The active misrepresentation of reality to the conscious mind in order to better deceive others
After being introduced to evolutionary theory, Robert Trivers became interested in the counterintuitive paradox of self-deception. How could natural selection simultaneously favor the evolution of complex sensory organs and fine-tuned detection mechanisms while also selecting for the systematic distortion of information once received by the brain. The more he learned about social evolution, the more he was convinced that the driving force behind the evolution to deceive oneself was selection pressure to be better able to deceive others (Trivers 1985). Given the intense psychological warfare observed in social creatures, Trivers argued that selection could act to favor various forms of reality manipulation that would benefit the individual. One result of this coevolutionary arms race Trivers suggests was the evolution of human intelligence; a very real cost, however, is the impaired ability to deal with reality (Cashdan and Trivers 2002, Trivers 1991, 1997, 2000, 2010, Trivers and Newton 1982).
Early Interest in Self-Deception
Trivers refers to self-deception as an important factor in human social interactions in early papers on reciprocal altruism and parent-offspring conflict, but it was in the forward to Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene that he first formalized his theory. Dawkins wrote extensively on the adaptive function of deception in nature, from avoiding predation via crypsis to frightening off predators using visually mimicry. If deception is an important part of animal communication, Trivers argued that humans, with their complex communication systems and big brains, must be under intense selection pressure to develop mechanisms to detect it, and therefore counterselection for self-deception as a strategy to avoid detection by rendering some facts unconscious, and thus less likely to betray the truth via subtle unconscious signals (e.g., sweat, increased heartbeat, galvanic skin response, change in micro-expressions, etc.) (Trivers 2011).
Development of an Evolutionary Theory of Self-Deception
Trivers identified situations in which self-deception in the service of deceiving others would evolve as an adaptive strategy. Denying ongoing deception reduces the physiological costs of stress and cognitive load that are associated with deception, such as reduced immune function (Von Hippell and Trivers 2011). Being literally unaware that you are doing something, not only makes you less likely to be detected but also more sympathetic if you are caught. Self-promotion is also a major source of self-deception, where individuals tend to emphasize positive qualities and deemphasize their negative qualities. Humans are especially prone to self-deception in the construction of biased social theory and tend to view everything from personal relationships to the state of world affairs from perspectives that portray themselves and their perspective in favorable ways (Trivers 2011).
Trivers’ 2011 book The Folly of Fools provides a comprehensive overview of evidence in support of Trivers’ theory of deceit and self-deception based on evolutionary logic. The functional view of lying to ourselves to more fluidly deceive others is supported with diverse lines of evidence from neurophysiology, immunology, parent-offspring relationships, genomic imprinting, sexuality and reproduction, and psychological studies on cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and aggression. Trivers provides many examples of self-deception in everyday life from the stock market to drug addiction and lie detector tests. He investigates the role of self-deception in air and space disasters and the use of false historical narratives to explore complex behaviors in groups and societies such as genocide, war, and religion (Trivers 2011).
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