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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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 August 2014
The four-star reviews on this book sum up the strengths and weaknesses of this book. I will try not to duplicate.

The strengths are that for something that we know is endemic in everyday life, so little seems to have been written about it. We know we con ourselves and we see it in others all the time (of course, it’s easier to see it in others than in ourselves). Some recent episodes at my own workplace would be worthy of inclusion in this book (for example, management overturning old systems only to restore them in a different guise and then pretending to the workforce that they haven’t really executed a volte-face).

It is peppered with examples that illustrate the author’s case, from an array of disciplines. Deceit and deception is rife as an evolutionary strategy (think of the cuckoo). It is the root of so many human ills, from ill-chosen relationships to the Iraq war. I dare anyone to read it and not wince at self-recognition. It is worth reading alone for the range of thought-provoking examples it offers in support of its case. It is also insightful – the pithy remark that the fact science produces useful knowledge should be borne in mind the next time you should hear someone claim that scientific facts are ‘socially constructed’ or that disease is a social, not medical phenomenon.

So while the book is strong on presenting compelling evidence that the practice of practising self-deception is a real phenomenon, the roots of which run deep, it is not so strong on presenting a compelling overarching evolutionary explanation for why it all arose in the first place. I have no objection to examining the biology of our brains for the roots of this and other aspects of our psychology. If psychology is rooted in the brain, and the brain has evolved, like any other organ in the human body, then we are definitely looking in the right place. After all, is there a better place to look? The explanations offered are fine as they go. If men are more likely to be overconfident, and confidence is linked to sexual and reproductive success, then deception has an evolutionary advantage. Deceit is bad for the species but evolution does not care about the fate of the species. After all, if the BS artist and seducer get as far as reproducing, it does not matter if his hubristic overconfidence results in his downfall in the longer run. The genes will have done their job before then.

Elsewhere, there may be no selection pressure to weed out the deceivers. George Bush junior after all did not suffer the consequences of his delusion by stopping a bullet. Others do. But these are partial explanations. Deceit in the natural world seems to be of a different order to that humans practise. Yes, deception is rife in the natural world. The Reed Warbler raising a cuckoo chick has been deceived – but has the Reed Warbler conned itself first, before it was deceived? Does the Cuckoo deceive itself before it lays its parasitical egg? The evidence Trivers presents here does not seem to support the conclusion that they have been so deceived. Indeed Reed Warblers are known to have devised strategies to counteract Cuckoos’ deceit. That suggests that there is some awareness of what Cuckoos are up to.

The chapters on false historical narratives, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq War are going to wind some people up. They don’t bother me too much but I realise that the style and tone in these chapters are going to present barriers to people who might otherwise be receptive to the general message. Still, they go to show that the caricature of sociobiology as a right-wing political stance is false. Trivers is a dyed-in-the-wool leftist. There is no need for the left to reject an innatist, biological explanation of human behaviour.

To Trivers’ credit, he points out that this area is an infant science and much of what he says may turn out to be wrong (at least in terms of explanation). He is also endowed with a self-deprecatory and reflective self-awareness, applying the book’s insights to episodes in his own life. If anyone has ever been troubled by the awareness that we can do deceive ourselves and others then this book is required reading. We could all do with greater self-honesty. And the fact that it is possible to write such a book is perhaps grounds for hope.
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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.
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on 23 August 2017
Deciet and self deception permeates nearly every aspect of nature, animals use it, bacteria and viruses use it even plants use it, and of course us humans use it, sometimes for our evolutionary advantage and sometimes to our detriment. Robert Trivers covers a lot of ground in this book and although it's only three hundred odd pages long, it feels a lot longer, lots of interesting facts and many pages have been folded over to be reread, I found the writer candid open and likeable, infact I emailed him about a couple of things I was interested in and to my surprise I received a pleasant and humorous response. Although this hypothesis is in its infancy it could have a huge impact understanding many aspects of human behaviour and the way we live and work. I was interested in the "Truth Pledge" an idea you can subscribe to, politicians and important people in the states maybe pressurised into doing so, if they do it would be wise to read this book first, it will give you a deeper understanding of what the truth really is and if you are actually capable of signing such a pledge. A very interesting book, well worth a read.
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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?
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 March 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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VINE VOICEon 13 March 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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VINE VOICEon 29 January 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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on 18 January 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Perhaps ironically this book states from the outset that with such a young science, the things written in it may very well be proven wrong. It is this honesty together with the very clear way this book is written that makes it a very good read for anyone with the slightest interest in the matter. The author has obviously spent many years studying deceit, but he uses down-to-earth and completely non-patronising language to clearly explain his conclusions... in a few cases perhaps even clearly enough to draw your own.

The book studies many aspects of deceit from how and why we use it, to examples of major tragedies that have happened because of it. What's more is that the book is divided into clearly defined chapters, and it's quite feasible to read it in any order you want. This also makes it great for semi-casual reading.

While this book is clearly about a complex science, reading it is not an overwhelming experience for someone with no background whatsoever in the subject (like me). It is an interesting, eye opening and sometimes even scary look into a subject that I personally hadn't given a second thought until now.
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