Better to go to bed lonely than to wake up guilty

Tim Lewens

  • Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others by Robert Trivers
    Penguin, 416 pp, £10.99, January 2014, ISBN 978 0 14 101991 8

What do we learn about the human mind from evolutionary theorising? One might think that evolutionary psychology is predominantly a backward-looking science that sketches the historical processes that led to specific aspects of the way we reason. But most evolutionists think their investigations have a forward-looking dimension too: they argue that pinning down the social and ecological demands made on our ancestors can help us to characterise more accurately what our minds are like right now.

Darwin presented the process of natural selection as a sort of ersatz creator. He thought one of the great triumphs of his theory lay in its ability to give transmutationists – those who thought species were modified versions of their ancestors – a good answer to the question of how the adaptation (or ‘co-adaptation’, as Darwin sometimes referred to it) of organic means to ends came about. Earlier natural theologians – including William Paley, whom Darwin read closely – had argued instead for the creationist view that only an intervening intelligence could explain the fittedness of eyes, wings and so on to their offices. Paley’s version of the design argument took organic adaptation to be decisive evidence for the existence of a benevolent overseer. British biologists have often portrayed Darwin as having refuted the conclusion of the argument from design, without challenging its premises. Nature may be well designed, much as Darwin’s creationist predecessors thought, but good design doesn’t require a designer. Thus John Maynard Smith once defined biological adaptations as the sorts of trait that natural theologians would have mistaken as evidence for the creator; and it is the reason Richard Dawkins, while gleefully stamping all over the nonsense spouted by intelligent-design creationists, nevertheless spends much of his time marvelling at the cleverness of specific bits of natural engineering, even referring to natural selection as a watchmaker (if a blind one), and to himself as a ‘neo-Paleyist’. Many biologists, indeed, still praise Paley for his descriptions of natural phenomena, and some continue to favour an approach that closely mirrors Paley’s: if you want to figure out how nature works, begin by asking how an intelligent engineer might have set it up.

If natural selection simply emulates intelligent design, we might wonder why evolutionists would be any better than natural theologians at figuring out how our minds and bodies work, though it has to be acknowledged that creationists are hopeless at telling us what processes led to their working as well as they do. The solution to this puzzle – part of it, at least – lies in an important difference in perspective. For the evolutionist, adaptation is born of competitive struggle: where the creationist sees the relationship between species as one of beneficent harmony, the evolutionist is instead primed to see conflict, mutually inflicted disadvantage and strategic manipulation.

The contrast between these two views is perhaps brought out most clearly in Robert Trivers’s seminal article from 1974 on the conflict between parents and offspring. A natural theologian is likely to assume that parents and their developing offspring are engaged in a largely harmonious project, directed at the efficient production of a new autonomous life. For the evolutionist, things are different. Trivers pointed out that a parent’s reproductive interests are best served by apportioning resources more or less equally between offspring, on the grounds that parents are related equally to all of their children. Any given child’s reproductive interests, however, are best served by inducing the parent to give it a disproportionately large share of resources. Important evidence of this sort of effect comes from David Haig’s work on the struggle between mother and foetus during pregnancy. Haig argues that foetal genes are selected to take more than maternal genes are selected to give. The result – borne out in many empirical studies – is a series of otherwise baffling biochemical and anatomical measures and countermeasures, in which each side attempts to shift the balance towards its own optimal interests regarding blood supply and nutrients. For example, pregnant women secrete more insulin than usual (in their own interests, as it decreases the foetus’s share of blood sugar) at the same time as they become more resistant to its effects (in the foetus’s interests, increasing its share).

The moral here is that evolutionary thinking allows us to formulate hypotheses we would have been less likely to have considered otherwise. This doesn’t mean all these hypotheses will turn out to be true. Nor does it mean that only an evolutionist could have formulated them: Haig notes that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries pathologists were already describing the maternal/foetal relationship as a ‘battlefield’. Even so, the way evolutionary thinking alerts us to the possibility of misaligned interests and strategic manipulation helps us to see how, in principle, a Darwinian might attend to aspects of human nature to which other disciplines are blind.

Robert Trivers’s new book, Deceit and Self-Deception, is an exercise in applying this evolutionary heuristic. Why do we mislead ourselves? The conventional understanding is that self-deception is a type of defence mechanism: deep down we know the world to be a dangerous place, and our position in it to be vulnerable, so we have to tell ourselves comforting lies in order to be able to survive. We seek out various narcotics and palliatives – some conceptual, some behavioural, some biochemical – in order to render a fundamentally painful world acceptable. Trivers, however, asks instead whether self-deception might not have a more strategic, offensive function. His basic idea is nicely expressed in his subtitle: we fool ourselves the better to fool others. Deceiving others frequently has significant pay-offs: swindling them enables us to acquire extra resources, pretending to be tougher than we are helps us to avoid conflict, and so on. Since it is costly to be on the receiving end of deceptive practices, we have also developed various techniques to help us spot deception and punish it. An arms race ensues between deceiver and deceived, which culminates in self-deception. Trivers claims that by deceiving ourselves – by believing we are entitled to resources that are not ours, by believing we are tougher than we really are, by believing we are more intelligent than we are – we make our deceptions less likely to be rumbled. The most convincing liar believes his own fibs.

This is a reasonable thesis, and a fine illustration of the potential of the evolutionary approach. But it also illustrates some of the dangers of that approach, as Trivers greatly overstretches himself when exploring it. The book addresses an exceptionally wide range of topics, from religion and scientific investigation to our sense of natural justice and the placebo effect. What they have in common is that Trivers finds them all interesting and that they all sometimes involve us in error. It is much less clear that they all involve us in self-deception.

Take Trivers’s argument that to feel self-confident gives us a significant advantage in conflict situations. If we strut around and puff ourselves up, our adversary is more likely to have second thoughts and walk away. But why does he think that the underlying cognitive mechanism here is self-deception? Trivers argues that I am ‘pretending to be more confident than I am’, but this is not the same as deceiving oneself. I might be making no mistake at all about how confident I am. His point, I assume, is that there are pay-offs to feeling more confident than our abilities warrant.

Or consider his claim that ‘political success often may turn on the ability of leaders to arouse the belief in people that something is in their self-interest when it is not.’ We can safely go along with this; to deny it would be to assert, unreasonably, that politicians are able accurately to assess what is really doing people down, then persuade them of their own virtuoso diagnoses. But it doesn’t follow, despite what Trivers appears to think, that successful leaders take advantage of people’s tendency to self-deception. Maybe they do. But it may also be that they are especially good at articulating and acting on various mistaken views that they share with the people, with no deception necessary on either side.

Finally, in a curious chapter on air disasters, it isn’t clear that any of the cases Trivers examines involve self-deception. In one of them, a pilot allowed his teenage son to sit at the controls during a flight; the boy jerked them so violently that the autopilot switched off, causing the plane to bank steeply and crash; 75 people died. This looks like an example of foolish risk-taking. In another case, a pilot wasn’t sure about taking off in icy weather and hinted that he wanted advice from his more experienced co-pilot, but instead received only vague and breezy assurances, again with fatal consequences. Where is the self-deception here? Trivers assumes that because the senior pilot was over-confident, he was deceiving himself. But maybe he just wanted to get on with the flight and failed to think hard enough about how things would turn out. Perhaps this is ‘fooling yourself the better to fool others’, but perhaps just getting on with things sometimes works better than worrying and analysing. Or maybe he was using some flawed heuristic for estimating safety. At the very least, we need to know more about the nature of the pilot’s failings. Trivers is all too brief: ‘The presumed benefit in daily life of his style is the appearance of greater self-confidence and the success that this sometimes brings, especially in interactions with others.’ This is Trivers’s presumption, not an established conclusion.

Many of these problems derive from Trivers’s failure to give a clear account of what he takes self-deception to be. This is a shame, because the issue isn’t straightforward. Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, offers an interesting explanation for what he regards as some of our most entrenched concepts, suggesting that mistakes made in our distant past may have greatly aided survival. As a result, what he calls ‘basic errors’ have become embedded in our thinking. They stick because they have pay-offs. Supposing Nietzsche to be right, should we say that these errors are instances of self-deception? It isn’t clear. We could, if we adopted a very permissive definition of the term; if, for example, human cognition were so ordered that we consistently misperceived the true nature of the world. In that sense we would be the source of our mistakes: we would be deceiving ourselves. But this doesn’t amount to self-deception in the more demanding sense that to deceive ourselves is to lie to ourselves.

Trivers sees self-deception everywhere because he has a relaxed understanding of what it amounts to. The biological concept of deception offers an instructive comparison. It is quite routine in biology to describe the anatomy of plants, for example, as deceptive. Many orchid species resemble insects; more specifically, they look and smell like adult females of their pollinator species. The pseudo-copulation the orchids enjoy as a result – there is no ejaculation, so that the frustrated male is encouraged to move on to other plants – brings about pollination without their having to supply the insect with food. The orchid has deceived the insect, but it cannot be said to have lied to it. If we are prepared to tolerate such an extended usage of deception, why not a similarly relaxed use of ‘self-deception’ too? This is Trivers’s line of reasoning. He denies that self-deception requires intention: it doesn’t require that one set out to mislead oneself. At the same time, he doesn’t adopt a fully permissive view, whereby every mistake we make is a case of self-deception. That is just as well: I can hardly be said to deceive myself when I accidentally lock myself out of my house. But it remains unclear just where Trivers wants to stand in the middle ground between the strict and permissive extremes. At times he suggests that in cases of self-deception we ‘seek out information and then act to destroy it’, and that ‘self-deception occurs when the conscious mind is kept in the dark. True and false information may be simultaneously stored, only with the truth stored in the unconscious mind and falsehood in the conscious.’ On this view, the storing of truth in one part of the mind and misleading information in another can occur regardless of whether the subject intends to keep a part of himself in the dark or things just turn out that way.

In spite of Trivers’s hand-waving on the question of consciousness (‘most animals … have a conscious mind … in the sense of a light being turned on … that allows integrated ongoing concentration on the outside world via their sense organs’), his position on the general nature of self-deception is just about intelligible. The problem is that he doesn’t stick to it. In cases of overconfidence, for example, he argues that we feel more confident than our abilities warrant, but makes very little effort to show that this feeling influences the conscious mind while the unconscious remains aware of our limitations. This is a recurring pattern: he often makes a case for thinking that we misperceive important variables (our physical strength, our offspring’s ability to fly a plane), but he rarely attempts to show that these same variables are accurately presented elsewhere in our minds. Indeed, Trivers stresses that in many cases of self-deception, ‘falsehood alone may be stored’: there need be no deceiving of one part of the mind by another.

Although he doesn’t say as much, Trivers appears to understand self-deception as being involved whenever an error has a reliable pay-off. We do not make such errors simply because some calculations are too hard to keep track of, or because our cognitive systems misfire. We make them because they are good for us; or rather, because their past reproductive benefits have been positive enough to offset their costs. These errors count as self-deceptions because they are mistakes whose persistence can be understood strategically, despite the fact that no one is weighing up their advantages and disadvantages, and despite the fact that the subject is not truly fooling himself. Rather, he is fooled, and to his advantage.

*

None of these confusions would matter much if Trivers had kept in mind a firm distinction between intentional strategists – who plan and seek to deceive – and the ersatz strategist of natural selection, which merely preserves various error-producing cognitive mechanisms in virtue of their reproductive benefits. He fails to separate these two kinds of strategy, especially when discussing examples of genetic conflict. These are cases where the proliferation of, for example, paternally inherited genes would be best served by one set of behaviours, while the proliferation of maternally inherited genes would be best served by a different set. In these cases, Trivers claims that we have ‘two separate genetic selves’ who ‘compete for control of our behaviour’. His defenders may say that this talk of different selves is purely metaphorical. Yet Trivers argues that our different genes may ‘speak’ to us in different voices as we weigh the costs and benefits of action. A young woman considering whether to have sex with her cousin presents her paternal and maternal genetic selves with a conflicted choice: ‘The first declares that “kissing cousins are cute”; the other speaks moralistically about the dangers of defective young via interbreeding. To the individual, this may be experienced as internal argumentation, without any necessary resolution and with each side tempted to overstate its case.’ This is an extreme example of the potential of biological metaphor to mislead.

This inability to keep his own metaphors under control is likely to rile social scientists, whose errors (again, understood as instances of self-deception) Trivers attributes to their tendency to use perfectly well understood terms in extended, metaphorical senses. He seems to want the term ‘gender’, for example, to be used exclusively in the grammarian’s sense, and not as a term for the social construction of sexual roles. He also complains that ‘entire sub-disciplines may flourish in the interstices of poorly defined words.’ Tu quoque: Trivers himself never quite defines what he takes self-deception to be. Social scientists are also castigated for their head-in-the-sand attitude to data. He quotes Richard Feynman’s macho philosophy of science with approval: ‘It doesn’t matter how beautiful the guess is, or how smart the guesser is, or how famous the guesser is; if the experiment disagrees with the guess, the guess is wrong.’ This entirely fails to characterise those scientists who always bear in mind the possibility that experiments, or our interpretations of them, may be flawed. Physicists’ prudence explains why they did not convert en masse to the view that neutrinos can travel faster than light, in spite of a widely reported experiment in 2011 at Gran Sasso that appeared to show their doing just that.

Trivers also exaggerates the role of the biological sciences in instructing the social sciences. He is right to say that social scientists have been unduly resistant to learning from biologists. But he wants the social sciences to accept that ‘biology now has a well-developed theory of exactly what utility is … based on Darwin’s concept of reproductive success.’ This makes it sound as though every social scientist needs to understand that people act so as to maximise their reproductive fitness, yet Trivers himself offers plenty of evidence to refute this claim. In an autobiographical passage that is characteristic of much of the book’s style, he tells us that few urges are ‘as strong or regular (in a man, at least) as the compulsion to seek out sexual companionship late in the evening, with whomever and on whatever terms’. Fortunately, he has found a technique for dealing with this problem, which is to repeat to himself the lesson he has learned from bitter experience: that it is ‘better to go to bed lonely than to wake up guilty’. He now wakes up feeling good about himself, and this reinforces his self-restraint. If Trivers is correct to think that sometimes we are able, through rational reflection on our past actions, to alter our goals and priorities away from strategies that may maximise our reproductive fitness, then the maximisation of fitness is not the necessary underlying cause of either what we aim to do or what we should aim to do.

This is a strange book. It can hardly be described as a work of science, but it also fails to fit into a recognisable popular science genre. It canters through an extraordinarily wide range of topics, from the evils of social science to genetic conflict and the recent history of Israel. It draws heavily on anecdotes derived from Trivers’s personal experience: the examples often concern his womanising, sometimes his drug-taking, sometimes his violent urges. Occasionally, he sounds like an agony aunt: ‘There is little doubt that pain from a relationship is among the worst of pains. With physical pain you can almost always do something to ease it, but with emotional pain you have to wait until it eases itself.’ Towards the end of the book he notes that, as he has aged, ‘the standards regarding my own arguments I am willing to push forward have dropped. I care less about appearing the fool, so I am willing to live with a higher ratio of foolish thought to true insight in my statements.’ Here, at least, he is not deceiving himself.