on 11 November 2011
The book is true to its title. It argues the case for the idea that we fool ourselves so that we can fool others better. And it sticks to that argument pretty closely.
The author sees the reasons for deceit in evolutionary genetics. Therefore some evidence comes from other organisms, including stick insects and monkeys, as well as humans.
What amazed me is how such a simple idea can be related to so many experiments, many of which where originally carried out for completely different reasons. After a slow start, most of the book describes experiment-after-experiment, and observation-after-observation, in a page-turning caliadascope. It is as if the central idea was some sort of super-magnet that attracted evidence from far-and-wide to achieve a critical mass.
And it actually seems to pan out in real life. I now understand more of the odd behavior of people, from politicians to my own family. This is the sort of stuff that judges and juries should know. And if there was anyone to keep our politicians and economists in check, this is the sort of stuff that they should know.
At risk of being invited to copy-edit Roberts - oops, Robert's - next book, the only thing that spoilt my enjoyment was struggling with some of the phrasing and punctuation. It kept forcing me to re-read bits to get the meaning.
Most authors have an aloof style: If they write about racial prejudice, for instance, they are not prejudiced. Neither are we, the reader, of course. It is Other People who are prejudiced. Well, there is none of that nonsense with Robert Trivers. He often uses his own, less-than-ideal, behavior to illustrate deceit. He is irreverent, some might even say coarse, and comes across as somewhat street-wise, as well as academic.
on 2 November 2011
Not my judgement of this magnificent book, of course, but the fruits of deception and self-deception, and one reason why the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers believes this to be fertile ground for all kinds of enquiry, from full-blown scientific research to more personal reflection. Trivers describes just a few of the many ways in which we deceive others and ourselves, which will either be eye-opening for Pollyannas or no news at all to cynics. Most of us are vaguely aware of politicians who lie about their expenses, advisors who paint a rosy picture of your financial future, celibate priests who are anything but, and so on. What most of us probably do not appreciate is the underlying evolutionary logic that drives deceit, and the importance of biology to understanding what may seem a social or cultural failing. Whether you are a lay reader like myself or a seasoned evolutionist, there can be few better guides to this fascinating field than Robert Trivers, a genuine pioneer in evolutionary thinking.
While we wicked humans can be remarkably creative, we are not alone when it comes to fooling others to get what we want. Deception "is a very deep feature of life" and occurs at all levels, in every nook and cranny of the natural world. Warblers are tricked into feeding cuckoo chicks at the expense of their own young. Birds feign a broken wing or death to avoid predation. Male orchids, fireflies and bluegill sunfish mimic females. There is no moral dimension to any of this behaviour, of course, which is grounded in the complex interplay of selective forces at work in a changing environment. The unit of natural selection is the gene: a butterfly that mimics another, poisonous species and so avoids being eaten is more likely to pass on the genes responsible for the deception to future generations.
Animal mimicry guided by unconscious behaviour is one thing, human deception is a whole different ball game. And why self-deception? Surely, it doesn't make sense to deceive ourselves about reality? Why bother with marvellous sense organs to detect information only to distort it after arrival? In fact, in some situations it does make straightforward evolutionary sense to deceive ourselves: from the top of a tree, for example, "the drop to the ground looks much farther than does the same distance viewed from the ground up". Trivers, however, is more interested in those biases that have a social component, such as denial and projection, the above-average effect, overconfidence, the euphemism treadmill, and so on. A "hallmark of self-deception is bias" and it occurs whenever the conscious mind is kept in the dark.
The central claim of the book "is that self-deception evolves in the service of deception" and the general argument "is that we deceive ourselves the better to deceive others". For us, "deceit and self-deception are two sides of the same coin" and Trivers covers a huge amount of ground to make his case. He explores the neurophysiology, immunology and psychology of self-deception, moving on to self-deception in everyday life and in aviation and space disasters, and then a fascinating and provocative chapter on false historical narratives (one example being the Jewish people's "divine right to Palestine"), followed by chapters on war and religion (segued with the suggestion that "no aspect of language acts as a more powerful force for war than religion"). Just as well he begins the book by admitting that many of his ideas are tentative and may be proved wrong, but I admire his candour: "for me the risk of appearing foolish, indeed self-deluded, is preferable to the cowardice of not taking a position".
Not taking a position is definitely not something Trivers can be accused of. Indeed, some might reach for stronger terms than "foolish" given his trenchant views on certain corners of the academy (psychoanalysis is a full-time hoax and economics is not far behind, most historians are slaves to false historical narratives, social scientists are burdened by decades of dogma, social anthropologists dodge biology by calling themselves cultural anthropologists). Cheerleaders for these professions will be too busy keeping their own show on the road to worry about a maverick biologist, and, even if they did dip in, the great thing about self-deception is that it will enable each psychoanalyst, historian, social scientist and so on to see themselves as the exception (while acknowledging that their colleagues and rivals may well be fraudsters). "Facts counter to one's biases have a way of arousing one's biases. This can lead to those with strong biases being both the least informed and the most certain in their ignorance."
The serious point made by Trivers is that "discipline after discipline - from economics to cultural anthropology - continues to resist growing connections to the underlying science of biology". Genetic variation for mental and behavioural traits should be especially extensive and fine-grained in our species. It matters to humans that "more than half of all genes express themselves in the brain" - including the brains of those responsible for, say, the US war on Iraq in 2003, which from the outset "was drenched in deceit and self-deception". (Any Republican readers that get this far will comfort themselves that even the Bush regime never quite matched the "reign of sadistic terror" launched by Columbus or the genocide urged by America's Founding Fathers, although chances are they will not make it past the attack on the ideology of American exceptionalism.)
Trivers writes with authority and clarity on evolutionary biology, and spices things up with the occasional personal reminiscence or some well-judged sarcasm that most scientists are trained to resist. In this way he is the best kind of scientist: he never forgets his human foibles but he is also an eloquent champion of the power of science, the success of which "appears in great part to be due to a series of built-in devices that guard against deceit and self-deception". And therein lies the hope for humanity.
For those with a background in Psychology, the name Trivers is certainly one that can cause a fair amount of derision in a group. He's done some very interesting things, but there is a fair amount to be... sceptical about. A fair amount of the book describes how you, the reader, and others are happy to fool oneself into the most inane and ridiculous through self attempts to normalise to others (not the easiest sell I'll give him that).
This book is, however, a cracking read. It contains a huge amount of science and experiments, always a good sign. This is no light read, be sure! Mixed in with that is a fair amount of the authors own opinion, which may not be the liking to all. Push through it however and there is so much to open your eyes and really make you think about how we interact with others. However it is not done with a zealous attitude, he recognises his own human nature, and those around him (often with a nice bit of humour).
There are some bad points, he does ramble, the psychology can be a inaccessible in places and his own theories can be strained to breaking to fit them to what he's trying to say.
With this in mind I would still recommend it to read. It does take time, but once you get to the end you have a slightly different view on the world. What else could you ask for in a book?
We are all taught as children that honesty is the highest virtue and deception the worst sin (OK, one of the worst), and we are all surprised to learn as we grow up just how far the reality of human behaviour departs from the teaching. I have always been interested in the question how much do people deceive deliberately and how much do they deceive themselves the better to deceive others. This book is the best attempt to answer the question that I have found.
I say "attempt" because, as Trivers admits, there isn't enough evidence to prove or disprove his case. What he does achieve is a fascinating discussion both of deception and self-deception and an outline of some plausible mechanisms for a link between the two. Clearly this was not good enough for some reviewers. If you only want to read about well established fields skip this one, but I do take issue with the suggestion that Trivers confuses research and opinion. The book contains much of both but the boundaries are carved out with a logic that is viciously sharp throughout.
Facing up to self-deception makes us uncomfortable and in places the book is starkly uncomfortable to read. As well as exposing the deceptions of others he is so frank about his own deception and self-deception, it is as if someone being interviewed on television suddenly took off this clothes. Whatever your views on the US, Palestine, the war on Iraq, you will have to admit he has correctly identified self deception and the more uncomfortable it gets to read, the more it shows how deeply ingrained is our instinct to cover up the naked truth.
A lot of excellent research has been carried out recently on irrationality and related topics which is slowly filtering its way to the public. This is one of several recent books and others are worth considering as well. Starting with the heaviest (of those I have read), Thinking fast and slow, by Economics Laureate Daniel Kahneman, is an insightful forensic analysis of many aspects of misjudgement. I gave it 5 stars but my review is partly critical. Dan Ariely's The Truth about Dishonesty is about cheating. It presents a lot of research, consistent with Trivers, showing that people are highly prone to cheating when they can convince themselves that what they are doing is ok. I gave it a wholehearted 5 stars. I would also draw attention to Stumbling on Happiness by yet another Dan, Dan Gilbert. Although its purpose is different it discusses much of the same research. It is a very light read which some find entertaining, others find annoying. His concept of psychological immunity is more or less demolished by Trivers but his advice about how and when we should question our judgement is wise. Trivers is heavier than Ariely but lighter than Kahneman: Deceit & Self-Deception is both drily scientific and an entertaining romp. Of all these books I found Trivers' the most powerful. (By the way I don't recommend every book I read - I gave 1 star to a book on a similar topic, Obliquity)
It is important to be aware that Trivers presents the subject from a biologist's perspective. If you are offended at the advance of biology into "social sciences" you will hate it - but you should nevertheless try to read it: Trivers even has some advice specifically for you if you get as far as chapter 13.
on 12 July 2014
This is a quite extraordinary book. As Robert Trivers comments in the very last paragraph:
"One nice feature of the study of deceit and self-deception is that we will never run out of examples."
And indeed he finds them everywhere, from plants mimicking poisonous varieties, to male fish misrepresenting their sex to gain a reproductive advantage, to the competition within families between the maternal and the paternal genes inherited by offspring, to aviation and space accidents, to international relations and nationalistic myths, and of course religion.
Some of the material is clumsy and clunky and could have done with a brutal editor—principally in the more scientific passages where terms like "donor" and "recipient" are insufficiently precise for a naive reader to follow the argument. And some—particularly the historical material and the Chomskyan expose of the self-serving myths of US imperialism—is passionate and riveting, but I suspect highly contestable.
Trivers readily admits the limitations of current research in all the areas he covers, but he cites his sources only in end-notes. Generally I prefer this approach in "popular science" texts; author/date citation ruins to flow for the reader, but it is not until you follow up the endnotes that you discover that a whole page of argument may be based on a single source, which may be highly contentious, and the surrounding dispute is not mentioned at all. Much of the discussion of conflict in the Middle East, for example, relies on the work of Robert Fisk—hugely respected, but equally hugely contested in the field, I gather. The intriguing idea that xenophobia and inter-group conflict and religiosity are higher in societies which carry a higher load of parasites and hence probably infections rely on four articles (albeit some in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B—but some of which are not fully referenced). The effect is dogmatic, but he does include occasional exclusions where he acknowledges that he must paint with a broad brush because of the scope of the topic. Hence he starts chapter 12, on religion, with;
"A book could be written on this subject—no, a twelve-volume treatise..."
He is an avowed positivist and reductionist; the social "sciences" in his view forfeit any claim to credibility insofar as they drift away from biology. It's all in the genes, in the Dawkins mould, and he aligns his early thought with E O Wilson (of Sociobiology notoriety in the 70s).
He is also prepared to step into the picture himself, in anecdotes which rarely redound to his credit.
So he has a clear frame of reference, or lens, through which he views a vast swathe of biological to political activity, and as might be expected he finds deceit and self-deception wherever he looks—just as a critical theorist finds oppression and exploitation everywhere. The content and examples are fascinating and thought-provoking, but does the whole really work as anything other than another cynic's charter?
That humans practise self-deception to an extraordinary degree is fairly self evident. One only has to be in their company for a short time or keep up with the news to find confirmation of this - your own self-deceit is, unsurprisingly, harder to detect. Beyond everyday experience and anecdote, experimental psychology has unearthed rich seams of this type of cognitive illusion, people regularly believe that they are smarter, more capable, less prone to error, more moral than others and that whatever their actions they are entirely justifiable, or at least negative actions are more forgivable in themselves than others. A quick browse through the popular psychology section on Amazon, reveals many titles covering the topic of self-deception and other cognitive biases, often describing the same real life examples and experiments. What they don't often provide is a hypothesis for why, in the light of evolution, that they should exist at all - what advantage do they provide? Yes, often a mechanism is given, but not often are we told how this fits into the framework of natural selection.
Trivers has, in this book, outlined a proposal for the selection advantage that self-deception gives to an individual, which is succinctly summarized by the subtitle: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others. Simply put, it is in our advantage to project a more positive view of ourselves to others than is actually the case, whether it means exagerrating our physical prowess, mental abilities or moral accumen and we are much better at this when we believe our own hype. It is a stressful and taxing job maintaining a lie, we are not very good at it, not when we are aware of the truth. It is so much easier to convince others of a lie, after first convincing ourselves.
The work presented here is not a final theory of self-deceptive behaviour, though it is comprehensive, rather Trivers has provided what he hopes will be the foundation of future theory. It would be easy to slip into the just-so-stories much derided in some works of evolutionary psychology, that every human feature has a definite evolutionary purpose, Trivers is much too good a scientist to do this. Instead, the work is couched in the sort of terminology that informs the reader just how well a statement is supported by evidence, he is careful not to leave anyone regarding a speculation as a more positively supported fact. The evidence is never stretched to fit a hopeful hypothesis.
The first few chapters detail what is known about self-deception (and plain old deception) in terms of its biological, evolutionary and psychological bases. These are all very interesting, particularly how self-deception is advantageous from the point of view of immunology. These chapters reminded me of some of the more interesting popular science accounts of evolution, Trivers was a key figure in selfish gene theories; Dawkins' readers will find this familiar terrain. Later chapters detail how self-deception fits into our daily lives and broader social, political and religious contexts. Facinating examples of self-deception are given and often how this adaptation backfires, and the tragic results that it brings. Interestingly, the Dunning-Kruger effect is not mentioned, as good an example of self-deception if ever there was one.
Trivers peppers the book with illustrative accounts of his own self-deception, these are often embarrasing to him but are told with such self-effacing candour that you can't help sympathizing with him. Indeed, his character comes through on every page and there is a sense of wry humour pervading the whole thing. Of all the scientists I've read or met few fulfill a stereotype (the best don't), Trivers even less so.
I've come away from this work with a clearer perspective on how we and our world operates. I feel less confident in our leaders and those who profess surety the most and more aware that even the best of us are distorting the truth in the service of self-justification. Self-deceit, it seems, is unavoidable but we can strive to be aware of it in ourselves and others, perhaps that we may mitigate its effects. Highly recommended.
on 4 March 2012
'In memory of Dr. Huey P Newton, Black Panther and dear friend', reads the dedication of this book - and you know you may be in for something a little unusual.
The central thesis that self-deception is puzzling from an evolutionary standpoint (why aren't we created to have a single, true view of the world?). But that there is an answer - 'we fool ourselves the better to fool others'.
The books is very wide ranging - and I would not have it any other way. The anecdotes from the author's own life, including his life in Jamaica, are for example a large part of the book's charm. There's no hiding from the fact that not all the elements and chapters of the book are equally successful, though. In particular, I do think Trivers is much cop at philosophy - though even there, I'm glad he's tried.
The book encompasses scientific research, on deception in nature, and laboratory research on deception and self-deception. Also evolutionary theory. Also a study of the work of others on aviation and space disasters. And of the false historical narratives all nation states tell themselves. Those chapters, for me, were the highlights. I learned that we puff ourselves unconsciously (we recognise a photo that's 20 per cent more attractive than our real photo more rapidly than the real thing); we denigrate others unfairly; that conscious deception imposes cognitive load; that deception is rife in nature where it clearly confers evolutionary advantage and where adaptation favours successful deception; that overconfidence etc can lead to pilot error in plane crashes - but that there are strong motives for deception and possibly self-deception in cover-ups too; and that we all tell our children false narratives about the history of our nations (deception? self-deception?)
Other chapters are less strong. Even the strong chapters are rambling (the one on plane crashes ends with a gripping account of a successful forced landing - enjoyable to read, but quite irrelevant to deception and self-deception, I'd say!). But Trivers is not that compelling on 'is economics a science?'. And philosophically, I wonder where he is coming from - his position on ethics seems to be 'actually I try to avoid self-deception, as I do avoid other things that may be good from an evolutionary standpoint, like rape' - but also 'all human behaviour should be explained in evolutionary terms'. I'm sure there's a way of squaring off this tension in an elegant fashion. But Trivers doesn't, in this case, try.
Having said all that, I would strongly recommend this to others. It's an unusual and unusually honest take on human life.
on 13 February 2012
Robert Trivers has crafted one of those rare popular science books that is not only thought-provoking and intriguing, but stylistically hugely enjoyable. Precisefully, openly, or frankly as needed, he discusses his ideas about the evolutionary origins of deceit and self deception, its practical implications, and its personal impact. It'd be hard to overstate how much I enjoyed this book.
At an intellectual level, Deceit explores the evolutionary origins of inward and outward dishonesty with great expertise and verbal precision, expanding past familiar adaptationalist concepts. One of his most interesting proposals is that the male and female genes of the same person are ultimately in conflict in terms of survival, and that this may be expressed in behavior and thought. Stop and consider that for a moment: that not only are one's genes not out for one's best interests, that they are capable of infighting. At higher levels, he considers the origins of irrational biases in gender, culture, and religion as possible offshoots of similar processes. There are hours of enjoyable pondering to be had after each and every chapter, and sometimes after each section.
Trivers contextualises his ideas by discussing examples of individual and group self-deception, and it's here that the book goes a little off-track. It feels wrong to criticise when the prose is so very engaging, but some of the middle chapters feel a little weakly coupled to the key ideas raised by the book, and I dare say that anyone not smitten with the book's premise will give up at this point. If you are taken with Trivers' thesis, as I was, these parts are merely a wonderful space to try to apply his ideas or wonder at human chaos at work. Here Trivers' language is evocative and emotive, and it makes for a challenging but unstoppable read.
My absolute highlight of the book, however, was reading Trivers' own frank accounts of his own (self-)deception. There's a deadpan wit to his stories - none of which I will spoil here - which make his ideas absolutely clear and ground them resolutely and relatably. It turns which could've been a very abstract and intellectual book into a disarmingly human and witty one, and I applaud the author for his honesty.
If you have a social, personal, or intellectual interest in the lies we tell ourselves and others, this book is essential. Two or more, and you'll be writing gushing reviews like this one online.
I'm still not sure to what extent I agree with Trivers' hypothesis. From my own experience I think I lie more efficiently if I know that I'm doing it, which I remember doing consciously for the first time when I was about six when I looked my teacher in the eye, adopted my most innocent expression and assured her that I had done my sums all by myself. It seemed to work but reading this book made me wonder if she actually did believe me or with a wry inward smile decided not to pursue the matter further. After all she did have class of 40 plus children to deal with and this was only mid-morning. Perhaps she was just choosing which battle to fight. I may not have been a budding mathemetician but at least I wasn't one of the rioters.
Equally I'm sure many politicians are masters of self deception and seem able to maintain their delusions in the long term, probably as the only way to live with themselves. No doubt it is easier to lie to the faceless millions than to a living fellow being face to face. Whether they are plausible is another matter and I tend to side with Lincoln about whom you can fool and how often. I'm sure there is a difference in the use of mendacity between the personal and the political spheres.
Certainly there is a tendenacy in humans to adhere to the group lie - usually about other groups - unless, as individuals, we carefully analyse our own feelings and their source from within the group and I think it is here that self delusion is strongest as a motivating factor in society. Ii would be useful to consider the effect of the the peer group at different stages of our lives to predispose us to this group think. As I was almost completely isolated from other children until I went to school I never felt part of the group and therefore have ever since looked at received ideas from the point of view of an outsider so in some ways I remain to be convinced that his arguments apply quite so widely.
Trivers' book is an easy read if rather fragmentary in its presentation, although the breaking up of his arguments and examples into bite sized chunks does make it easy to cross check from one point to another as one reads. I suspect it's a text one will come back to from time to time as other reading triggers questions and comparisons. It's certainly worth reading for the questions it raises even if one doesn't agree with all his arguments.
Philosophers have described man as a lying animal, an unflattering description which at first may somewhat shock you if your nature is either innocent and trusting or perhaps a little naïve. Most people of course are aware of the phenomenon of lying in their life... from children caught out in some prank denying all responsibility to the politician's habitual and calculated lying not only to get and stay elected but to promote party policy with which they often secretly disagree... but what most of us are unaware of is how we lie to and deceive ourselves. If you lie to yourself who is lying to who? Such 'self deception' is the subject of this highly interesting and revelationary book by Robert Trivers, an American scientist who has been acclaimed as one of the 100 greatest thinkers of the 20th century.
Obtaining a Ph.D. from Harvard, Robert Triver's subsequent scientific research has been mainly concerned with social theory and social evolution developing out of Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. In this book, the result of decades of research, Trivers has reached the conclusion that we lie to ourself in order to be more successful liars to other people. There is an evolutionary logic and benefit in lying because successful liars gain an advantage over others, in sexual relationships, in the family, in everyday life, in business, in warfare, in politics, in history and in religion, to name a few of the chapters in the book in which the phenomenon of deception is investigated thoroughly. Trivers finds deception everywhere in nature, in mimicry, camouflage, pretending to be dead, the cuckoo type of behaviour of using others to rear one's offspring, and much more, but believes man to have evolved the art of deception to new and extraordinary levels. Man has taken deception into the shadowy world of self deception. We go to extraordinary lengths to conceal our lying to ourselves.
Although this is a very serious book it does contain considerable humour and wry wit by the author especially when examining his own personal life and the incidents of self deception he finds everywhere in it. In the final chapter Trivers asks the question: "Should we fight our own self-deception or not?" Surprisingly he finds that although deception is morally negative we probably cannot avoid it because we will be fighting against our own evolutionary interests and therefore perhaps all we can do is to try to understand it. And sharing such understanding is the main reason for Trivers writing the book.
To want to buy and read this book you would probably have to be brave and honest, a lover of the truth, and someone prepared to be open to ideas which demonstrate the self and its strange psychology in an often painful critical light. Does the truth set us free? Only by reading Robert Trivers book will you ever find out?