spring/summer 2006, no. 7


Deceiving is Believing


by Keith S. Harris


A review of Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind by David Livingstone Smith; St Martin's Press, 2004.



As its provocative title suggests, this book undertakes to demonstrate, describe, explain, and even justify our capacity to deceive — our ability to lie, that is. We fool not only other people, the author asserts, but ourselves as well. As we all know, deceit is everyday fare in the social arena, and in its self-prescribed form is bread-and-butter for psychotherapists.


According to Smith, the first aim of this book is to give readers an overview of how deception and self-deception fit into, and derive from, evolutionary theory. The second aim is to reconnect cognitive psychology to observations about human nature that were surfaced by Freud. Smith’s third aim is to demonstrate how the unconscious is adaptive in the process of self-deception, and specifically that “unconscious deceivers must also be unconscious perceivers” (p. 5). Obviously, implicit in this last aim is the assertion that deception is, or can be, unconsciously generated and managed.


Some of the antisocial and opportunistic reasons for deceit spring easily to mind, but why hoodwink ourselves? In order to conjecture meaningfully about this second issue (why self-deception is adaptive), Smith  must thoroughly address the first, and then demonstrate evidence for the second. He begins this by describing instances of deceit in the animal world, which almost always have understandable goals. For example, animals’ use of camouflage and other evolved physical adaptations help make them less attractive to predators. With humans, examples of social deceit are not difficult to find, and the game of poker serves to illustrate some of Smith’s points. In order to win, players must be not only facile with the game’s rules, but able to bluff and mislead other players, and to infer about the bluffs and deceits of other players. Can such mental maneuverings be illustrative in everyday human life?


Before going further, it will be helpful to consider the common meaning of deceit and its relationship to the word lie. Although a lie would usually be taken to imply the liar was consciously aware that he or she was misleading another, Smith’s definition of a lie is broader and encompasses “any form of behavior the function of which is to provide others with false information or to deprive them of true information” (p. 14). This definition would include unconscious (consciously unintentional) deception and, as stated above, Smith asserts it is possible, even common, to deceive ourselves as well as others.


While we may typically think of deception as volitional, intentional and conscious, Smith’s definition thus suggests otherwise. He agrees with those cognitive and evolutionary psychologists who assert that many (perhaps most) of our mental processes are out of the reach of higher-order consciousness: much of what motivates us and guides our actions is, and remains, unconscious. Smith’s position is consistent with the work of, for example, academics Timothy Wilson (e.g., Strangers to Ourselves, 2004) and Daniel Wegner (e.g., The Illusion of Conscious Will, 2002), and certainly not inconsistent with the thinking of Daniel Dennett on consciousness.


Smith does an admirable job with his first aim, that of placing social deception and self-deception in the context of evolutionary psychology. Those who are generally persuaded by the tenets of evolutionary psychology would agree with the position that much of human behavior is not directed by our higher-order (human-type) consciousness — after all, our behavioral tendencies are ultimately products of the evolutionary forces that have shaped the human brain, and only those behaviors (actions or mental processes) needing the supervision of higher-order consciousness should be referred to it. Nature may not be perfectly efficient, but is nonetheless highly conservative of resources and energy.


However, the parallels between the sometimes-amusing examples of deception in the non-human and human realms are sometimes necessarily implicit or speculative, as Smith himself notes. That is, we do not yet have compelling empirical evidence that deception in non-human species and humans evolved for the same reasons or works in the same ways.


The book’s second and third aims are more ambitious — and more controversial. Smith seeks to demonstrate the relevance of Freud’s work to the notion that unconscious interactions can both include deceit and provide the mechanisms for the detection of deceit. This makes for an interesting read but, as the author himself cautions, these hypotheses should be considered speculative.


Several examples are provided to demonstrate how the unconscious can indirectly frame symbolic meaning with otherwise innocent-appearing remarks. Freud’s claim that unconscious processes occasionally surface in parapraxes, or slips of the tongue, might be illustrative, but the author also includes examples of what he proposes are unconscious meanings coded inside more complex interactions. One such example is the author’s introduction of his very young black wife to a colleague, which elicits from the colleague a tangential response that is presumably an unconsciously-produced communication of discomfort. In explaining such communications, Smith posits what he terms a Machiavellian module, which is a hypothetical adaptation or mental module shaped by evolution to create and perceive unconscious communications and infer about their real meanings.


In summary, the most salient ideas of this interesting, admittedly speculative book are that we naturally deceive others, and that this happens because it confers (or at least conferred at one time) an evolutionary advantage to our species. We also deceive ourselves because it makes us better at deceiving others, since our communications do not then require conscious subterfuge. And unconscious communication — the encryption of hidden meaning within seemingly innocuous communications — is the most efficient method both for cheating and for identifying cheaters. (Cheaters are those who violate the group’s social contract.) The most speculative angle in the book is the idea of efficient yet unconscious communication between individuals.


From the perspective of an evolutionary psychologist, Smith’s work makes sense in this regard: humans are social creatures, and the success of our species depends on our social fabric. Managing the necessary social contracts was no doubt always quite a task, even in our small-group past, and is increasingly so as a global human social network develops. Trying to manage this complex task with higher-order consciousness would not only be inefficient but unnecessary. Like with other forms of basic cognitive processing, it makes evolutionary sense to let social processing run in the background, calling on higher-order consciousness only as necessary.


Thus the hypothesis that unconscious communication happens among group members is not far-fetched. Further, the presence of cheaters in social groups and the evolutionary reasons for cheating have been supported by solid work. We have evolved mental mechanisms for cheater detection, which usually function unconsciously. This book suggests one way to make sense of how we are able to both cooperate and compete using the same evolved adaptations that deceive (ourselves and others) and detect deceit (especially in others). Despite the presumed evolutionary advantage of this adaptation to date, whether the value of deception and self-deception still outweigh the costs is an important question for the reader to consider. g



Keith S. Harris is a psychologist and chief of research at the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His interests include behavioral informatics, the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces, and the possibilities of human agency.



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