Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind

Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind

by David Livingston Smith

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"Written with snap, panache, and the sort of insights that stop you in your tracks."

- Howard Bloom, author of Global Brain

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312310394
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/01/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.76(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.97(d)

About the Author

David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., is currently a professor of philosophy and co-founder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England. He has published widely in the areas of deception and self-deception. A longtime professor in London, he now lives in Scarborough, Maine.

Read an Excerpt



Natural-Born Liars

Lying is universal—we all do it; we all must do it.

—Mark Twain



Mel dug furiously with her bare hands to extract the large succulent corm from the rock-hard Ethiopian ground. It was the dry season and food was scarce. Corms are edible bulbs rather like onions, and are a staple during these long hard months. Little Paul sat nearby and surreptitiously observed Mel's labors out of the corner of his eye. Paul's mother was out of sight. She had left him to play in the long grass; but, he was secure in the knowledge that she would remain within earshot in case he needed her. Anyway, at this moment he was concerned with Mel rather than with the precise whereabouts of his mother. Just as Mel managed, with a final heave, to yank her prize out of the earth, Paul's ear-splitting cry shattered the peace of the savanna. His mother rushed to her boy. Heart pounding and adrenaline pumping, she burst on the scene and quickly sized up the situation: Mel had obviously harassed her darling child. Furiously shrieking abuse, she stormed after the bewildered Mel, who dropped the corm and fled. Now Paul's scheme was complete. After a furtive glance to make sure nobody was looking, he picked up his prize and began to eat. The trick worked so well that he used it several more times before anyone wised up.

Kids will be kids, even when they are apes. The anecdotethat I have just recounted describes the behavior of a juvenile chacma baboon observed by the primatologist Richard Byrne. 1 It illustrates the fact, which has long been known to biologists, but has more recently been shown to have enormous consequences for our conception of the human mind, that the roots of deceit lie deep in our biological past. Although in many ways impressive, the social manipulations of baboons, chimpanzees, and other non-human species are easily finessed by our own talent for deceit. Human beings are grandmasters of mendacity. It would not have been out of place to name our species Homo fallax, (deceptive man), instead of Homo sapiens (wise man). To understand why, we need to explore the origins of the modern human mind.

The Stone Age Mind

Darwin predicted in The Origin of Species (1859) that evolutionary theory would one day provide a new foundation for the science of psychology; but it would be more than a century until the truth in his words was borne out. The change came when advances in our understanding of the genetics of social behavior ushered in the controversial new science of sociobiology, the biological study of the social behavior of humans and other animals. 2 Before the pioneering work of the Harvard biologist Edmond O. Wilson, the study of human social behavior had been dominated by the dogma of cultural determinism. According to this view, which remains prevalent in the social and behavioral sciences, the forces of culture are all-powerful in shaping human behavior. Culture itself is said to be autonomous, standing outside of and relatively untouched by the primitive forces of nature. Primed by the still fresh memory of Nazi eugenics, the effort to "purify" the human race by killing or sterilizing "defectives," many social scientists were deeply suspicious ofany theory purporting to describe the biological foundations of human nature. Some of them luridly portrayed sociobiologists as dangerous neo-Fascists, hell-bent on racism, sexism, and the preservation of the political status quo.3 Over the next three decades, human sociobiology transformed itself into evolutionary psychology, an approach to psychological science that studies the mind from the standpoint of its prehistoric and evolutionary origins. Evolutionary psychology is not just one more school of psychology. It is a perspective on the whole of psychology that claims that we are human animals, and that our minds, no less than our bodies, are products of the forces of nature operating on a time frame of millions of years; human nature was forged from our ancestors' struggle to survive and reproduce. It is difficult to comprehend this expanse of time without some help. Consider it this way: if all the time that has elapsed since the emergence of the first hominids were a single day, the whole period of recorded history, some five thousand years, would occupy only the final two minutes.

Remains of prehistoric skulls suggest that the human brain attained its present form about one hundred fifty thousand years ago. We lived in an environment very different from that of all but a very few human populations today, eventually emerging from prehistory equipped with an array of passions, skills, and mental abilities specifically adapted to life in that primeval habitat. The mind that you and I possess is, in its essentials, a Stone Age mind.

Evolutionary biology does not endorse the popular and reassuring conviction that human minds are tools for self-knowledge and the pursuit of truth. The human mind evolved for the very same reason that all of our other organs evolved; namely, because it contributed to its owners' reproductive success. Nature selected those mental capacities that helped to spread our genes, and those that proved unhelpful were ineluctably snuffed out. Asany seducer knows, honesty and reproductive success are not necessarily good bedfellows. Because deception and self-deception helped our species to succeed in the never-ending struggle for survival, natural selection made them part of our nature. We are deceptive animals because of the advantages that dishonesty reaped for our ancestors, and which it continues to secure for us today. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me first survey the landscape of human deceit and leave the discussion of its evolution for subsequent chapters.

The Ubiquity of Deceit

Deceit is and probably always has been a major concern of human culture. The founding myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of Adam and Eve, revolves around a lie. We have been talking, writing, and singing about deception ever since Eve told God "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." Our seemingly insatiable appetite for stories of deception spans the extremes of culture from King Lear to Little Red Riding Hood. These tales are so enthralling because they speak to something fundamental in the human condition. Deception is a crucial dimension of all human associations, lurking in the background of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and employees, professionals and their patients, governments and their citizens.

Lying is obliged by its very nature to cover its traces, for in order to lie effectively we must lie about lying. This poses a problem for anyone attempting to prove the ubiquity of deception. Although it is all around us, deception is strangely elusive, "hard to explain, although it is something with which we are all intimately familiar."4 We do not need the surveys and experiments beloved by psychologists to confirm that people often lie to each other, although these, too, have proven to be quite revealing. Tograpple with dishonesty, we have to open our eyes to some unpleasant truths. As the biologist William Hamilton once remarked, evolutionary thinking about human behavior is not difficult in the way that doing physics is. It does not require highly sophisticated mathematics, elaborate instrumentation, or difficult chains of logic. Viewing human behavior through a Darwinian lens is difficult because it radically undermines cherished illusions about human nature. It leads us to violate mental taboos, to enter no-go areas, to open the book of forbidden knowledge. It is "socially unthinkable," exposing the raw nerves of our relationships with one another and revealing the complex manipulative strategies that oil the wheels of society. 5 Thinking biologically about human nature means dismantling shared illusions.

Although we claim to value truth above all else, we are also at least dimly aware that there is something antisocial about too much honesty. This dilemma has often been portrayed in literature and film, from Dostoevsky's Prince Mishkin, whose innocence and honesty destroy the lives of those around him, to the 1997 film Liar, Liar! in which a lawyer wreaks havoc when he is placed under a spell condemning him to be truthful for twenty-four agonizing hours. Evolutionary biology suggests that no normal person would be capable of such a feat. We are natural-born liars.

What is a Lie?

When we think of lying, we typically think of explicit verbal falsehoods. The philosopher Sissela Bok, who is a spokesperson for this view, defines a lie as any intentionally deceptive statement. 6 Is this all there is to lying? Mark Twain didn't think so, and reckoned that "by examination and mathematical computation I find that the proportion of the spoken lie to the othervarieties is 1 to 22,894. Therefore the spoken lie is of no consequence, and it is not worthwhile to go around fussing about it and trying to make believe that it is an important matter."7 My own sympathies lie with Twain rather than with Bok, because Twain's perspective is both inclusive and biologically realistic. As we saw with Paul and Mel, and we will see in chapter 2, deception is not the exclusive province of our species. Many other organisms make liberal use of deception to get their way. I therefore define lying as any form of behavior the function of which is to provide others with false information or to deprive them of true information.

I purposefully use the term "function" rather than "intention." In the vocabulary of evolutionary biology, the function of something is that which it has been selected (metaphorically, "designed") to do. Consider the bodies of leaf insects, which mimic the form and color of the plants that they inhabit. These bugs do not intend to deceive the creatures that want to make a meal of them and can no more change their physical shape than you or I can. Camouflage, a form of deception, is nonetheless a function of their bodily form. Lying, in Bok's restricted sense of the word, is but one small detail of Twain's vast and intricate tapestry of guile.8

Lying can be conscious or unconscious, verbal or nonverbal, stated or unstated. Appreciating this is vital for any comprehensive understanding of deceit, and is perhaps the most important point raised in this chapter. Think for a moment of all the forms of dishonesty that do not require the use of explicit verbal falsehoods. Breast implants, hairpieces, feigned illnesses, faked orgasms, and phony smiles are just a few examples of nonverbal lying. Consider also the cunning use of innuendo, strategic ambiguity, and crucial omission, as epitomized by Bill Clinton's infamous declaration that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman ... Ms. Lewinsky."

According to the folklore of deception, ordinary, decent people lie only occasionally and inconsequentially except in extreme, morally defensible circumstances. Anything more than the occasional white lie is considered a symptom of madness or badness: the penchant of the mentally ill, criminals, lawyers, and politicians. Good liars, so the myth goes, always know what they are doing: they are calculating and exquisitely aware of their deceptions. People who lie without knowing that they are lying are thought to be at best confused and at worst insane. Evolutionary psychology opposes this cozy mythology. Lying is not exceptional; it is normal, and more often spontaneous and unconscious than cynical and coldly analytical. Our minds and bodies secrete deceit.

"Everybody," writes science writer and television producer Sanjida O'Connell, "lies regularly."

Undergraduates lie to their mothers in half of their conversations and to complete strangers eighty per cent of the time ... usually for financial gain (there is one price for books in the bookshop and another when parents ask), to make their friends feel better about themselves and to con their family into thinking they were studying and not in the pub the night before. People tell fewer lies to those who are close to them, but partners are likely to be lied to a third of the time, which is more than people lie to their best friends. 9

The everyday game of strategic impression management seethes with deception. In fact, we take our mendacity so completely for granted that we rarely reflect on it. Pause, look, think, and you will emerge with an enhanced appreciation of the enormous range of human dishonesty. University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman had filmed ten-minute "get to know me" conversations between student volunteers and a stranger and later had his subjects view the tapes to count the number of lies that they told. He found that on average, peopletell three lies for every ten minutes of conversation.10 This sounds like quite a lot of lying, but considering the fact that his subjects were unlikely to have been entirely truthful with him or with themselves, and also bearing in mind that this research measured only the frequency of narrow, explicit verbal lying, the real rate of deception must be considerably higher.

Our very appearance is often carefully arranged to present a not-totally truthful image of ourselves to the world. "Why," inquires the sociobiologist Richard Alexander, "if the truth is our goal and motto, do we begin to deceive from the moment we arise from our beds in the morning, with clothes that modify our body shapes flatteringly, makeup and hair arrangements that improve our eyelashes or face shapes or cover a bald spot?"

why do we spend our waking hours before and after sleep, and while shaving ... or showering or dressing, building scenarios by which we may deceive or best in some fashion those with whom we are scheduled to interact during the day? Why do we exclaim enthusiastically upon meeting someone we would rather have avoided ...? Why do we constantly deceive everyone?11

Clothes can magically transform a body by artfully manipulating viewers' attention. Padded shoulders, beloved of "power dressers," create the illusion of size and intimidating strength. Conversely, clothing can say "I am not a threat" by emphasizing conformity. High-heeled shoes, push-up bras, and apparel that exaggerate the contrast between hips, waist, and bosom create the illusion of hypersexuality. Decking oneself out in black gives the impression of slenderness, while bright colors, patterns, or accessories draw the eye away from an unflattering feature or toward a physical asset. Skillful visual prestidigitation can make a plump waist slender, a large bottom small, or small breasts prominent. Clothing and jewelry are also used to create an image of wealth, and hence, of desirability.

Much the same can be said of blatantly deceptive cosmetic devices such as hairpieces and dyes, age-concealing makeup, and hair removal, all of which are used to falsely suggest the promise and excitement of youth. The magic of cosmetics and dress is no modern innovation. Archeological evidence reveals that at least 70,000 years ago our ancestors adorned their bodies with ochre, a red powder which has been used continuously for that purpose ever since. Pleistocene women may have initially used this forerunner of rouge to deceive males by simulating menstruation, or perhaps to simulate the subtle blush that accompanies ovulation.12 Ancient Egyptian women applied a green paste, rather like modern-day eye shadow, to define their features, darkened their eyebrows with kohl, colored their eyelids to make their eyes appear larger, and bedecked their heads with elaborate wigs. Their Mesopotamian sisters adorned themselves with paint to exaggerate the color and fullness of their lips, while fashionable Greek and Roman ladies dyed their hair blond, applied makeup to cover blemishes, lightened their skin, and used pumice to remove unwanted body hair.13

Moving from the universe of vision to that of smell, we apply deodorants to disguise our scent and douse ourselves in perfume to create alternative body odors. Ancient Egyptian women attended dinner parties with scented wax cones on their heads. The sultry heat of the Egyptian evening caused the melting wax to drench their wigs in exotic perfumes imported for this purpose from sub-Saharan Africa. Cleopatra, who authored a book on the art of scent making, received her future lover Mark Anthony dressed as Aphrodite, the goddess of love, on a barge equipped with fragrance-drenched sails. Ancient perfuming practices were incredibly elaborate compared to those of the present day. A Greek woman would not simply splash on some perfume before popping down to the agora. The poet Antiphanes informs us that she anointed her feet withEgyptian scent, her cheeks and nipples with palm oil, one of her arms with bergamot, her eyebrows and hair with marjoram, and her knee and neck with thyme, all designed to deceive the male as to her true scent. 14

Deception follows us from birth to death, and seeps into every corner of our public and private lives. Most of us claim that we try to teach our children not to lie. While it is true that children are often told not to lie, they are actually more frequently taught how to lie in a socially acceptable manner. They are instructed, on pain of punishment, to feign respect for their elders, to write heartfelt thank-you notes for disappointing Christmas presents, and to refrain from telling grandma that her breath stinks. Children learn to practice those forms of deception that are publicly prohibited but covertly sanctioned. Socially appropriate lying is not merely tolerated, it is mandatory. The child who fails to master this skill pays the heavy price of disapproval, punishment, and social ostracism.

Adults also teach children deceit by example, deceiving them by "lullabies, promises, excuses, bedtime stories, and threats about dangers in the world."15 Although told that they must never lie to their parents, these same parents do not hesitate to regale their offspring with supposedly truthful narratives of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Nonverbal deception is probably part of an infant's hard-wired psychological survival kit, but explicit verbal lying is a developmental acquisition that is dependent on a high level of cognitive sophistication. Children who are unable to lie, as George Washington reputedly was (in yet another lie often told to children), are not "good" boys and girls: they may quite possibly be autistic. 16

As we grow older, our talent for dissimulation becomes more finely honed. In one study, 92 percent of college students admitted that they had lied to a current or previous sexual partner, and the researchers ended up wondering whether the remaining8 percent were lying.17 One in three job applicants lies when seeking employment.18 Once employed, they work under managers who routinely use deceit to maximize productivity.

Men are notorious for exaggerating the extent of their sexual exploits, but research shows that women's lies about erotic encounters move in the opposite direction. When psychologists Terri Fisher and Michelle Alexander asked women to fill out questionnaires on their sexual behavior and attitudes, they found that those wired up to a phony lie detector reported having had twice as many lovers as those who weren't.19 Even in marriage, which our culture holds up as the very paragon of intimacy and trust, we find that partners keep secrets from one another about money, past experiences (particularly sexual experiences), current flirtations, "bad" habits, aspirations and worries, their children, real opinions about friends and relatives, and so on.20 Quite a substantial number of married people in the United States either have had or are currently conducting at least one clandestine affair.21 The sociologists Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz interpret this to mean that marriage makes people more deceptive than when they are single, but it's more likely that it is just one of the many arenas where we try to have our cake and eat it too.22

Deception would appear to be the norm rather than the exception in business, and it is so commonplace on Madison Avenue that an advertising industry without it is hard to imagine.23 The almost reflexive dishonesty of politicians is legendary. Not even the family doctor emerges untarnished: 87 percent of physicians surveyed felt that it is acceptable to deceive their patients in certain circumstances (including deceiving the spouse of a patient who has contracted a sexually transmitted disease in an extramarital affair).24

Deception is key to success in combat. Two thousand yearsago Sun Tzu wrote in his handbook for generals that "All warfare is based on deception."25

True excellence is to plan secretly, to move surreptitiously, to foil the enemy's intentions and balk his schemes, so that at last the day may be won without shedding a drop of blood.26

The story of the Trojan Horse, if not literally true, gives us a metaphor for the intimate relationship between warfare and deceit. From the Biblical yarn of Gideon and the Midianites to modern stealth aircraft, the history of warfare is largely one of collective deception and counterdeception.27 The language of war distributed for public consumption is full of euphemisms such as "liquidation," "collateral damage," and "take out" to conceal brutal realities. The myth of the noble hero is one of the most entrenched lies of modern warfare. For much of the twentieth century, violent, mentally unstable individuals, and especially ex-convicts were seen as particularly desirable recruits. As one World War I military psychologist put it, the best soldier is "more or less a natural butcher, a man who can easily submit to the domination of intellectual inferiors."28 Men in the field often did not have a very high opinion of "heroes," regarding them as "inhuman and unreliable."29 On the individual level, too, a good fighter needs to know how to feint. Joe Torres, a former light heavyweight boxing champion of the world, once remarked to Floyd Patterson, feint is an outright lie ... . A left hook off the jab is a classy lie."30

Deception is excusable in warfare, but not in science. Nevertheless, some of our most revered scientific icons have not been averse to fudging the data when it suited their purposes. Sir Isaac Newton attempted to mollify critics of his masterpiece, the Principia Mathematica, by modifying data to agree precisely with his theory, eventually claiming an implausible degree of precision in his measurements of physical phenomena.31 In theyear 1712, an acrimonious priority dispute broke out between Newton and the German philosopher/scientist Gottfried Leibniz over the invention of calculus. It was resolved in Newton's favor in a report published by the British Royal Society. In fact, the entire report, which tendentiously supported Newton's claim, was clandestinely penned by Sir Isaac himself!32 In 1936, the distinguished geneticist Sir Ronald Fisher pointed out that Gregor Mendel, the scientific titan who discovered the fundamental principles of genetics, appears to have "adjusted" his data in much the same manner as Newton. Mendel's results were just too good to be true.33 Sigmund Freud, who has long been regarded as a paragon of unflinching honesty, has been devastatingly portrayed in recent scholarship as a serial deceiver. 34 The elaborate precautions taken by modern science can constrain but not obliterate the all-too-human inclination to deceive.

It is not true that lying is usually conscious and calculating. As a species, we are so well practiced in the art of deception that it comes to us almost as naturally and effortlessly as breathing. Just try keeping track of the countless deceptions that you, and all of us, perpetrate on an ordinary day and you will quickly discover that you rarely have to work at deception. Even verbal lies slide off the tongue so effortlessly that they often remain unnoticed by their fabricator, which leads us to the topic of self-deception.

The Puzzle of Self-Deception

Not only do we find it all too easy to deceive others, but also we are equally adept at deceiving ourselves. As is the case with lying, I prefer an expansive definition to a restrictive one: self-deception is any mental process or behavior the function of which is to conceal information from one's own conscious mind.

Self-deception has been a puzzle for psychologists and philosophers for more than two millennia. There seems to be something inherently paradoxical about a person simultaneously deceiving himself and being a victim of his or her own deception. The popular view of self-deception is strongly negative. Lying to oneself is supposed to be rooted in fear, guilt, or mental disorder. Some thinkers find the whole idea so preposterous that they deny that genuine self-deception exists.35 How is it possible for both the deceiver and the deceived to be the same person? Others compare self-deception to our deception of others, suggesting that self-deception must involve a fragmentation of the personality into several interacting subminds, and that self-deception happens when one of these components succeeds in fooling the others in order to get its way.36

We can accept that, in spite of the apparent paradox involved, self-deception is perfectly real, and we do not have to swallow the idea of subpersonalities in order to cash it in. The main obstacle to understanding self-deception is a set of false and restrictive commonsensical beliefs about the nature of the human mind. These concepts are part of what philosophers call the Cartesian worldview, because they were most powerfully and elegantly formulated by the French polymath René Descartes early in the seventeenth century. Descartes proposed that the mind is all consciousness. In other words, we are immediately and automatically aware of everything going on in our heads. He also asserted that we simply cannot be mistaken about what goes on in our inner world: each of us is the sole, infallible, and unimpeachable authority on our mental states. If this is true, it means that simple introspection, the practice of looking into one's own mind, would be the only method required for self-knowledge. Descartes also promoted the idea that the mind, self, or soul is a spiritual entity standing outside the messy material realm of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters. Thisfully conscious self is autonomous, capable of free will and, in the words of a twentieth-century Cartesian, "condemned to freedom."37

For the better part of 250 years, Descartes's theory and its later variants dominated attempts to understand the mind. One of the people instrumental in wrecking the Cartesian monopoly was a young neurologist named Sigmund Freud. Freud was well informed about new scientific investigations into hypnosis, dreams, mental illness, and organic disorders of the brain that called the Cartesian conception of the mind into question. He realized that the mind must be identical to the brain, and that the slimy ball of nerve tissue inside our skulls is somehow responsible for the totality of our subjective mental life: our thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears, and fantasies.

Freud argued that the brain contains a number of modules, functional systems that carry out specific activities. Most controversially, he proposed that the part of the brain that thinks is entirely distinct from the part of the brain that is conscious. In other words, all thinking is essentially unconscious, a concept we will delve into more fully in chapter 5. In order to enter consciousness, information has to pass from the thinking part to the consciousness-producing part of the brain. This flow of information takes time and is controlled by a system of cognitive filters that determine which thoughts will enter consciousness and which will remain excluded from awareness. According to Freud, it is precisely the gap between cognition and consciousness, and the cognitive bouncer standing between them, that makes self-deception possible. In Freud's story, the unified, Cartesian self is a myth. It is nothing more than an image projected onto the screen of consciousness, pure output, a seductive mirage produced by a massively interconnected network of electrochemical switches in the flesh-and-blood machine that we call the brain.

Introspection does not provide insight into the workings of the neural machinery that generates it any more than the display on a computer monitor provides a picture of the processes taking place within the processing unit. Furthermore, our subjective account of ourselves is highly tendentious, because the information on which it is based has been carefully edited before being "published" as a conscious self-representation. The conscious self is fiction, a creation of the mind rather than its underpinning. The wellsprings of thought, emotion, and behavior are found in that obscure region of the mind that Freud called the unconscious.38

Most of Freud's contemporaries were steeped in the Cartesian tradition and regarded his conception of the mind as absurd if not repugnant. Many present-day psychologists have also found it all too easy to dismiss Freud's views on consciousness and the unconscious as nothing more than dubious, pseudoscientific speculations; and, although many of Freud's specific hypotheses about the human mind have been roundly discredited, research carried out by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists over the last forty years has vindicated much of his general conception of the architecture of the human mind. The idea that mental processes consist of nothing more than neurophysiological states was extremely radical in 1895, but is nowadays the common position. A number of psychologists now accept that consciousness displays rather than generates information.39 Cognitive scientists routinely speak of "non-conscious" or "automatic" mental processes, often avoiding the specific term "unconscious," which means the same thing, for fear of being tarred with the Freudian brush. The literature on experimental social psychology has repeatedly confirmed the claim that the information about our mental processes provided by introspection is highly unreliable.40

The notion that human beings deceive themselves about theirown desires is the leitmotif of Freudian psychology, but Freud and his followers remained blithely unconcerned about providing any scientific evidence for their claims. Such evidence would have certainly strengthened the plausibility of their proposal that consciousness is drenched in self-deception. Fortunately, we do not have far to look for this kind of research today. There is a small but nonetheless suggestive scientific literature on self-deception.

Wishful thinking, the tendency to believe something simply because you would like it to be true, is a type of self-deception to which we are all prone. A large survey of American high school seniors revealed that a full 70 percent thought they had higher than average leadership ability, while a mere 2 percent judged themselves to be below average. All of the one million students surveyed thought they had an above average ability to get along with others. Of these, 60 percent put themselves in the top 10 percent, while 25 percent considered themselves to be in the highest 1 percent. These figures cannot simply be attributed to youthful inexperience: a survey of college professors revealed that all but 7 percent believed that they were better than average at their work.41

Sexuality is a rich repository of self-deceptive thinking. In an amusing experimental study that is widely cited in the literature, two groups of heterosexual men were shown a variety of erotic films.42 One group consisted of men who were comfortable in the presence of homosexuals, while the second consisted entirely of homophobic men. Each group viewed a selection of graphic films depicting homosexual, lesbian, and heterosexual erotica. They were also connected to a plethysmograph, a device that measures subtle changes in the circumference of the penis. The plethysmographic readings demonstrated that the lesbian and heterosexual films excited both groups of men, but that only the homophobic men were physically aroused by the homosexual films. However, when experimenters asked them, allof the homophobic men flatly denied that the sight of men having sex with one another had stimulated them. Of course, it is possible that they were lying, but it is also possible that they were deceiving themselves about their own sexual responses. If this suggestion seems implausible now, it will seem less so by the time you have finished reading this book.

Most of us tend to adhere to the outdated Cartesian principle that motivation is first-person transparent: that is, that we all know why we do what we do, despite the considerable evidence that this is not always true. Consider the "bystander" phenomenon beloved of social psychologists. On March 13, 1964, a woman named "Kitty" Genovese was brutally attacked and repeatedly stabbed while walking from the parking lot to her New York City apartment building. Her attacker returned three times during the thirty-five minutes between the first assault and the final, deadly stab, and although she screamed, "Oh, my God, he stabbed me. Please help me!" and later cried out "I'm dying!" not one of the thirty-eight people who observed the scene from their apartment windows bothered to call the police. Later, each of the witnesses said that they had assumed someone else had already called 911. In what has become a classic study of helping behavior, two social psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, were inspired by the Genovese murder to investigate what they called the "bystander effect." In one experiment, they engineered situations in which subjects on their own were faced with someone having a (simulated) epileptic seizure, while in other cases this happened in the presence of bystanders. As it turned out, subjects were less and less likely to come to the person's assistance as the number of bystanders increased, an effect attributed to the "diffusion of responsibility," the assumption that someone else will help. Latané and Darley assumed that the decision not to help when there are others around is a perfectly conscious one, and were astonishedto discover that their subjects were completely unaware of the impact of the presence of other people on their behavior. "We asked this question every way we knew how: subtly, directly, tactfully, bluntly. Always we got the same answer. Subjects persistently claimed that the other people present did not influence their behavior." 43 The decision to refrain from helping was based on unconscious rather than conscious considerations. Although these individuals believed that their behavior had nothing to do with the presence of others around them, they were clearly self-deceived. The social psychological literature is full of similar examples.

Many mental health professionals promote the idea that depression and other emotional disorders stem in large measure from irrational thinking. Depressives, they claim, believe false ideas about themselves and others. They are self-deceived and out of touch with reality. Irrational, self-deceptive thinking is alleged to be a factor distinguishing depressed people from "normal" ones, but this psychiatric homily turns out to be badly mistaken.44 Scientific research leads to the opposite conclusion that depressives seem to have a better grasp of reality than the "normal" psychiatrists treating them. Lauren Alloy of Temple University in Philadelphia and Lyn Abramson of the University of Wisconsin designed an experiment in which one of the investigators secretly manipulated the outcome of a series of games. Both depressed and nondepressed subjects took part in these fixed games. Psychologists have long known that "normal" thinking involves an element of grandiosity: we tend to give ourselves credit when events work in our favor, but dish out the blame to others when they pan out to our disadvantage. True to form, the non-depressed subjects overestimated the degree to which they had personally influenced the outcome when the game was rigged so that they did well, and underestimated their own contribution to the outcome when they did poorly. Turningto the depressed subjects, Alloy and Abramson found that depressed individuals assessed both situations far more realistically. The rather startling conclusion is that depressives may suffer from a deficit in self-deception. Similar results were obtained by the distinguished behavioral psychologist Peter Lewinsohn, who found that depressed people are often able to judge others' impressions of them more accurately than non-depressed subjects are. In fact, these people's ability to make accurate interpersonal judgements degenerated as their depressive symptoms diminished in response to treatment.45 Others have found that high levels of self-deception are strongly correlated with conventional notions of mental health, and that subjects with so-called mental disorders evidence lower levels of self-deception than "normal" people.46 This research suggests (although, of course, does not conclusively prove) that "normality"—whatever that word means—may rest on a foundation of self-deception. Remove or undermine the foundation, and depression or other forms of emotional difficulty may emerge. If mental health depends upon a liberal dose of self-deception then perhaps, as the philosopher David Nyberg wryly remarks, "Self knowledge isn't all that it's cracked up to be."47

If it is true that we are all natural-born liars, it follows that the scientific investigation of human nature runs against the grain of human nature itself. It is triply paradoxical that although we are the only animal that has evolved a mind with the remarkable power to scientifically analyze its own nature, this same mind has been configured by the forces of natural selection to oppose and dismiss the outcome of this investigation.48 Perhaps the best place to start is to look at the role of dishonesty in other organisms. In doing this, we can begin to understand just how natural deception is and to get a sense of the strategies that we have inherited from our prehuman ancestors as they slowly trudged down the long road of evolution.

WHY WE LIE. Copyright © 2004 by David Livingstone Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Table of Contents

1.Natural-Born Liars9
2.Manipulators and Mind Readers29
3.The Evolution of Machiavelli50
4.The Architecture of the Machiavellian Mind79
5.Social Poker104
6.Hot Gossip122
7.Machiavelli on the Couch148
8.Conspiratorial Whispers and Covert Operations168
Coda: Descartes's Demon195
Appendix IUnconscious Creativity199
Appendix IIPsychological Biases and Defense Mechanisms203

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