spring/summer 2006, no. 7

Three Scholars on Deception and Self-deception



Irwin Silverman:

Deception and self-deception are the cornerstone of human sociality, and probably have more to do with the evolution of our big brain than solving the block design test. See Why We Lie (D.L. Smith, 2004) or just rent Liar, Liar with Jim Carrey.

Herbert Gintis:

This is a gross distortion. Truth-telling and honesty are the cornerstone of human sociality. Deception is only possible because messages are generally accurate. This is just elementary biology.


Joseph Carroll:

The cornerstones of human sociality appear to be affiliation and dominance.  Deception comes in because conflicts in fitness interests occur in all intimate human social relations.  As a species, humans are peculiarly, uniquely self-aware and aware of others.  They project public images of themselves, and these images typically distort reality by exaggerating altruism and seeking to manipulate the behavior of others to one's own benefit.  Trivers, Alexander, and others have plausibly argued that successful manipulative deception is helped along by self-deception.  The chief adaptive function of creating public images of one's self would not be to benefit others by conveying accurate information but to benefit one's self by conveying information that, if it is believed, will advance one's own interest.

I recently wrote a section of an article in which I outlined what I take to be the current best understanding of the way fitness conflicts, interacting with theory of mind and self-awareness, fundamentally shape human nature.  This section of the article is about three and a half pages in typescript, and I'll attach it in case anyone is interested.  The first two pages summarize what I take to be the best current understanding about fitness interests and the evolution of the social brain (as in Dunbar, Geary, Flinn, Ward, et al.).  I argue that the peculiarly human aspects of human sociality involve theory of mind, self-awareness, and language.  Those aspects produce "culture," and they also inevitably produce a dynamic of deception, self-deception, and the detection of deception.  Human sociality involves something like an adaptive evolutionary arms race in the capacity to deceive and the capacity to reveal deception. The chief literary means for depicting and enacting that arms race is satire. I argue that literature articulates a folk psychology in the understanding of human nature and that this folk psychology converges with the conception of human nature in evolutionary psychology.  In the last page and a half of this short section, I give an impressionistic, summary account of what "human nature" looks like in the folk psychology articulated in literature. 

Here below is one short paragraph on deception, self-deception, and the detection of deception in the folk concept of human nature:

It is human nature to feel a sense of moral obligation based on kinship and social relations, to make fine discriminations about what is owed to each distinct social group, to feel guilt at one's own failure to sustain obligations to others, and to feel bitter resentment at the failure of others to sustain obligations to one's self.  It is human nature to tell lies, and often to lie to one's self about the lies one tells. It is human nature to justify and rationalize one's own behavior, to exaggerate one's own altruism, and to disguise and conceal one's selfishness. It is thus a part of human nature always to produce some gap or tension between the inner private person and the public persona. It is human nature to act out one's public persona so convincingly that one sometimes deludes one's self, and it is human nature to expose and mock the false pretensions of others. 

Irwin Silverman:
All of my answers are in my (in press) review of Smith's book below

The truth about lying:
Review of Smith, D.L., Why We Lie, N.Y: St. Martin's Press, 2004.

If readers of this review were asked to record what they considered to be the significant characteristics of human nature, I doubt whether deception or self-deception would be on many lists. Paradoxically, this might be considered as evidence for these traits in most people. Of course, our readers aren't most people; they are professional scholars in the area of human consciousness and behavior.  But they are people first.

An alternative interpretation is that most people, including professional scholars, do not engage in deception or self-deception to any notable degree. The data reviewed in this book, however, suggest otherwise. From the African two-headed snake, one at each end to discourage attacks from
behind, to the hominid women of the Pleistocene, using red ochre to mimic the subtle blush of ovulation in order to attract mates, to the lies we routinely teach our children in the interests of the social graces, Smith demonstrates the ubiquity of deception throughout human history and the
animal kingdom, and in some plant life as well.  Since it is wholly unconscious, self-deception is more difficult to detect, but Smith provides data which point also to its pervasiveness in humans.  For
example, a survey of one million high school students showed that all thought they had above average ability to get along with others, and 25% ranked themselves in the highest 1 percent.  Regarding the possible exception of professional scholars to this trend, a survey of college professors revealed that 93% believe they were better than average at their work.

The universality of deception and self-deception is consistent with the current evolutionary based theory of their origins, which Smith employs as his core concept. Briefly, the theory maintains that both traits were selected for because of their adaptive functions.  Deceivers have an edge in the various competitions for survival and reproductive success, and self-deception makes for more effective deceivers.

Smith takes the evolutionary model further, bringing to bear material from Freud and from comparative, cognitive, evolutionary and social psychology. Building on Byrne and Whiten's concept of "Machiavellian intelligence," he presents a scenario for a genetic 'arms race' in human evolution between deception and detection, and its implications for the development of our big brain and its capacities. If the reader finds this something of a stretch, Byrne and Whiten's most recent data show that among infrahuman primate species, frequency of deception is directly proportional to size of neocortex (reported in NewScientist.com, June 30, 2004).  Smith also provides us with a novel perspective on human cognition, a meld of Freudian and contemporary modularity theory, which incorporates both conscious and unconscious thought. Finally, he demonstrates, by intriguing anecdotes as well as systematic data, how his model of mind may explain the intricacies and subtleties of human social interaction. Smith's arguments are well documented, coherent and thoughtful, and
presented in a most engaging style. Disbelievers may not be convinced, but they will be challenged.  Those of us who recognize and daily confront our demons will find it an inspiring read.

This is from the Evolutionary Psychology Yahoo! Group list, with permission from the authors.


Irwin Silverman is Emeritus Professor and Senior Scholar at York University in Toronto. His major early interests were in social psychology and psychological theory and methodology, but in the late 1970s he began to focus on the relationship of ethology and evolutionary theory to human psychology. With his students and colleagues, he has published research articles and book chapters applying Darwinian and neo-Darwinian theory to a range of topics, including ethnocentrism, sibling incest, maternal bonding, facial expression recognition, mate preferences, and spatial abilities.

Herbert Gintis is on the external faculty of the Santa Fe Institute and is Professor of Economics, Central European University, Budapest. He is the author of Game Theory Evolving.


Joseph Carroll teaches English at the University of Missouri St. Louis. He has written books on Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens and has produced an edition of Darwin's Origin of Species. In Evolution and Literary Theory (1995), he integrated concepts from Darwinian social science with concepts from traditional literary study, and he used that set of ideas as a framework within which to criticize and reject poststructuralist literary theory. In subsequent essays (collected in Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, 2004), he has continued to develop methods for Darwinian literary study. Most recently, he has been engaged in collaborative work for the statistical analysis of motives and traits in hundreds of characters from Victorian novels. Many of his essays are available on his website. His piece "Literature as Social Interaction" appeared in Entelechy issue. 5.


Copyright 2006   Entelechy: Mind & Culture. New Paltz, NY. All rights reserved.