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The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and…

The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (2011)

by Robert Trivers

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Does it take one to know one? Or does it take a fool to fool one?

Deception is, without question, a key feature of evolution. A small mammal fluffs up its fur to look bigger, and so scare off a predator or a rival. A small male fish takes on the appearance of a female, and so sneaks past a larger male standing guard over females and is able to mate. A butterfly from a tasty species adopts the coloration of a nasty, or even poisonous, species to cause birds to leave it alone. This sort of deception is everywhere.

And, of course, it's found in humans in a different and exaggerated form, called "lying." Or "fraud," or many other names. Yes, most people are very good at it, and yes, it tends to advantage them. ("A creampuff," says the used car salesman as he hands you the keys of the lemon....) What's more, it's clear that the better one is at deception, the more advantage one gains from it. Indeed, it has been proposed that one of the reasons the human brain has gotten bigger and bigger, over the years, is that a big brain is a weapon in the arms race between those who are trying to deceive and their victims who are trying not to be deceived.

So far, so uncontroversial, at least if you believe in evolution. Robert Trivers goes beyond that, suggesting that lying with a straight face isn't nearly as good as believing your own lies. After all, if you believe it yourself, you can't possibly give away the fact that you are lying. Thus, he suggests, self-deception is an adaptive advantage.

It's a very interesting thesis, which (approached simply from a logical standpoint) is certainly true if self-deception has no down side. And, sometimes, it doesn't. Take a simple example: a town dance with 51 eligible men and only 50 eligible women. If everyone just lines up and takes the most suitable available partner (so the best and fittest guy gets the best girl, and the #2 guy gets the #2 girl, and so forth), guy #51 isn't going to have a dance partner. But if he lies to himself and says, "Well, maybe I'm not #51, maybe I'm #50, and if I really try to dress up and look my best, I can get girl #50, or even #49," he has nothing to lose. Meanwhile, guy #50 says to himself, "All right, I'm the next-to-worst guy, but still, girl #50 has to go with me or else her only choice is #51" -- and he makes no effort at all, and guy #51 gets the last girl. Self-deception that makes you take a chance when you have nothing to lose is entirely worth doing -- and so the human race is basically optimistic and active and (let's face it) self-deceptive, because it pays off.

But sometimes it doesn't pay off. If you see the ground fall away, and say, "well, it might be a 500 foot cliff, but it might be a gentle slope, and I'm going to keep walking because it's too much work to look" -- there's a pretty good chance you'll end up a very flat stain at the bottom of the cliff, and you won't breed. So self-deception has to have its limits. The question is, where are they?

And, at this point, we get into psychology. And I am disturbed about this. Robert Trivers in this book reveals himself as a petty thief and a drug user and prone to gambling and often a not-very-helpful person -- on its face, something very close to a psychopath. Is he right about self-deception -- or is he deceiving us (or at least himself) to cover his own bad habits? We cannot really tell from pure logic. We can only look at the evidence Trivers offers.

And, here, we see a disturbing tendency. I don't know enough about biology to argue the examples Trivers cites. I know he makes a lot of physics goofs, though -- to give just one blatant example, on p. 202 he claims that there is no reason to experiment with growing plants in microgravity, because "gravity-free zones can be produced on Earth at a fraction of the cost." Um -- no, they can't. Not for more than thirty seconds at a time, anyway, which isn't an experimental environment. You can only get free fall in something that's falling freely (like a plane or elevator falling toward the ground) -- or in an unaccelerated spacecraft in orbit.

There are other errors of this type, and some which mix science and history (Columbus massacred the Indians, yes, but not by using big guns mounted on ships -- remember, the War of the Spanish Armada, the first major engagement of ships using artillery, took place a century after Columbus!). There are also examples of Trivers taking cases from modern politics which are not relevant to his thesis. I agree with him on most of these, but so what? He isn't arguing his case, he's just stating his opinions. Similarly, many of Trivers's examples, such as his ragging on NASA and various airlines, are genuine examples of irrational behavior but are not examples of the sort of irrational behavior he is talking about; they are relics of the heuristics of the animal brain.

Bottom line: A very provocative thesis. A reasonable thesis, even. And Robert Trivers is a genius who reshaped our understanding of evolution, so that his ideas deserve tremendous respect. But, in this book, I don't think he has proved his point. It will take experiment to do so. And that raises the question: Can we perform the experiments without deceiving ourselves? ( )
  waltzmn | Oct 4, 2017 |
Author explores the field of self-deception; does it have any evolutionary advantage to balance the obvious downside? It concludes that for individuals it may, by contributing self confidence, which may contribute to success in various endeavors, including finding a mate. For societies and groups, however self-deception leads to disasters such as the Challenger explosion or the invasion of Iraq (they will love us and throw flowers).
  ritaer | Aug 27, 2016 |
A provocative and interesting Darwinian theory of self-deception ( )
  vegetarian | Dec 7, 2011 |
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In memory of Dr. Huey P. Newton,
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The time is ripe for a general theory of deceit and self-deception based on evolutionary logic, a theory that in principle applies to all species but with special force to our own.
In the early 1970s, I busied myself trying to construct social theory based on natural selection.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465027555, Hardcover)

A New York Times Notable Book of 2012

Whether it’s in a cockpit at takeoff or the planning of an offensive war, a romantic relationship or a dispute at the office, there are many opportunities to lie and self-deceive—but deceit and self-deception carry the costs of being alienated from reality and can lead to disaster. So why does deception play such a prominent role in our everyday lives? In short, why do we deceive?
In his bold new work, prominent biological theorist Robert Trivers unflinchingly argues that self-deception evolved in the service of deceit—the better to fool others. We do it for biological reasons—in order to help us survive and procreate. From viruses mimicking host behavior to humans misremembering (sometimes intentionally) the details of a quarrel, science has proven that the deceptive one can always outwit the masses. But we undertake this deception at our own peril.

Trivers has written an ambitious investigation into the evolutionary logic of lying and the costs of leaving it unchecked.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:06 -0400)

Explores the author's theorized evolutionary basis for self-deception, which he says is tied to group conflict, courtship, neurophysiology, and immunology, but can be negated by awareness of it and its results.

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