…[Robert] Trivers calls deceit a “deep feature” of life, even a necessity, given genes’ brutal struggle to prevail. Anglerfish lure prey by dangling “bait” in front of their jaws, edible butterflies deter predators by adopting the coloring of poisonous species. Possums play possum, cowbirds and cuckoos avoid the hassle of raising offspring by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Even viruses and bacteria employ subterfuge to sneak past a host’s immune systems. The complexity of organisms, Trivers suggests, stems at least in part from a primordial arms race between deceit and deceit-detection.
Our big brains and communication skills make us master dissemblers. Even before we can speak, Trivers notes, we learn to cry insincerely to manipulate our caregivers. As adults, we engage in “confirmation bias,” which makes us seize on facts that bolster our preconceptions and overlook contradictory data. We wittingly and unwittingly inflate the qualities of ourselves and others in our religious, political or ethnic group. We denigrate those outside our in-group as well as sexual and economic rivals.
Fooling others yields obvious benefits, but why do we so often fool ourselves? Trivers provides a couple of answers. First, believing that we’re smarter, sexier and more righteous than we really are — or than others consider us to be — can help us seduce and persuade others and even improve our health, via the placebo effect, for example. And the more we believe our own lies, the more sincerely, and hence effectively, we can lie to others. “We hide reality from our conscious minds the better to hide it from onlookers,” Trivers explains. But our illusions can have devastating consequences, from the dissolution of a marriage to stock-market collapses and world wars….
Source: New York Times, Dec. 23, 2011. By John Horgan.
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