We like to believe that we consciously make choices, that we control our lives, that we have free will. We subscribe to the concept that there is one external reality that given the physical capacity of sight or hearing in the observer would be perceived by all. But this is not so. For the lawyer, the only thing worse than no eye witnesses, is two, because they will never describe the same set of events. I’d like to look at deception, and especially self-deception, from a Darwinian perspective. When considering this domain through the lens of evolution, we will see that rather than fostering the most accurate perception of things, we are adapted to see things in a way that lends us some advantage. A few examples will make this readily recognizable.
First one must start with all the marvelous examples of deception that exist in other species. Nature has no love of truth. It’s about winning, which is to say living to reproduce. Some orchids resemble female wasps and thereby attract males that pollinate the plant. Harmless snakes take on the coloring of poisonous ones gaining greater safety. There are literally millions of examples of species taking on superficial characteristics that allow them to be perceived as something they are not when it confers a survival advantage. We are no different. The world is our stage, and yet there is a difference. While the innocuous snake who takes on the coloring of a poisonous one is under no illusions about its identity, we humans believe our P.R.
Social scientists have provided us with an abundance of data that beautifully illustrate this point. One experiment made use of the fact that when we hear our own voices, our galvanic skin response (GSR, a measure of changes in the conductivity of our skin) is greater than when we hear someone else’s voice. An unanticipated finding was that people, when asked if they hear their own voice, are right less often than their GSR. But the erroneous observations are not random. When subjects have been put through some exercise that lowers their self-esteem, they identify their voice as their own less frequently despite persistently accurate responses by GSR. And correspondingly when they are made to feel greater self-esteem, they claim ownership of not only their productions, but also the voices of others, despite an accurate GSR. In other words, we may be capable of discerning external reality, but what gains consciousness is edited by some automatic function of which we have no awareness, that distorts our perceptions in predictable ways. It's not exactly breaking news, but we consistently overrate things like our skill, generosity, and accomplishment. We perceive our victories as examples of our superiority and our defeats as demonstrations of bad luck. This has been documented with lie detectors, i.e. we believe these distortions and are lying to ourselves.
So we fool ourselves. But to what end? The brain’s assignment is not to depict our environment in accurate detail. The brain’s task, that brain that has been selected by a million years of evolution, is to create the greatest chances of reproducing. This often means increasing social status, or appearing more appealing to a potential mate, or more dangerous to an enemy. If this can be accomplished more readily with self-deception, so be it. Language may have evolved simply to be the press agent for other parts of the mind. Back in the 1970’s Robert Tivers suggested that if deceit is fundamental to animal communication, then there must be strong selection to spot deception. Here's the catch. This in turn would select for a significant degree of self-deception, pushing some things out of consciousness, to avoid “by the subtle signs of self-knowledge” the manipulation in play. The best cons believe their own spiel.
Next time, I want to take a look at some of the forms this takes in the contemporary environment.