Posted by: aboutalbion | September 18, 2012

Self-deception pays off … for the few

Yesterday, I had occasion to mention Steven Pinker who works in the field of evolutionary psychology.  Some evolutionary psychologists theorize about one of the brain’s computer systems which is associated with the social phenomena of awareness and its antonym of deception.

As I have lived my life, I have encountered people who seemed to me to manifest both extreme self-awareness and extreme self-deception.  These two conditions seem to me to be the two ends of a spectrum.

I shall assume that an explanation for the phenomena is to be found in the science of evolution on the grounds that self-awareness and self-deception seem to occur in all human societies in all recorded ages.

In his autobiography, Mark Twain wrote: “When a person cannot deceive himself, the chances are against his being able to deceive others.”

Reasoning like this points to the uncomfortable claim that is made by evolutionary psychologists.  David Livingstone Smith puts it in this way.  “… the capacity for self-deception may have been selected [by evolution] because it helps us deceive others effectively.  …  A liar that believes his or her own lies is far more convincing than one who doesn’t …  He who lies best lies least consciously, and the accomplished self-deceiver can manage to deliver self-serving falsehoods without even breaking into a sweat.”

Livingstone Smith explains why we might wish to deceive others.  “… exploiting others is a rewarding pastime [because its practitioners] have access to wealth, status and sexual opportunities that are denied to their more conscientious brethren.”

Livingstone Smith finds that Plato previewed this result long ago.  In The Republic, “Thrasymachus … argued that fair play is for simpleminded fools and that astute people are ruthlessly self-serving”.

I find that it is one thing to become aware of humanity’s seemingly infinite capacity for self-deception.  On the other hand, I find I am very uncomfortable when faced with the claim that self-deception is an evolutionary feature of being human.

The startlingly conclusion of this line of thinking seems to be that a person can benefit from being ignorant of information about their self.  This conclusion is at variance with the oft quoted wisdom injunction to “Know thyself”.

[Livingstone Smith, David (2006) ‘In Praise of Self-deception’ Entelechy Journal Spring/Summer No 7, pp5-13.
Twain, M (1924) Mark Twain’s Autobiography.  New York: Harper & Bros.]


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