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).