Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others – Robert Trivers


Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others - Robert Trivers

Allen Lane, ISBN 978-0-713-99826-9

The title is enough to attract any skeptic, and the author’s name should be added bait for anyone familiar with advances in evolutionary theory over the last three decades, since many of these advances have been made by Trivers himself.

The subtitle encapsulates the thesis of the book. Trivers is proposing an explanation for the well-known but puzzling phenomenon of self-deception: how can someone simultaneously know and apparently not know something. Murky though the mechanism may be, the motivation has usually seemed to be defensive: hiding uncomfortable truths from oneself. Freud and repressed memories will be routinely mentioned.

Trivers radically overhauls traditional views. “From the simple premise that the primary function of self-deception is offensive – measured as the ability to fool others – we can build up a theory and science of self-deception. In our own species, deceit and self-deception are two sides of the same coin”.

This fledgling science is robustly rooted in biology, and the gains from this approach are substantial: “The dynamics of deception and its detection have been studied in a broad range of other species, with the advantage that we can see things in others that we can’t easily see in ourselves. This enterprise also greatly extends our range of evidence and leads to a few general principles of some considerable value.”

When it is realised just how broad this range of species is, namely from viruses to apes, the theoretical benefits can be appreciated. Deception is ubiquitous and seemingly necessary, and the evolutionary arms race of deception and detection has been a strong promoter of the adaptation called intelligence.

Deception can also be seen to operate at different levels, wherever there may be conflicts of interest. Such conflicts may be internal to the organism, as in genomic imprinting: “one of the most striking discoveries in the past thirty years of genetics is that we are expected not to be unitary creatures with a single self-interest, but to have a paternal genetic interest and a maternal one, which may differ, with each acting to promote a view of the world from its standpoint”.

Trivers’ account is very wide-ranging, encompassing chapters on immunology, aviation disasters, false historical narratives and a caustic assessment of the social sciences. The theoretical discussions are enlivened by surprisingly candid confessions and anecdotes, making this an irresistible read.

Paul Taylor