05 Oct Why are we so compulsive? (ROBERT TRIVERS)
Why do we repeat ourselves so often? Why do we have compulsions that reappear despite our every effort to suppress them? Why do we have lifelong arguments inside ourselves that hardly change and are never resolved? Why no learning? The details differ from case to case, but I believe that genetics is almost always involved.
As much as 60 percent of all our genes are active in the human brain, the most genetically diverse tissue in our body. Thus we expect enormous genetic variation affecting behavior, including deceit and self-deception. This means we may often differ one from one another psychologically on genetic grounds alone, with no environmental or social rhyme or reason accessible to us. Only by studying genealogies in our immediate environment—especially in our own extended family—could we glimpse the genes in action, and this is very difficult. Thus, for all we know, much of the variation in social complexity around us is beyond our ability to understand, at least in causal terms.
Our genes do not change, although their expression patterns may. If they continue to act in the same way, we may experience this as a compulsion we are unable to change. Likewise, genes may have laid down an early structure to our desires and impulses, a structure that is difficult to modify. This may well mean that we have repetitive features to our behavior that we wish we could do without but that are entrained in us by our particular genotype.
As for our internal conflicts, remember that the interests of our maternal and paternal genes are in conflict throughout our lives, so that internal conflict resulting from such genes may be hard to resolve. On the other hand, as we have noted, the older we get, the more symmetrically we are related to others on our maternal and paternal genes (more to children and grandchildren, less to siblings and parents), so we are expected to become more internally peaceful as we head into our sixties and experience (separately) the “positivity effect” of old age.
Regarding fighting our compulsion, few are as strong or regular (in a man, at least) as the compulsion to seek out sexual companionship late in the evening, with whomever and on whatever terms. One lesson I have learned in more recent years—a good forty years after it actually would have been useful—is that it is better to go to bed lonely than to wake up guilty.
Formulating this as a simple rule has helped me to enforce it, not always but more often than not. And when not, I am more conscious that I am waking up guilty and that I’d better pray myself back into my own good graces and become more conscious. I also believe that there is strength in the new approach. No guilt morning after morning starts to build up a feeling of genuine confidence and relaxed strength. You can set yourself on a better path, and now you see the reinforcing benefits. How long this effect will last, of course, is another matter, but on the assumption that repetitive behavior leading to repetitive guilt is suboptimal, the goal seems worthy and obvious.
Regarding deceit and self-deception, lack of consciousness of such tendencies in others may victimize us. We may be too likely to believe them, especially when they are in positions of authority. We may believe what is printed in newspapers. We may believe con artists. And we may easily embrace false historical narratives. To be conscious is to be aware of possibilities, including those arising in a world saturated with deceit and self-deception.
Consciousness and ability to change are two different variables. I am prone to be moralistic, overconfident, and dismissive of alternative views, more or less as expected for an organism of my type, but I am also conscious that I am biased in this way. I can cite chapter and verse. Do I wish it were otherwise? Yes. Can I change it? No. This to me is the real paradox or tragedy of self-deception—we wish we could do better but we can’t.
On the other hand, consciousness of deceit and self-deception allows us to enjoy it more, to understand it more deeply, to guard against it better (as it is directed against us), and, finally, to fight such tendencies in ourselves should we wish to. Mostly it gives us much greater insight into the social world surrounding us, everything from the lies of the government and the media to the deeper self-deceptions we tell ourselves and our loved ones.
The folly of fools : the logic of deceit and self-deception in human life