Mendel's
famous, quantitative pea
a quantitative, exact science that is very beautiful, but it's also difficult
to master. We've had a long, wonderful tradition of learning an endless series
of interesting and sometimes incredible facts about the genetic systems of
different organisms without having a clear evolutionary logic for how natural
works on the genetic system itself. This is a major avenue into that problem.
There is also a personal irony for me in that some of those who were most vitriolic
against the social theory that I worked on in the 1970s were population geneticists.
I expect them to be equally, or perhaps even more, displeased with this new
development. Of course, that only gives me greater satisfaction.
Incidentally, the enormity of the subject required me to get a collaborator
and I was very fortunate some twelve years ago to attract Austin Burt, a brilliant
Canadian evolutionary geneticist, now working at Imperial College London.
have completed the genetics work and I
am now eager to do some work in psychology. The zeitgeist is such
together an evolutionary
psychology. As is often the case, the first hints of it are people running
around saying, "Evolutionary psychology is coming! Evolutionary psychology
is coming!" but
they haven't actually done much work to bring it on. Now we're getting
empirical work of increasingly high quality on aspects of human psychology
in an evolutionary way.
The particular sub-area that I'm interested in developing myself has to
do with the structure of the mind in terms of biased information flow between
and the unconscious, and the very peculiar and counter-intuitive fact that
humans in a variety of situations misrepresent reality to the conscious
in the unconscious either a fully accurate, or in any case more accurate,
view of that which they misrepresent to the conscious mind. That seems
that it begs explanation. You would have thought that after natural selection
ground away for four billion years and produced these eyeballs capable
of such subtlety—color, motion-detection, the details of granularity that we see—you
would have perfected the organs for interpretation of reality such that
they wouldn't systematically distort the information once it reaches you.
seems like a strange way to design a railroad.
The function of this area of self-deception is intimately connected to
deception of others. If you are trying to see through me right now, and
if I'm lying
about something you actually care about, what you see first, to speak loosely,
conscious mind and its behavioral effects. You can get some sense of my
mood or my affect. The quality of voice might give you stress while trying
you. It is much harder for you to figure out what my unconscious is up
to. You have to make a study of my behavior, such as a spouse will do,
One simple logic is that we hide things in our unconscious precisely to
hide them better from other people, so the key interaction driving this
I often talk about deceit and self-deception in the same voice because
you can't see self-deception properly if you don't appreciate its deceptive
Likewise, if you talk about deception without any reference to self-deception
then you tend unconsciously to limit yourself to consciously promoted deception,
and you tend to overlook unconsciously promulgated deception. Each failure
link the two topics limits one's understanding of the topic under consideration.
There is also a new area within individual deception that is related to
this concept of self-deception directed towards others, but that has not
worked out in a detailed way. That's the extraordinary finding that our
and our paternal genes—that is, those we inherited from our mother and
those we inherited from our father—are capable of being in conflict
with each other, each acting to advance the interest of the relevant parent
his or her relatives. You can have a form of internal deception where the
maternal side is over-representing maternal interests which the paternal
side is discounting,
and vice versa.
some reason I have had a deep interest in both deception and
self-deception way back from childhood. This, of course,
preceded my knowledge of evolutionary
logic. In one episode I remember my mother wagging her finger in my face,
now, 'Judge not that ye be not judged.’” I was raised in the
Presbyterian Church and, of course, this is from Matthew, who recorded Jesus
not that ye be not judged, for with the judgment ye pronounce shall ye be
judged. And why are you worried about the mote in your neighbor's eye? First
beam out of your own, the better to see the mote." It's an allegory
for self-deception. You're so busy saying what's wrong with another person,
hypocrite. Get rid of what's wrong with you first, and don't project it onto
the other person.
That was a life-long meditation my mother gave me, so there must have been
something in my behavior.
The great evolutionist, Ernst Mayr, would say to me: "It's very appropriate
you're interested in self-deception, since you sure practice a lot of it." At
first I didn't know what to say, and then we (Huey Newton and myself) came
up with the notion that it's exactly the people who are struggling with their
that you'd expect to find the problem interesting, and maybe make some progress
on it. Those unafflicted by it might have low insight and low motivation.
I also remember from my childhood that there was a prized item in a store
that had a lot of toys for children. I think it was a knife, but I know it
six dollars. I saved up six dollars plus the two cents for tax back then,
me a while under my father's regime of reimbursement for yard work. I went
into the store and gave them the $6.02, and the man behind the counter said
I said, "What are you talking about?" and he said, "It's seven
dollars. It says so on the sign right out in the window." I said, "Nonsense,
the sign says six dollars!"
We went around, he showed me the sign, and it says, $6.98, with the .98 written
in small letters. I remember arguing with him, asking what sense it made
to misrepresent the cost of this by two pennies, so that you have to do this
He said it's very common. I remember walking around in a daze for weeks,
looking at signs and thinking about the amount of arithmetic that this was
A lot of times you have to add the two pennies, because it actually matters,
as in my own sad case. I don't know if it changed my life, but I know I had
an early intense consciousness about the costs of deception, and also about
importance of self-deception.
When I came to Harvard I ended up in U.S. history, after beginning as a mathematics
major. I left in despair and disgrace and was going to be a lawyer, so you
studied U.S. history. This was the early 1960s, while the Vietnam disaster
was just starting
to take shape, and was produced by Harvard people in JFK's cabinet. We were
reading books like America, Genius for Democracy or something like that.
You didn't even
have to read the book since the title had the content. All of this U.S. history
was really self-glorification. I couldn't imagine devoting your life to this
kind of enterprise.
I had a breakdown as a junior, so I finally took a psychology course as a
senior. I couldn't believe that these people were pretending to have a science
all they had was a series of competing guesses for how human beings developed.
were learning psychologists, depth or Freudian psychologists, and social
psychologists. It wasn't a unified discipline, it had no unifying paradigm,
and it was not
hooked up to an underlying science—i.e., biology—just as biology
sits on chemistry, which sits on physics. I thought it was hopeless and went
I learned evolutionary logic and then animal behavior, which I was assigned
to learn and then render for children, I realized that the basis for psychology
is evolutionary logic. The value of animal behavior is that you cast your net
My mental breakdown prevented me from getting into Yale for law school, and
created problems with my fallback position at the University of Virginia.
I decided not
to go to there because I didn't like how they were handling the medical records
that they insisted they had to have. I happened, instead, to get a job writing
and illustrating children's books for the new social sciences, which followed
the new math and the new physics, which followed Sputnik in 1957. That was
our attempt to catch up with the Soviets in science, and then in social science.
The reason you probably never heard of it was because the whole course was
by a set of southern congressmen back then, because it was alleged that we
taught (1) sex education (we had pictures of animals copulating), (2) evolution
selection as fact (which was true) and cultural relativity (i.e. respect
for other cultures). The whole thing was killed, but it introduced to me
It was a marvelous company and a beautiful setup in retrospect. The company
allowed you to do a lot of reading right there in the office to learn what
to know. In my case they assigned a biologist named Bill Drury from the Massachusetts
Audubon Society who both assigned papers in the library on a given topic—like
my first book on the caribou and its predators—and then critiqued them
for me. He was paid $75 an hour in 1966, which is at least two or three hundred
dollars an hour now. For an academic or the head of the Massachusetts Audubon
Society that's some sweet money, so I had the ideal situation where you could
consume two more hours of your teacher's time with no guilt at all. This meant
that I had a private tutor in biology, paid for by my employer for two years.
He took me to see Ernst Mayr to try to talk me into being a graduate student.
I came out of mathematics where if you haven't done any math by the time
you're 23, it's very unlikely that you are going to be a mathematician. I
that to be a biologist I should have been studying insects from the time
I was four,
but Drury would just say that whenever you ask a biologist an interesting
question, he won't know the answer.
When Drury took me to see Mayr, I liked right away that Ernst had a small
office off of the bigger office of his secretary. He had his own private
but as head of the Museum of Comparative Zoology he occupied a little space
and she occupied the bigger space. He told me about Dick Estes, who at 38
back to school in biology, and had just finished a good thesis on the wildebeest.
He was very encouraging. Then there was a funny moment when he said, "Who
do you want to work with?"
I didn't know anything, so I said Konrad Lorenz. He read my personality right
and said, "He's too authoritarian for you. That isn't gonna work. Who
I said, "What about Niko Tinbergen?"
And he said, "He's only repeating now in the '60s what he already showed
in the '50s."
I'm a relatively quick learner, so I said, "Well what do you suggest,
I'll never forget his hands, going in a wide circle, as he said, "What
And what about Harvard, indeed? They had a marvelous museum with all these
fossils and pinned insects. They didn't have any animal behaviorists, but
Drury, who was a behaviorist, convinced me that that was even an advantage.
He said, "Why would you want to take a course on field methodology and learn
how to put a band on a bird, which you can learn better in the field from a teacher.
What you want to learn is evolutionary biology." Irv DeVore would have
allowed me to come straight in as a graduate student in anthropology. If I
had done that
I wouldn't have had to borrow a bunch of money and take a year of courses in
biology, but I knew that would have been a very short-sighted decision. I knew
all the ideas and the power were coming out of biology, so that's what I should
I had had no chemistry either, so Ernst suggested that I take chemistry at
night school at Boston University, since it's too hard at Harvard. I did
everything Ernst told me, so although I was working this job, at 5 o'clock
Boston University and took one semester of chemistry. In the second semester
I had an opportunity to finish the course or to watch caribou in the Arctic
for a month. I thought that such a trip was more valuable to my long-term
development than second semester chemistry. Incidentally, I avoided chemistry
one of the few Ph.D.'s in this country who's never had a course in organic
chemistry because you cannot get a bachelor's in this country without an
I don't have a bachelor's.
When I came to Harvard you had to take a whole series of mini-tests. There
were 16 of them – physics, math, botany, chemistry, etc. Naturally I failed.
When the prescription committee met, it was stacked with evolutionists and Ernst
was the head. He insisted that the committee not only prescribe me organic chemistry—that
is, that I couldn't get my Ph.D. unless I passed that with a B or better—but
also prescribed me a knowledge of biochemistry because that's the payoff for
organic chemistry. The argument got hot, and I tried to intercede at one moment
until I realized, "This has nothing to do with you. Shut up and sit back." Finally
Mayr says, "By God, I agree with you! We should not prescribe organic unless
we prescribe biochem, and since we will not prescribe biochem we will also not
prescribe organic." He put it up to a vote and it came back 5 to 2. It was
as if the heavens had opened and the Lord himself smiled at me and said, "You
are my chosen one." Then he leaned across the table and said to me, "But
Bob, we strongly urge you to take organic chemistry." And I said, "Professor
Mayr, I'm already signed up for the course," which I was. I sold the book
that afternoon and burned the little Tinker toys you had to buy.
I came to Harvard originally as a special student who had never had biology.
That fall I was taking a course in cell biology, a course in invertebrate
biology, and a botany course. I used to sit in my bed at night with these
and a dictionary trying to figure it out—and I used to have “word
salad” dreams for a couple of months: “the cnidoblast of the intestinal
cells of the apple’s pollen” and so on After two or three months
the subjects all separated cleanly into their separate sub areas, and it wasn't
The guy who really got me focused properly was Richard Lewontin, a geneticist
who hated my work, helped make sure that Harvard didn't give me tenure right
away when I wanted it, and will undoubtedly hate my genetics work. Dick Lewontin
came to Harvard when I was a first-year graduate student in 1969 to give
a talk on the new methodology of isozyme work that John Hubby had worked
the first DNA technology that would allow you to do paternity analysis. It
was not so much nailing down who your real father was that was exciting to
but the fact that you could quantify the degree of genetic variation in nature.
I was introduced to the guy ahead of time by Ed Wilson, and he dumped all
over me because of a nasty paper I'd written about some mathematical ecologists.
I took an instant dislike to him—he had a rather arrogant style—and
I was packed in this room hoping he would fall flat on his face. He was introduced
by Mayr and gave a superb talk. My joke is that at the end he flipped his chalk
30 feet in the air and caught it in his breast pocket; he didn't really do
that, but he might as well have. Everything else was in place, including intellectual
content and showmanship.
Halfway through the talk I was feeling an intense, internal pain, because
although I disliked him he was doing a great job. I did some quick thinking
that there was no future in this negative paper I'd written on mathematic
ecology. I had no positive thoughts on the subject, nor did I have the talents
would make that area pay off in my life, so I decided to do no more work
on it. I was
tempted to write it up because the Harvard professors wanted me to nail some
people they disliked, but I decided not to waste any more time on it.
It was clear to me during Lewontin's talk that if the work was as bad as
I said it was, then my critique, if it was published, would disappear from
with their work, like a barnacle on a whale. The only value comes if you
have something positive to do, and it is important to match both your own
and abilities to what you decide to work on. I often wonder how many scientists
end up spending five or ten years in mathematical ecology because of some
accident of a paper they wrote. They never quite see that they've been running
in the woods for 30 years, and have no intuitions of any use about the way
nature is set up. I was also too lazy to learn any new mathematics, but I
with a certain degree of psychological and social insight, and had been very
interested in these issues from an early age. That is analogous to running
around in the woods for 30 years, if you're going to sit down and write social
I asked myself, "What ideas do you have that are worth developing?" I
started thinking about the obvious concept, "If you scratch my back I'll
scratch yours," and began to wonder about how to make reciprocal altruism
work in an evolutionary way, stating the argument in a form that didn't limit
it to humans. That was worth throwing some time into.
Bill Drury was an ornithologist and had told me to watch pigeons. From watching
them every night I knew they had a double standard. During the day males
obsessed about the chance that another male might get in there with his female.
at the same time that male is hustling other females whenever he gets a chance.
Out of this came a general theory for the evolution of sex differences, parental
investment in sexual selection. The paper that developed out of this has
been cited more than 4,000 times, because much work on sex differences, on
and all the behavioral stuff, refers back to that original paper, especially
if they cite the concept of parental investment. It actually appears to be
cited more often per month now than earlier in its life.
People have asked me about the connection between deceit and self-deception
in evolutionary biology. Certainly I was conscious of deception right away,
my teacher Bill Drury was very helpful. I might easily have had an inferior
teacher who was unconscious of the degree of deception in other animals.
Then I might
have made the mistake some biologists did of talking as if we're the only
deceiving creatures and therefore this trait has to do with language. I knew
on that it was much more general, and probably I learned that from Bill.
People have pointed out to me that in my very first paper on reciprocal altruism,
there's argumentation that refers to keeping the feeling unconscious so as
not to have it detected. My first consciousness of this occurred when I went
field trip to India and Africa with Irv DeVore, Harvard's celebrated baboon
man. I had a brainstorm for a couple of weeks, and ended up in a hospital
days afterwards. I thought about hardly anything other than parent-offspring
conflict and deceit and self-deception. Some of it, in retrospect, was fruitless
efforts to map Freud onto parent-offspring conflict and deceit and self-deception,
whose deeper ramifications I was just appreciating. In later years I came
to think it was worthless, that it was better to start without Freud and
not go through the genuflections that Freudians seem addicted to.
The joke on me is that I never developed it. I was supposed to give a paper
on the logic of self-deception in 1978 at a conference put on by the Royal
in London. I wrote an abstract, which was published. I came across it several
years ago and said, "I would like to read that paper." Back then
I was young and strong and could write an abstract eight months before I was
to give a talk and just plan to fill in the blanks, but I haven't worked out
the details of some of those assertions in that abstract yet. It's just floating
around there. I never gave the paper partly because my wife was about to give
birth to twins, but more particularly because the Royal Society would only
fly you as far as England. I guess the assumption is that once you get there,
would you want to leave? I was very sensitive to financial exploitation of
academics, which is rife. It certainly was at Harvard, where we were grossly
junior faculty, so I tended never to do something whose financial arrangements
I didn't like.
I never went there, never gave the talk, never developed the paper, and that's
a great shame, because one of the virtues of thinking a topic through to
some degree of development is that you will generate a literature which will
back and illuminate the topic for yourself. Even if you're thinking in purely
self-interested terms and write a paper on reciprocal altruism, there's a
huge literature now on the subject. Only part of it is generated from that
but still a good part was generated from that paper, and I learned back from
it. I often think of the paper not written and the literature that did not
develop, especially as I sat down at the end of the '90s and wrote a quickie
self-deception to try to bring the field up to date. I was staggered at how
little progress had been made since the last time I looked at the subject
20 years before.
That was the cost of never writing a paper. It didn't need to be as elemental
or as important as some of the other ones, but just writing it to put it
on other people's laps would have generated a response.
I was very fortunate. Lewontin once referred to me to a bunch of graduate
students as an intellectual opportunist. He meant that to be negative, but
What else makes sense in this short life? I was an intellectual opportunist.
All of these social topics remain undeveloped because of this species advantage "paradigm" that
had lain over the field like a human blanket. Reciprocal altruism, parental
investment, sexual selection, sex ratio of offspring, parent-offspring conflict
topics that were sitting there waiting to be developed. I just grabbed the
But I had to get away from Harvard. I was a graduate student at Harvard from
1968 to 1972, then I started teaching at Harvard in 1973, until 1978. I was
not denied tenure, I just needed more money for what I was doing which was
to 530 students, with 12 graduate students as teaching assistants, and so
on. Most of the junior faculty at Harvard taught 15 to 20 students in an
class and four in a graduate class. They weren't being eaten alive. Harvard
wasn't paying me enough to replenish what was being taken out of me biologically.
mind not being paid enough to have any reproductive success of my own.
There were two factors at work. First, no one knew about my work, which was
really nice. It's good to be flying underneath everyone's radar, and then
paper that you know is important. But with Ed Wilson's sociobiology, which
embraced some of my ideas, the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan, and
there was a political
stink. People were very upset then. The Vietnam War was still going on, for
God's sake, in 1975, and people were very politically conscious and pseudo-conscious.
So I became very well known. That was ego-distorting. And then I was at Harvard,
which is a separate kind of ego-distorting environment, just because Harvard
professors can't help being full of themselves.
I had been in Cambridge 17 years, 15 of them at Harvard with two years off
for good behavior, that was between the undergraduate years and the going
a special student. So I had to leave Harvard—if only to air out my psyche,
but I did not have to pick UC Santa Cruz, perhaps the second worst school in
its class in the country. Lord, what a place. It was a very, very bad fit for
me, and a dreadful 16 years. Thank God I came back east.
I intend to throw myself full time into deceit and self-deception now. It's
a topic that I've been conscious of in an evolutionary way for at least 30
I've published bits and pieces throughout the years. I used to get up and
joke that I was embarrassed lecturing on it because I've been practicing
the last 30 years instead of thinking about it. I don't like to get up and
joke any more. I want to get completely on top of the subject, and I want
to do a major piece on it. And I don't want it to be just for an academic
because the topic is everywhere. It's in every human being's life, and anybody
who's half conscious is aware of it in others and themselves. One cannot
read the newspaper without being conscious of the importance of deceit and
in national and international affairs.
I have the free time now to do whatever I am flying underneath the radar.
I work much better in a much humbler posture, where people basically don't
I am, or if they do it doesn't mean any particular thing to them. I'm not
invited a lot of places. Otherwise I would have my time eaten up, but I'm
not in that
situation. I can throw myself with full energy into it, and I really plan
I'm particularly excited with the fact that almost every month neurophysiology
is coming out with a result of direct relevance to the topic of self-deception.
The psychologists have invented skillful new techniques at getting at pre-conscious
or unconscious processes that are very exciting. There is an empirical scientific
world that's building up now that did not exist 20 years ago, and that can
constrain and guide our thinking.
I sometimes contrast this topic to genetics. Genetics, as I mentioned, is
intrinsically difficult, but it is exact. If you take the energy and the
time to master it
you will get rewards for it. You will actually know real things and be able
to point to it and know what you're talking about. Deceit and self-deception
their nature are topics that tend to be hidden from view. They are difficult
to pinpoint, even as to how you define them. What is the evidence that it
happened? It's a very different kind of intellectual problem than genetics.
easier to master what's known, because in scientific terms not an awful lot
But if you have to think carefully in terms of the logical distinctions you
make, there is now an emerging body of empirical data that, as I say, can
constrain your thinking and guide it. If you're not constrained, the topic
is too big
the possibilities are too great. You have to be able to say, no, we're going
to exclude this half, or this two-fifths of reality because of this result,
and we think this is where things are important, because the data point in
The time is ripe, although it would be riper five to ten years from
now. Academics are always saying this is the perfect study area for
this, the perfect species to do that, or the perfect time for this book.
Well, this isn't the perfect time, but at the very least it will point
people towards relevant empirical work. It's a function of how much
actual thinking you do. Like everything else, this is not a topic where
seat-of-the-pants thinking, or a few polished anecdotes, no matter how
amusing, are going to carry the day. The topic has got to be thought
through, carefully and systematically and I am ripe to do it.