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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2005 Volume 5: 23-26 ( 31 December )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/05/bradie5.html

Book Review

Why we lie: The evolutionary roots of deception and the unconscious mind 
By David Livingstone Smith
St. Martin's Press, 2004.

Reviewed by Michael Bradie, Department of Philosophy, Bowling Green State University, USA.

The author of this popular and engaging introduction to the evolution of deception and self-deception is co-founder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Psychology at the University of New England where he is a Professor of Philosophy. He has been a practicing psychotherapist and is the author of a well regarded introduction to psychoanalysis (Approaching Psychoanalysis: An Introductory Course, London, Karnac, 1999).

The theme of the present book is that human beings are natural born liars. We have evolved to be deceivers not only of others but of ourselves as well. The practice of deception is not limited to humans but applies to other organisms as well. This thesis is not new but Smith makes some interesting suggestions about the evolutionary mechanisms that led to the evolution of our propensity for self-deception as well as suggestions about how the mechanism for self deception works. Along the way, there are some sympathetic remarks about the much maligned Sigmund Freud as well as the suggestion that modern cognitive psychological accounts of how we manage to deceive ourselves are not as far from Freud as contemporary cognitive psychologists would like to have us think.

The book has three major aims. The first is to introduce a general audience to the 'details of the evolutionary theory of self-deception' (p. 3). This is a popular work designed to excite the imagination of general reader. Its strengths and weaknesses must be judged in that light. A second goal is to 'reconnect cognitive psychology with the kinds of questions that Freud tried unsuccessfully to answer and which evolutionary psychology has reintroduced to the scientific agenda. Finally, the author argues that successful deceivers and self-deceivers must be 'unconscious deceivers'. Unconscious deceivers must as well be 'unconscious perceivers,' that is, they must be able to unconsciously track the behavior and intentions of others (p. 5).

The key component in Smith's theory of self-deception is what he calls the 'Machiavellian module' an unconscious mechanism that has evolved to give human beings insights into the emotional states of others by decoding the 'disguised expressions of other people's unconscious mental states' (p. 115f.) The basic idea is attributed to Freud although Smith's gloss on the unconscious is that of a more disciplined mechanism than Freud's tumultuous unconscious.

Smith employs a broad concept of deceit and lying. Any behavior whose function is to mislead others counts. Thus, not only outright falsehoods but also the 'deceptive practices' of mimicry in plants and non-human animals count as lies.` The concept of self-deception is painted with an equally large brush. 'Self-deception' is defined as 'any mental process or behavior the function of which is to conceal information from one's own conscious mind' (p. 21).

Deceit, thus understood, is 'natural,' that is, not only not pathological but positively beneficial to organisms as they navigate their natural and social environments in the struggle for existence. That we are not the only deceivers is evidenced by the observations of higher primates that manipulate their troop mates, conceal discovered food, and the like. The range of deception is widespread indeed. From orchids that feign being lady wasps, to parasitic flukes that manipulate their hosts to behave in ways that promote the reproductive interests of the parasites, we find evidence of deceit throughout the biotic realm 'from viruses to apes' in addition to our double-crossing conspecifics.

Our propensity to deceive, Smith argues, is an evolutionary adaptive trait. Smith cites studies that suggest that self-deception is an integral feature of a healthy mental attitude (p. 28). Our propensity for self-deception, in turn, is a natural outcome of our propensity to deceive others. The evolution of mendacious organisms prompts the evolution of defensive mechanisms to spot deceivers. This, in turn, leads to the evolution of organisms that are adept at hiding their deceptive practices. The result is an 'arms race' that leads to more deceivers and self-deceivers in the population. The emergence of language greatly increases the ability of human beings to deceive.

But, are we constant deceivers and self-deceiver? That would seem counter-productive because in addition to trying to get the best of our conspecifics we must navigate through a natural world that has a low tolerance for error and mistakes. Smith acknowledges this and suggests that there is a delicate balance between being deceptive, deceiving ourselves and taking things at face value. Deception is a 'frequency-dependent trait, he suggests (p. 77)

In Chapter 4 'The architecture of the Machiavellian mind,' Smith shifts gears from the ultimate evolutionary story of how we came to become natural born liars to the proximate story of how we do it. This story emerges from contemporary cognitive science with a bow to Sigmund Freud Citing anecdotal stories of “aha!” experiences, Smith points out that much of our 'thinking' is unconscious. . From cognitive science we get the idea that the mind is 'modular' with facets that have evolved for particular purposes. There are, in effect, deception and self-deception modules that operate below the radar screen of the conscious mind. In fact, Smith suggests that Freud was more right than contemporary theorists give him credit for in arguing that most or all of thinking is unconscious (p. 98). Invoking the modern computer as a metaphor, Smith suggests that the conscious mind passively reflects the thinking done by the unconscious mind in much the same way that the computer screen passively reflects the hidden active workings of the internal electronic workings of an iMac or PC.

Poker is the game par excellence of deception and trickery. The basic idea is to win even with hands that are not as strong as one's opponent's. The psychology of poker involves bluffing and detecting the bluffs of others. Good poker players are capable of 'reading' the minds of their opponents by decoding the subtle messages that players unconsciously transmit - what poker buffs call their 'tells'. Smith argues that this insight that people have the ability to decode the unconscious transmission of others derives from Freud (p. 115). The 'Machiavellian module' is Smith's updated version of Freud's insight. Freud's shortcomings and ultimate failures are not the consequence of his ideas being wrong but rather a result of his failure to test these ideas empirically, the fact that the science that Freud relied on moved on leaving psychoanalysis behind, and the fact that Freud's insights were 'premature' - the relevant information about the workings of the brain that have been uncovered by contemporary neuroscience and which are crucial to giving flesh to Freud's speculations were simply not available to him (p. 112).

The focus of the final chapters is a sketch of a theory of the 'interpretation of unconscious meaning' (p. 125). A fundamental channel for transmitting and interpreting hidden or unconscious meaning is gossip. Gossiping is a means of constructing social solidarity. Primates bond by grooming one another; humans bind by engaging in gossip. In gossiping people communicate with each other by transmitting both coded messages and messages in 'plain text'. Unconscious coded messages are more likely to emerge when there are conflicts of interest or where open plain speech is disadvantageous. Coded messages also often appear out of context. Despite the fact that much of the processing that goes into thinking, deceiving and detecting deception is at an unconscious level, Smith argues that it is 'lawful and systematic and can be tested using reasonably conventional methods.'

For the most part, the cues we use to interpret social behavior are perceived unconsciously. Smith argues that if we were more consciously aware of the 'nuances of social behavior' then self-deception would be more difficult and the benefits of self-deception would be harder to achieve. The idea is that psychological insight is analogous to physiological sight. We are not selectively blind to certain kinds of objects and Smith suggests, we are not selectively psychologically blind either. So, if we were good at consciously detecting the hidden agendas of the social agents we interact with, we should equally be good at detecting our own hidden agendas. But that would complicate the web of self-deception that we weave around ourselves. Given the selective advantages of self-deception, Smith argues that 'all (evolutionary) roads lead to [the evolution of] self-deception [mechanisms in conscious organisms] (p. 147)

Smith does not cite any data to support the analogy between psychological insight/ blindness and physiological sight/blindness but one can well imagine how one might go about testing his conjecture. Presumably, there is variation in social awareness as there is variation in the ambiguity to see. If Smith's conjecture is correct, we should expect that there is a correlation between one's degree of self-awareness and one's insight into one's own behavior. I leave it to the social psychologists to figure out how to test this idea.

Smith suggests that the psychoanalytic experience can be used to probe the workings of the Machiavellian module. A psychotherapy session is basically a one way gossip interaction. The patient is sending all the messages and getting little in immediate return. If the Machiavellian module has been honed by selection to respond with caution to situations where there is ambiguity about the motives and significance of the behavior of others, then we can well understand why the psychoanalytic experience often gives rise to resistance and mistrust. Smith provides a number of psychotherapeutic vignettes to illustrate how the module is supposed to be operating. Of course, this is all anecdotal evidence, 'intellectual gossip' if you will and Smith is well aware of it. His invocation of these stories is not intended to persuade but rather to titillate - to provide enough suggestions to make the thesis not implausible in the hope of recruiting researchers to put these theories into a testable form and carry out the necessary research to determine whether there is, or is not, something of value in them.

The book is filled with amusing anecdotes and provocative data along with some speculations that the author admits border on the fantastic. Is it correct? Smith admits that a systematic test of the theories and conjectures here presented have yet to be conducted. However, if he is right, then the Delphic oracle's injunction to 'Know thyself' may be harder to realize than Socrates or subsequent philosophers and scientists ever imagined.

© Michael Bradie.


Bradie, M. (2005). Review of Why we lie: The evolutionary roots of deception and the unconscious mind by David Livingstone Smith. Human Nature Review. 5: 23-26.

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