24 Jun Should we fight self-deception? (TRIVERS)
Before we begin, we may well ask whether we should bother fighting in the first place. Self-deception has been favored by natural selection, the better to deceive others and ourselves, so why should we fight such tendencies in ourselves? They are advancing our own evolutionary interests. Surely it must be useful to adjust our self-deception strategically—toward situations where it is most likely to be effective—but oppose it in general. Why? Does this not violate our attachment to evolutionary self-interest?
My own answer is simple and personal. I could not care less. Self-deception, by serving deception, only encourages it, and more deception is not something I favor. I do not believe in building one’s life, one’s relationships, or one’s society on lies. The moral status of deceit with self-deception seems even lower than that of simple deception alone, since simple deception fools only one organism—but when combined with self-deception, two are being deceived. In addition, by deceiving yourself, you are spoiling your own temple or structure. You are agreeing to base your own behavior on falsehoods, with negative downstream effects that may be very hard to guess yet intensify with time.
It is worth noting that we have also been selected to rape on occasion, to wage aggressive war when it suits us, and to abuse our own children if this brings us some compensating return benefit, yet I embrace none of these actions, regardless of whether they have been favored in the past. As one evolutionist told me, his genes could not care less about him, and he feels the same way toward them.
One variable that does enter my thinking is the concept of an evolutionarily stable strategy, defined as one that can’t be driven out of a (well-defined) evolutionary game. As long as being honest, or trying to be, and as long as reducing one’s self-deception, or trying to, are strategies that cannot be driven to extinction, then I am happy to leave the long-term evolutionary outcome to the future. If my strategy of attempted honesty leads by logic to its evolutionary disappearance for good, I need give special thought to the matter, but as long as it is merely evolutionarily stable—perhaps held at low frequencies but not driven extinct—I think I will go with anti-self-deception as my approach to life, my so-called internal strategy, not that I have much hope of achieving it.
In my life, self-deception is often experienced as a series of minor benefits followed by a major cost. I will be overly self-confident, project that image, and enjoy some of the illusions, only to suffer later on a sharp reversal, based in part on the blindness induced by this overconfidence. I may deny counterevidence to a happy relationship that is, in fact, deteriorating badly, each minor compromise with reality boosting mood temporarily while postponing the reckoning that may arrive with savage force. Denial, as we have seen, is often easy to get started but hard to stop. Put another way, self-deception often ends badly. This is as true of mega-events, such as misguided wars and economic policies, as it is for events in one’s personal life. We may enjoy a temporary benefit of deceiving others and self, but we suffer a long-term cost.
I believe this is a general rule in life, that the cost of ignorance takes a while to kick in, while the benefit of self-deception may be immediate. Long ago, work on rats proved that these kinds of connections—that is, those with a time delay—are among the most difficult for an organism to learn. Immediate rewards and costs are obvious, long-term life effects much more difficult to discern. In addition, there is a strong tendency to discount future effects compared to current ones so that long-term negative effects may be especially difficult to register. In what follows, I will try to sketch out a few anti-self-deception devices that may prove useful in life. There must be many, many more.
The folly of fools : the logic of deceit and self-deception in human life
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