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Over the past century the Enlightenment idea of the supremacy of human reason has been thoroughly undermined, beginning with Freud. The present work seeks to continue this demolition job in an exceptionally radical manner. The author is famous evolutionary biologist, one of the founders of sociobiology, and in several ways a controversial figure. As might have been expected, this book is important, powerfully argued, and no doubt infuriating for some readers.
Trivers begins by demonstrating that competition between deceivers and deceived is a salient part of evolutionary processes. Since intelligence helps both to deceive and to detect deception, Trivers suggests that in higher social species deception (but not self-deception?) was involved in selection for intelligence. But what about self-deception, which is said to exclude true information from consciousness? Its function is said to be that of enabling us to better manipulate other people. The prevalence of self-deception is extensively documented with neurophysiological evidence. Recent studies show that the brain takes decisions well before these register in consciousness, leaving only a relatively short time to alter them. Trivers argues that this leaves ample room for unconscious biases (e.g. self-deception) to influence decisions. A fundamental issue for the author is that the costs and benefits of self-deception have to be assessed in terms of the key criteria of survival and reproduction. This leads him to give a chapter the surprising title 'The immunology of self-deception'; a title that does not really keep its promise. This is because various factors helping and harming the expensive immune system are considered, yet self-deception as such is not often mentioned. Then follows a survey of the psychology of self-deception, drawing on numerous experimental studies dealing with the ways in which information processing can become distorted away from reality. Most of these are well known to psychologists, except perhaps recent work demonstrating cognitive dissonance in monkeys and young children.
The principles enunciated in the initial chapters are then applied to several spheres of social life, starting with the family where results of studies of genomic imprinting in mice are applied to intra- and interpersonal conflicts. Children become capable of deception between two and three years, and parents provide a model by deceiving their children. Relations between the sexes offer ample scope for deception and self-deception. Trivers speculates that women are better at detecting deceit, and proposes that 'there is a selection for women to simulate orgasm'. He discusses the biological changes in women during ovulation and their relation to deceit. Men deceive themselves about their appeal to women, and the sources of marital success and failure are examined.
A rich variety of forms of self-deception in everyday life is examined in a chapter that constitutes a transition to a more directly applied part. It starts with overconfidence, higher in males since it tends to increase reproductive success – but not success in the stock market! The manipulative effect of metaphors is illustrated by terms like 'waterboarding' which, Trivers writes in a telling phrase 'sounds like something you would like to do with your children on a Mediterranean holiday'. 'Face-ism' refers to the fact, established cross-culturally, that in pictures relatively more of men's compared with women's faces are shown. Among other odd bits of information is that people low in self-deception are more receptive to humor. Lastly, in a section on con artists, Trivers relates an episode in which he himself was the victim.
There follow several chapters in which large-scale phenomena are considered. The first of these provides analyses of the factors responsible for aircraft and NASA space craft disasters. While the analyses as such are brilliant, it is questionable whether 'collective' is really equivalent to 'individual' self-deception -- certainly the case is not adequately made out.. The label 'self-deception' is omitted from the next title, and 'false historical narratives' are recognized as deliberate lies to bolster patriotic sentiments; targets include US, Japan, Turkey, and especially Israel. The topic of war is introduced by comparing chimpanzee raiding with human warfare, and the often noted point is made that 'there is no negative biological feedback for those making bad decisions'. Self-deception is again invoked in relation to such conflicts as Vietnam and Iraq. When it comes to religion Trivers, unlike Dawkins, seeks to 'sketch out some of the major biological forces favoring religion'. The last substantive chapter is devoted to a diatribe against the social sciences (economics, cultural anthropology, and psychology) on the ground that they are insufficiently biological. Finally the question is asked what we can do about self-deception in our own lives. The answer is far from clear, and at least one passage about possible changes in Trivers' own self, suggests that it is 'nothing':
I am prone to be moralistic, overconfident , and dismissive of alternative views, more or less as expected for an organism [sic] of my type, but I am also conscious that I am biased in this way . . . Do I wish it were otherwise? Yes. Can I change it? No.
The implication is that he is conscious of his less admirable characteristics and is not deceiving himself; and the fact that he cannot change them further implies that biology is destiny.
It must be said that the above summary inevitably fails to convey the verve of the writing and the flood of ideas that are being conveyed. It is enjoyable to read, not least because the author reveals so much about himself, e.g. about his relationships with women or his use of drugs. He also produces a great deal of experimental evidence in addition to bold speculation. But is his thesis about the prevalence of self-deception and its alleged evolutionary origins really convincing? For this reviewer it is not, but perhaps I am deceiving myself! None the less, let me offer some grounds for my skepticism.
One problem is that, starting from evolutionary aspects of deception and its detection, Trivers slides imperceptibly into self-deception, which is a rather different phenomenon. Then there is the question as to the function of self-deception. One is told that it is that of 'manipulating others ' We hide reality from our conscious minds the better to hide it from onlookers'. Yet the ways this is supposed to work is not adequately explicated. Another difficulty is that many quite different mental states are termed 'self-deception'. At various times it is equated with over-confidence, bias, false beliefs, , and so on; occasionally it is applied to mistaken calculations, as when Napoleon is aid to have failed in Russia because of 'faulty logistics'. There is also the 'biologism' that was already manifest in sociobiology, which means that Trivers manages to totally ignore culture. This is by no means characteristic of biologists at large, some of whom refer to 'gene-culture-co-evolution'.
However, whether or not one accepts the general thesis, it must be said that with its ambitious sweep this work constitutes remarkable tour de force that compels admiration. It deals with many of the woes that beset us, and their analysis is shrewd and insightful. So I must end by repeating that this is an important work.
© 2012 Gustav Jahoda
Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His main fields of interest are cross-cultural and social psychology, especially the development of social cognition. He is the author of A History of Social Psychology (Cambridge University Press)