As humans coalesced into large societies, they evolved traits that enhanced group survival and traits that enhanced individual survival. Deception of others has promoted individual advancement and survival and has become part of our moral — or immoral — fabric. Self-deception, paradoxically, has evolved to enhance deception of others (von Hippel and Trivers 2011). If you do not think you are deceiving, you will not give away cues that might reveal deceptive intent. And if you do not think you are deceiving, you can avoid the cognitive challenge of deceiving and can minimize retribution if the deception is discovered. Self-deception also enhances one’s belief in self-righteousness and allows greater self-confidence, which has a host of social advantages. We detest dishonesty and deceit and value truth and honesty above all, yet we all have an innate trait of self-deception to some degree or another. It is not hard to understand that evolution would want to wire our brains with such a tool that would give us an evolutionary advantage over our competitors. It has become part of our human nature.
The implications of self-deception are profound. Evolutionary biologist and anthropologist Robert Trivers states the case:
If (as Dawkins argues) deceit is fundamental in animal communication, then there must be strong selection to spot deception, and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self- deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as to not betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced. Thus, the conventional view that natural selection favors nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution (von Hippel and Trivers 2011).
Natural selection does not care if we have true beliefs, only that our minds evolve to help us survive and reproduce. As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould said, “Nature does not exist for us, had no idea we were coming, and doesn’t give a damn about us.” Self-deception has adaptive advantages for the individual and has promoted individual survival, but most of us consider it immoral, and as we come together in larger and larger groups, it may be counterproductive to survival of society as a whole. David Livingstone Smith, author of the disturbing and revealing book The Most Dangerous Animal, believes that self-deception, which allows us to dehumanize our enemies, is a major facilitator of war, and overcoming self-deception may be the best hope of avoiding war.
Unfortunately, self-deception has accelerated in the current political climate in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Fake news fills the airways and social media. Our politicians and their followers spin their positions with a dogma and confidence born of self-deception. They believe what they say and are entrenched in their positions. There is little room for compromise. Our future, both in the short term and long term, may depend on our ability to overcome this destructive part of our human nature. Overcoming self-deception may be a pre-requisite for us to come together on common ground, search for the truth, and find rational solutions to the great problems that confront our world.
von Hippel, W. & Trivers, R. (2011). The evolution and psychology of self-deception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(1), 1-16.
This blog is excerpted and adapted from Bruce Brodie’s recently published book Why Are We Here? The Story of the Origin, Evolution, and Future of Life on Our Planet.