Robert Trivers [5.30.06]


I believe that self-deception evolves in the service of deceit.  That is, that the major function of self-deception is to better deceive others.  Both make it harder for others to detect your deception, and also allow you to deceive with less immediate cognitive cost.  So if I'm lying to you now about something you actually care about, you might pay attention to my shifty eyes if I'm consciously lying, or the quality of my voice, or some other behavioral cue that's associated with conscious knowledge of deception and nervousness about being detected.  But if I'm unaware of the fact that I'm lying to you, those avenues of detection will be unavailable to you.


In 2005 Edge received an invitation from Juan Insua, Director of Kosmpolis, a traditional literary festival in Barcelona, to stage an event at Kosmopolis 05 as part of an overall program "that ranges from the lasting light of Cervantes to the (ambiguous) crisis of the book format, from a literary mapping of Barcelona's Raval district to the dilemma raised by the influence of the Internet in the kitchen of writing, from the emergence of a new third culture humanism to the diverse practices that position literature at the core of urban creativity."

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new focuses that lead to our questioning of many of our foundations. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of capital importance with respect to what it means to be human.

Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution through natural selection are central to many of these scientific advances. Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist, Marc D. Hauser, a cognitive neuroscientist, and Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist, travelled to Barcelona last October to explain how the common thread of Darwinian evolution has led them to new advances in their respective fields.

The evening was presented by Eduard Punset, host of the internationally-viewed Spanish-language science television program Redes, and a best-selling author in Spain. A Redes television program based on the event was broadcast throughout Spain and Latin America.

The house was packed and the speakers did not disappoint.



(ROBERT TRIVERS:) Why do I talk about, or wish to talk about, deception and self-deception in the same breath?  Because I think you miss the truth about each if you are not conscious of the other and the relationship between the two.  If by deception you only think of conscious deception, where you're planning to lie or aware of the fact that you're lying, you will miss all the lying that goes on that the individual is unaware of, and this may be the larger portion of lies and deception that is going on. 

Conversely, if you think about self-deception without comprehending its connection with deception, then I think you'll miss the major function of self-deception.  In particular, you'll be tempted to go the route that psychology went a hundred years ago or so and think of self-deception as defensive: I'm defending my tender ego, I'm defending my weak psyche.  And you will not see the offensive characteristic of self-deception. 

What do I mean by that?  I mean that I believe that self-deception evolves in the service of deceit.  That is, that the major function of self-deception is to better deceive others.  Both make it harder for others to detect your deception, and also allow you to deceive with less immediate cognitive cost.  So if I'm lying to you now about something you actually care about, you might pay attention to my shifty eyes if I'm consciously lying, or the quality of my voice, or some other behavioral cue that's associated with conscious knowledge of deception and nervousness about being detected.  But if I'm unaware of the fact that I'm lying to you, those avenues of detection will be unavailable to you. 

Regarding the second argument, it is intrinsically difficult, and mentally demanding, to lie and be conscious about it.  The more complex in detail the lie—the longer you have to keep it up—the more costly cognitively.  I believe that selection favors rendering a portion of the lie unconscious, or much of the knowledge of it unconscious, so as to reduce the immediate cognitive cost.  That is, with self-deception you'll perform better cognitively on unrelated tasks that you might have to do moments later than if you had just undergone a lot of consciously mediated deception.

Let me step back and say a word or two about the underlying logic. First of all, we understand that if we are making an evolutionary argument in terms of natural selection, we are talking about benefits to individuals in terms of the propagation of their own genes, and there are innumerable opportunities in nature to gain a benefit by deceiving another. 

However, the reverse is true for the deceived. 

The deceived is typically losing knowledge or resources or whatever, resulting in a decrease in the propagation of their genes.  So you have what we call a co-evolutionary struggle: with natural selection improving deception on the one hand, and improving the ability to spot deception on the other.

Now let me just say that deception is a very deep feature of nature. At all levels, all interactions, e.g. viruses and bacteria often use deception to get inside you. They may mimic your own cell surface proteins.  They may have other tricks to deceive your system into not recognizing them as alien and worthy of attack.  Even genes inside yourself, which propagate themselves selfishly during meiosis may do so by mimicking particular sub-sections of other genes so as to get copied an extra time, even though the rest of the genome, if you asked their opinion, would be against this extra copying.

When you turn to insects and larger creatures like those, we know that in relations between species, again there's a huge and rich world of deception.  Considering insects alone: they will mimic harmless objects so as to avoid detection by their predators.  Or they will mimic poisonous or distasteful objects to avoid being eaten.  Or they will mimic a predator of their predator, so as to frighten away their predator.  Or, in one case, they will mimic the predator that's trying to eat them, so that the predator misinterprets them as a member of their own species and gives them territorial display instead of eating them.

They will even, I have to tell you, mimic the feces, or droppings, of their predators.  That's so common it has a technical term in the literature, forgive me, "shit mimics".  And they come in all varieties and sizes.  There are moths that look like the splash variety of a bird dropping.  And you can understand from the bird's standpoint, you might have a strong supposition that this is a butterfly or a moth, but you'd be unwilling to put it to the test—especially if you have to use your beak to put it to a test.

Now when you turn to relations within species, you find a rich world that we're uncovering now of deception also.  To give you two quick examples.  Warning cries have evolved in many contexts to warn others of danger.  But they can be used in new and deceitful contexts.  For example you can give a warning cry in order to grab an item of food from another individual.  The individual's startled and runs for cover, you grab the food. You can give a warning cry when your offspring are at each other's throats—they run to cover and then you separate them and protect them from each other.  It has even been described that you can give a warning call when you see your mate near a prospective lover—get them dashing to safety, and then you intervene. 

In this continually co-evolving struggle regarding truth and falsehood, if you will, there are situations in other creatures as well as ourselves where we have to make tight evaluations of each others' motive in an aggressive encounter.  I'm lining up against Marc Hauser; how confident is he of himself?  I'm courting someone; the woman is looking at me; how confident am I of myself?  And so on.  That allows misrepresentation of these kinds of psychological variables and you can see how self-deception can start coming in.  Be more confident than you have grounds to be confident and be unconscious of that bias, the better to manipulate others.

Once you have language, that greatly increases the opportunity for both deception and self-deception.  We spend a lot of time with each other pushing various theories of reality, which are often biased towards our own interests but sold as being generally useful and true.

Let me just mention a little bit of evidence—and of course there's a huge amount of evidence regarding self-deception, from everyday life, from study of politics and history, autobiography, et cetera.  But I just want to talk about some of the scientific evidence in psychology. There's a whole branch of social psychology that's devoted to our tendencies for self-inflation.  If you ask students how many of them think they're in the top half of the class in terms of leadership ability, 80 percent say they are.  But if you turn to their professors and ask them how many think they're in the top half of their profession, 94 percent say they are. 

And people are often unconscious of some of the mechanisms that naturally occur in them in a biased way.  For example, if I do something that is beneficial to you or to others, I will use the active voice: I did this, I did that, then benefits rained down on you.  But if I did something that harmed others, I unconsciously switch to a passive voice: this happened, then that happened, then unfortunately you suffered these costs. One example I always loved was a man in San Francisco who ran into a telephone pole with his car, and he described it to the police as, "the pole was approaching my car, I attempted to swerve out of the way, when it struck me". 

Let me give you another, the way in which group membership can entrain language-usages that are self-deceptive. You can divide people into in-groups or out-groups, or use naturally occurring in-groups and out-groups, and if someone's a member of your in-group and they do something nice, you give a general description of it—"he's a generous person".  If they do something negative, you state a particular fact: "in this case he misled me", or something like that.  But it's exactly the other way around for an out-group member.  If an out-group member does something nice, you give a specific description of it: "she gave me directions to where I wanted to go".  But if she does something negative, you say, "she's a selfish person".  So these kinds of manipulations of reality are occurring largely unconsciously, in a way that's perhaps similar to what Marc Hauser in his talk was saying about morality.

A new world of the neurophysiology of deceit and self-deception is emerging. For example, it has been shown that consciously directed forgetting can produce results a month later and they are achieved by a particular area of the prefrontal cortex (normally associated with initiating motor responses or overcoming cognitive obstacles) suppressing activity in the hippocomapus, the brain region in which memories are stored. So there is clear evidence that one part of the brain has been co-opted in evolution to serve the function of personal information suppression within self.

What I want to turn to very briefly is the relationship between self-deception and war.  Now war, in the sense of battles between large numbers of soldiers, is an evolutionarily very recent phenomenon.  A raid, where you run over to another group, kill off a number of individuals, and run back, is something we share with chimpanzees.  And that has a long history and is much more likely to be constrained by rational considerations. 

But warfare as we experience it now is a ten thousand, (plus or minus a few thousand) year old phenomenon.  Not an awful lot of time for selection.  And not much selection necessarily on those who start the wars.  There may be a lot of selection in the civilian population or the soldiers, but it's not necessarily true that those who start stupid wars end up with as as great a decrease in surviving offspring (and other kin) as one would have wished. 

Wars also tempt us easily to self-deception for other reasons.  There is often very little overlap in self-interest between your group and another group, in contrast to activities within the group.  There is also low feedback from members of an outside group.  There's greater ignorance. 

And so war is a particular situation where self-deception is expected to be both especially prominent and especially harmful in its general effects.

Let us use the most recent war—the current war launched by my own country, the United States in 2003 against the country of Iraq—to see one simple illustration of how deceit and self-deception is a useful concept in thinking about war. It has been said that the first casualty of war is the truth, but we know regarding the Iraq war that the truth was dead long before this war started.  We know the thing was conceived and promulgated based on a lie.  The predator, the U.S., saw an opportunity to leap on a prey, and decided almost immediately, within days of 9/11, and certainly within a couple of months, to prepare and launch this war.

Now what's the significance of that fact?  Well, one significance of it is, psychologists have shown, very nicely I think, for 20 years now, that when we are considering an option—whether to marry Susan, or to go to the University of Bologna instead of Barcelona, or whatnot—we are much more rational, we weigh options, and we are even, if anything, slightly depressed.  But once we decide which way to go, we act as if we want all the cells in our body rowing in the same direction.  If it's Susan we're going to marry, we don't want to hear about Maria or some of Susan's less desirable side.  If it's Barcelona we're going to, that's the best university to go to and to hell with Bologna. 

Now the point about this war is that there was no period of rational discussion of the pluses and minuses. The United States decided—at least a small cabal within it, including the President, decided—to go to war almost instantaneously. They immediately went into the implementation stage—your mood goes up, you downplay the negatives—after all, you have made your decision—and you do not wish to hear contrary opinions. Especially you do not wish to hear contrary opinions if the real reasons for going to war can not be revealed and the whole public pretense is a lie.

Thus, all planning for the aftermath was dismissed because it greatly increased the apparent expense and difficulty and suggested greatly diminished gains from the endeavor. This, of course, implicitly called into question the entire enterprise, so rational planning was dismissed. And witness the dread effects, a continuing bloodbath unleashed on an innocent population.

One other comment: self-deception can not only get you into disastrous situations, but then it gives you a second reward and that is, it deprives you of the ability to deal with the disaster once it's in front of you.  And what could be more dramatic than what happened in the first month after the U.S. arrived in Baghdad—the complete looting of the country, 20 billion dollars of resources destroyed, priceless cultural heritage destroyed—all of that and the U.S. sat around and sucked its thumb.  Did nothing to deal with it.  And has been dealing with an escalating disaster ever since.  A blood-letting of dreadful proportions, and still blind about what to do.

Well, I'll just summarize these thoughts by saying that there's good news and there's bad news.  The good news is, we do have it in our grasp at last to develop a scientific theory of deceit and self-deception, integrating all kinds of information, but at least sticking this phenomenon out in front of ourselves and studying it objectively.  The bad new is that the forces we're dealing with—that is, of deceit and self-deception—are very powerful.

ROBERT TRIVERS' scientific work has concentrated on two areas, social theory based on natural selection and the biology of selfish genetic elements. He is the author of Social Evolution, Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers; and coauthor (with Austin Burt) of Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements. He was cited in a special Time issue as one of the 100 greatest thinkers and scientists of the 20th Century.

Robert Trivers's Edge Bio Page