From time to time, we all lie to ourselves. Be it persuading yourself that you deserve that extra doughnut (do you really?) or convincing yourself that you can procrastinate until the last minute because you work better under pressure anyway (are you sure?), we have all been guilty of self-deception. But why do we do it? That’s the question that has been on the mind of leading evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers for the last 30 years. He shares his ponderings and his conclusions in his book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Apparently, it’s all down to evolution.
Is There Really Such a Thing as Self-Deception?
Trivers, a professor of anthropology and biological sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is far from the first to be intrigued by this topic. In 1984, Quattrone and Tversky conducted a study into self-deception with 38 students and some cold water (cited in Psyblog, 2009). The participants were told that they were taking part in a study of psychological and medical aspects of athletics but in reality, the experimenters were attempting to trick them into believing that how long they could submerge their arms in cold water was directly related to heart-health. Initially, participants could manage around 30-40 seconds.
They then performed other tasks including using an exercise bike and attending a lecture on life-expectancy. Half the students were told that they had a ‘type 1’ heart that generally has a low-health level and is high-risk. The remaining students were told the opposite, that they had a low-risk, high-health ‘type 2’ heart. Both groups were told that those with the good type 2 hearts would have increased tolerance to the cold water. This information was entirely false. In a second immersion test, their immersion times altered in relation to what the participants falsely believed about their hearts (type 1 participants could withstand less time whereas type 2 participants actually were more tolerant), suggesting that they were led into self-deception (Psyblog, 2009).
Moreover, according to Trivers there are different ways in which we, as human beings, deceive ourselves. On the one hand, we can create false memories and trick ourselves into ‘remembering’ something that simply did not happen. Such ‘memories’ can range from the innocent amusing anecdote to more serious issues, such as falsely remembered abuse cases (Raeburn, 2013).
Alternatively (and much more prevalently), we can be selective about which information we choose to use and believe, and which information to discard. To demonstrate this form of self-deception, Trivers details an experiment in which participants were told that they were either ‘likely’ or ‘unlikely’ to get asked out on a date by a certain person. Both sets of participants were then shown a photograph of the potential date and asked to describe him. Those who were told that they were ‘likely’ to get a date reported primarily positive attributes, whereas those who were told that they were ‘unlikely’ to get a date reported primarily negative attributes. These results suggest that participants lied to themselves about the desirability of the potential date in order to prepare themselves for the outcome, be it disappointment or pleasure (cited in Raeburn, 2013).
A Paradoxical Concern
However, it’s not all so simple for self-deception theorists. Psychologist Albert Bandura claims that self-deception is a logical impossibility and states that “one cannot deceive oneself into believing something whilst simultaneously knowing it to be false. Hence, literal self-deception cannot exist” (Bandura, 2011). So is it true that self-deception doesn’t really happen? Trivers suggests not. In reply to this problem, he argues that the mind can split or disassociate one part of itself from the rest and essentially partition the two beliefs: thus the deceived part of the mind is hidden from the deceiving part. This idea of limited access circumvents Bandura’s paradoxical concern and demonstrates that self-deception really is possible (Trivers and von Hippel, 2011).
The Evolutionary Explanation
The big question of why we lie to ourselves though is the one that truly interests Trivers. In answer to this question, he claims that “self-deception is a useful tool for negotiating the world” (Trivers and von Hippel, 2011) and that in order to convince other people that we are the best at what we do (be it more moral, stronger, more intelligent, better looking, et cetera), we first need to convince ourselves. In fact, he goes so far as to say that we wouldn’t have developed the ability to lie to ourselves at all if it wasn’t evolutionarily positive – i.e. if it didn’t give us a competitive edge for survival. The moral of the story? If you want to convince a potential employer that you are perfect for the job, or if you want that potential date to think that you’re awesome, you first need to convince yourself. Confidence wins every time.
Albert Bandura, 2011. Self-Deception: A Paradox Revisited [online] available at <homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/faculty/swann/docu/brooks-swann.pdf>, p.16 [accessed 6th June 2013]
Carole Jahme, 7th October 2011. Deceit and Self-Deception by Robert Trivers – Review [online] available at <www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/oct/07/deceit-self-deception-robert-trivers> [accessed 29th May 2013]
Paul Raeburn, 6th May 2013. Lying to Yourself Helps you Lie to Others [online] available at <discovermagazine.com/2013/june/01-lying-to-yourself-helps-you-lie-to-others#Ua41lu9LvuQi> [accessed 29th May 2013]
Psyblog, October 2009. The Truth About Self-Deception [online] available at <www.spring.org.uk/2009/10/the-truth-about-self-deception.php> [accessed 6th June 2013]
Robert Trivers and William von Hippel, 2011. The Evolution and Psychology of Self-Deception [online] available at <homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/faculty/swann/docu/brooks-swann.pdf> [accessed 6th June 2013]
THE TRUTH ABOUT LYING: HOW SELF-DECEPTION CAN IMPROVE YOUR SOCIAL STANDING by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer - Victoria Froud is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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