22 July 2010

Robert Wright – Deception and self-deception

Some quotes from The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are, chapter 13, “Deception and self-deception”:

Men and women may mislead each other — and even, in the process, themselves — about the likely endurance of their commitment or about their likely fidelity. There are two other large realms in which the presentation of self, and the perception of others, has great Darwinian consequence: reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy. Here, as with sex, honesty can be a major blunder. In fact, reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy may together be responsible for most of the dishonesty in our species — which, in turn, accounts for a good part of the dishonesty in the animal kingdom. We are far from the only dishonest species, but we are surely the most dishonest, if only because we do the most talking.

Leaving a good impression

People don't seek status per se. They don't chart out their desired ascent and pursue it as methodically as a field general prosecutes a war. Well, okay, some do. Maybe all of us do sometimes. But the quest for status is also built more finely into the psyche. People in all cultures, whether they fully realize it or not, want to wow their neighbors, to rise in local esteem. ...

In Victorian England, boasting was frowned on, and Darwin was an expert on how not to do it. Many modern cultures share this taste, and in them "excessive boasting" is merely a phase through which children pass. But what is the next phase? A lifetime of more measured boasting. ... Presumably, how much blatant boasting you do depends on the credible means of self-advertisement in your social environment (and was probably calibrated by feedback from kin and peers early on). But if you don't feel even some urge to disseminate news of your triumphs, however subtly, and some reluctance to talk widely about your failures, you aren't functioning as designed.

Does such self-advertisement often involve deception? Not in the grossest sense. To tell huge lies about ourselves, and believe them, would be dangerous. Lies can be found out, and they force us to spend time and energy remembering which lies we've told to whom. ... There are kinds of lies that, being slight, or hard to discredit, are hard to get tangled up in, and these are the sorts of lies we should expect people to tell. ...

The assignment of blame and of credit, an area where objective truth is elusive, offers rich terrain for self-inflation. The tendency to attribute our successes to skill, and our failures to circumstance — luck, enemies, Satan — has been demonstrated in the laboratory and, anyway, is obvious. In games where chance plays a role, we tend to chalk up our losses to the luck of the draw and our victories to cleverness.

And we don't just say this; we believe it. Darwin was an enthusiastic backgammon player and, not surprisingly, he often won when playing against his children. One of his daughters recalls that "we kept a list of the doublets thrown by each, as I was convinced that he threw better than myself." This conviction is familiar to losing backgammon players everywhere. It helps preserve our belief in our competence and thus helps us convince others of it. It also provides a steady source of income for backgammon hustlers.

Self-aggrandizement always comes at the expense of others. To say that you lost a game through luck is to say that your opponent won through luck. And even leaving aside games and other openly competitive endeavors, to toot your own horn is to mute other horns for status is a relative thing. Your gain is someone else's loss.

And vice versa: someone else's loss is your gain. This is where the unconscious pursuit of status can turn nasty. In a small group (a group, say, the size of a hunter-gatherer village), a person has a broad interest in deflating the reputations of others, especially others of the same sex and similar age, with whom there exists a natural rivalry. And again, the best way to convince people of something, including their neighbors' shortcomings, is to believe what you're saying. One would therefore expect, in a hierarchical species endowed with language, that the organisms would often play up their own feats, downplay the feats of others, and do both things with conviction. Indeed, in the social psychology laboratory, people not only tend to attribute success to skill and failure to circumstance; they tend to reverse the pattern when evaluating others. Luck is the thing that makes you fail and other people succeed; ability works the other way around. ...

The keen sensitivity with which people detect the flaws of their rivals is one of nature's wonders. It takes a Herculean effort to control this tendency consciously, and the effort must be repeated on a regular basis. Some people can summon enough restraint not to talk about their rivals' worthlessness; they may even utter some Victorian boilerplate about a "worthy opponent." But to rein in the perception itself — unending, unconscious, all-embracing search for signs of unworthiness — is truly a job for a Buddhist monk. Honesty of evaluation is simply beyond the reach of most mortals.

If advertisement is so deeply ingrained in people, why are there self-deprecators? One answer is that self-deprecation is without cost when everyone knows better, and can actually have some benefit; a reputation for humility boosts the credibility of subtle boasting. ... The third answer is the most interesting: social hierarchy has, via natural selection, had some ironic effects on the human mind. There are times when it makes good evolutionary sense to have a genuinely low opinion of yourself and to share that opinion with others.

The whole origin of status, remember, lies in the fact that some neighbors — some of a chicken's fellow chickens, say — are too formidable to challenge profitably. Genes that build brains that tell the animal which neighbors are worth challenging, and which aren't, flourish. How exactly do the brains convey this message? Not by sending little "Challenge" or "Don't Challenge" subtitles across the eyeball. Presumably, the message travels via feeling; animals feel either up to the challenge or not up to it. And animals at the very bottom of the hierarchy — animals that get pummeled by all comers — will get the latter feeling chronically. You could call it low self-esteem.

In fact, you could say that low self-esteem evolved as a way to reconcile people to subordinate status when reconciliation is in their genetic interest.

Don't expect people with low self-esteem to hide it. It may be in their genetic interest not only to accept low status, but, in at least some circumstances, to convey their acceptance of it — to behave submissively so that they aren't erroneously perceived as a threat and treated as such. ...

The anthropologist John Hartung, who in 1988 raised the possibility of self-deceptively lowering self-esteem — "deceiving down," he called it — has come up with another kind of example. Women, he suggested, may sometimes falsely subordinate themselves to men. If, say, household income depends partly on the husband having high self-esteem at the workplace, a woman may find herself unwittingly "building her husband's self-confidence by providing a standard of lower competence." ...

Where does truth belong on the spectrum of self-esteem? If one month, following a string of professional and social successes, you're fairly brimming with serotonin and feel enduringly competent, likable, and attractive, and the next month, after a few setbacks, and some serotonin slippage, you feel enduringly worthless, you can't have been right both times. Which time were you wrong? Is serotonin truth serum or a mind-numbing narcotic?

Maybe neither. When you're feeling either very good or very bad about yourself, it probably means that a large body of evidence is being hidden from view. The most truthful times come between the extremes.

Anyway, maybe "truth" is best left out of this altogether. Whether you're a "good" or a "worthless" person is a question whose objective meaning is, at best, elusive. And even when "truth" can be clearly defined, it is a concept to which natural selection is indifferent. ... Truth and honesty are never favored by natural selection in and of themselves. Natural selection neither "prefers" honesty nor "prefers" dishonesty. It just doesn't care.

Strong yet sensitive

Reciprocal altruism brings its own agenda to the presentation of self, and thus to the deception of self. Whereas status hierarchies place a premium on our seeming competent, attractive, strong, smart, etcetera, reciprocal altruism puts its accent on niceness, integrity, fairness. These are the things that make us seem like worthy reciprocal altruists. They make people want to strike up relationships with us. Puffing up our reputations as decent and generous folks can't hurt, and it often helps. ...

Our repertoire of moral excuses is large. Psychologists have found that people justify their failure to help others by minimizing, variously, the person's plight ("That's not an assault, it's a lover's quarrel"), their own responsibility for the plight, and their own competence to help. ...

Michael Gazzaniga, who conducted some of the split-brain experiments, has said that language is merely the "press agent" for other parts of the mind; it justifies whatever acts they induce, convincing the world that the actor is a reasonable, rational, upstanding person. It may be that the realm of consciousness itself is in large part such a press agent — the place where our unconsciously written press releases are infused with the conviction that gives them force. Consciousness cloaks the cold and self-serving logic of the genes in a variety of innocent guises. The Darwinian anthropologist Jerome Barkow has written, "It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as our folk psychology would have it, a decision-maker)."

Dubious accounting

The warping effect of reciprocal altruism goes beyond a general belief in our own uprightness. It can also be seen in our skewed social accounting systems. Central to reciprocal altruism is the monitoring of exchanges — the record of whom you owe, who owes you, and how much is owed. From the gene's point of view, monitoring the two sides of the record with equal diligence would be foolish. If you end up getting slightly more than you give, so much the better. But if you give more than you get by even the smallest increment, that's an increment of loss. ... [P]eople keep closer track of what they're owed than of what they owe ... So there is reason to suspect an innate basis for biased social accounting. The bias appears to be universal, and seems intuitively to be a corollary of the theory of reciprocal altruism.

[People] simply find themselves constantly in touch with all the evidence supporting their position, and often having to be reminded of all the evidence against it. Darwin wrote in his autobiography of a habit he called a "golden rule": to immediately write down any observation that seemed inconsistent with his theories — "for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones. " The reason the generic human arguing style feels so effortless is that, by the time the arguing starts, the work has already been done. Robert Trivers has written about the periodic disputes — contract renegotiations, you might call them — that are often part of a close relationship, whether a friendship or a marriage. The argument, he notes, "may appear to burst forth spontaneously, with little or no preview, yet as it rolls along, two whole landscapes of information appear to lie already organized, waiting only for the lightning of anger to show themselves."

The proposition here is that the human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right — and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than for virtue. ...

One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again — whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which — we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn't warranted.