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The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life Hardcover – October 25, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Self-deception has long been a dark, opaque side of our behavior, but the author brings a bright flashlight to his investigation of why we alter information to reach a falsehood…. Trivers examines our biases and rationalizations, denials and projections, misrepresentation and manipulations, and his writing is comfortable and suasive, resulting from his familiarity and command of the subject’s broad application and investigative history…. A gripping inquiry. Trivers is informal but highly knowledgeable, provocative, brightly humorous and inviting.”

Library Journal
“Looking at self-deception in broader areas like war, religion, false historical narratives, and even plane crashes, Trivers presents a convincing argument for why this type of dishonesty is as harmful to the individual as it is to society as a whole…. This provocative book examines an often unexamined subject, but one with which all readers are familiar. Recommended for professional social scientists as well as readers of popular science.”
Richard Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthropology, Harvard University, and author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
“The problem of why natural selection favors self-deception is as poorly understood as it is riveting. Robert Trivers uses examples from insects to international relations to guide us to the fundamental logic. The result is a startlingly original and important book that should start a global conversation on a topic of both scholarly and personal interest.”
Richard Dawkins, emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford, and author of The Greatest Show on Earth
“This is a remarkable book, by a uniquely brilliant scientist. Robert Trivers has a track record of producing highly original ideas, which have gone on to stimulate much research. His Darwinian theory of self-deception is arguably his most provocative and interesting idea so far. The book is enlivened by Trivers’ candid personal style, and is a pleasure to read. Strongly recommended.”
Frans de Waal, C. H. Candler Professor, Emory University, and author of Our Inner Ape and The Age of Empathy
“Here a topic very few people think about, perhaps because the degree to which self-deception permeates our lives is itself subject to powerful denials. Robert Trivers, one of the brightest minds in evolutionary biology, leaves us little escape, however. No denying: an eye-opening read.”
William von Hippel, Professor of Psychology, University of Queensland
“Great books contain important new ideas, and this book is no exception. What makes Trivers’ book unusual even among great books is the density of new ideas. Like other great popular press books in science, this book advances an important new idea in an entertaining and accessible manner. This book goes beyond that, however, by providing dozens of new hypotheses for those of us who have been laboring in this field for the last twenty years. In that sense, this book is not just exporting science to the lay public, but is also an important piece of scholarship.”
David Haig, Professor of Biology, Harvard University
“This is an enjoyable, thought-provoking book on how our mind systematically creates distorted perceptions of reality and how these distort our presentation of self to others. I believe the book is an important contribution to psychology and social science more generally and will undoubtedly stimulate debate on these important questions.”

Publishers Weekly
“[A] spirited, provocative exploration of the evolutionary logic of deceit and self-deception…. Stimulating…Trivers’s study provides an energetic exploration of a perplexing human trait.”

BBC Focus
“By Trivers’s own admission, many of these ideas are speculative. But even if he does suffer from over-confidence—a type of self-deception more common in males—the admirable breadth, clarity and ambition of the result more than vindicate nature’s creation of the blind spot.”
The Guardian (UK)
“After forty years of research Trivers wrote [The Folly of Fools] against the backdrop of a global economic meltdown caused by self-deceived, over-confident egoists grossly out of touch with reality, and when he explains how the human male drive for power and control correlates with ignorance and self-delusion, your blood runs cold…. [The Folly of Fools] is an exhilarating read: the intertwined issues of deceit and self-deception are infinite, involving positive and negative outcomes for the fool and the fooled—roles that can reverse and revert without your even knowing.”

“Weaving together examples from biology, psychology, history, and immunology, evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers argues that we deceive ourselves in order to better deceive others, and do so in order to survive, procreate, and generally get ahead…. [A] thoroughly researched, thought-provoking read.”

“[A] provocative and wide-ranging book…. Trivers touches on wide-ranging issues: the role of evolutionary biology in the social sciences; the placebo effect; lie detectors; genocide; the scientific method. But he conveys a powerful and focused message: if we can learn to recognize and fight our own self-deception, we can avoid negative consequences at levels from the individual to the national, and live better lives.”
Scientific American, Guilty Planet blog
“Trivers is one of the greatest thinkers of our time…. Folly of Fools takes a refreshingly critical look at human behavior…. To fix some of the world’s follies, we should lower the shield and better understand deception and our own self-deception by absorbing the wisdom, risky ideas, and generous admissions of his own foolishness in Robert Trivers’ Folly of Fools. The truth can hurt, but deceit can, too.”
Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution blog
“Brilliant, insightful, with occasional lapses of taste, quintessential Trivers, now the go-to book on its topic, recommended.”
Kai Kupferschmidt, Science
“[Trivers is] an immensely original thinker in biology. His strength has been to see conflict where other people see only harmony…. Whereas others see optimism and self-deception as a defensive strategy to stay sane and happy in a harsh world, he sees it as a psychological attack mechanism, ‘fooling yourself to better fool others,’ he says.”
The Economist
“In The Folly of Fools Robert Trivers…explains that the most effectively devious people are often unaware of their deceit. Self-deception makes it easier to manipulate others to get ahead. Particularly intelligent people can be especially good at deceiving themselves. Mining research in biology, neurophysiology, immunology and psychology, Mr. Trivers delivers a swift tour of the links between deception and evolutionary progress.”
Psychology Today
“Read this if…You’re hungry for assumption-challenging explanations for your everyday behavior. Well-articulated and convincing, Trivers’s theory draws on group dynamics, neuroscience, and even immunology to explain why we’re all liars. Ultimately, he concludes that we’re best off sensing—and telling—the truth whenever possible.”
“[Trivers] probably knows more about the mechanics and meaning of deception than almost anyone else in the world, and his new book, The Folly of Fools, covers pretty much anything you’d want to know about the topic…. Expansive, smart and deep, the book—a relentlessly fascinating and entertaining read—will utterly change the way you think about lying.”
David P. Barash, Evolutionary Psychology
“[I]t would be folly indeed to ignore the book’s scientific insights, its provocative suggestions, and—perhaps most of all—the sheer intellectual delight in reading something that is so cogent, so relevant to one’s own daily life, and, it must be said, so damned obvious … once a genius like Robert Trivers points it out! (Please note: I don’t use the ‘g-word’ often, or lightly.)”
Seattle Times
“If we can convince ourselves that we are stronger, smarter, more skillful, more ethical or better drivers than others, we’re a long way toward convincing other people too. This fundamental insight frames Trivers’ wide-ranging exploration of deceit and self-deception in the human and animal worlds…. Believing you can achieve some goal – climbing a mountain, getting a new job, rebuilding an engine – can give you the incentive to actually work at it. The trick, of course, is to not slide into overconfidence or blithely deny unpleasant facts – behaviors which, as Trivers shows time and again, almost always precede disaster.”

Boston Globe
“Trivers’s knowledge of a range of disparate subjects is impressive…. Zooming in from the evolution of group interaction to the adaptations of neurology, Trivers writes in depth about how poor our brains are at grasping anything that could be considered an ‘objective’ reality. We’re constantly fooling ourselves.”

Financial Times
“[O]riginal and important…. [The Folly of Fools] is a remarkable book, thick with ideas, yet relaxed and conversational in tone. Perhaps most remarkable is how ruthlessly Trivers confronts his own self-delusions…. If we all examined our faults and foibles as honestly as Trivers does, the world probably would, as he hopes, be a more decent place.”

The Daily

“Engaging …. disarmingly honest…. Trivers’s book is a thoroughly good read. If his well-informed by modest approach starts a new trend, then The Folly of Fools is a welcome and rather unselfish meme.”
John Horgan, New York Times Book Review
“Trivers’s scope is vast, ranging from the fibs parents and children tell to manipulate one another to the ‘false historical narratives’ political leaders foist on their citizens and the rest of the world…. The Folly of Fools reminds me of other irreducibly odd classics by scientific iconoclasts…. May [Trivers’s] new book give him the attention he so richly deserves.”

New York Times Book Review
“An intriguing argument that deceit is a beneficial evolutionary ‘deep feature’ of life.”


Washington Post
“A celebrated evolutionary biologist, Trivers uses the tools of his trade to answer a basic question: Why are deception and self-deception so prevalent?... The Folly of Fools assumes the unity of all nature and seeks to comprehend it not merely by observation and reason, but also by subjective impressions, intuition and imagination. And thus Trivers ranges across biology, anthropology, history and politics to find examples of deception and self-deception in action.”

“The book is important, not least for bringing to the fore a set of interesting and pervasive psychological phenomena and grounding explanations for them in evolutionary biology…. While covering a broad range of literatures, from physiology to politics, Trivers retains the reader’s attention with his inimitable style and disarming autobiographical candor…. The Folly of Fools is an important example of how thinking about evolved function can yield new insights into important aspects of human social behavior.”


About the Author

Robert L. Trivers is a Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. He won the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences in 2007 for his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict, and cooperation. He lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (October 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465027555
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465027552
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #613,307 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

134 of 145 people found the following review helpful By JJ vd Weele on January 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I am a researcher in behavioral economics working on self-deception (among other things), and so I was excited to find that this most eminent socio-biologist had applied himself to the topic at book length. My disappointment after reading this book is well summarized by Trivers himself, who writes in the conclusion: "I have noticed that the standards regarding my own arguments I am willing to push forward has dropped" (p.322).

The main thesis of the book is that self-deception helps people to deceive others. The evolutionary benefit of being better at deception outweighs the costs associated with having a biased conception of reality. To support this thesis, Trivers draws from neurology, biology, psychology and history. Some of the material is interesting, exciting and funny, and the range of ideas and applications is impressive. Naturally, Trivers is at his best when he describes stories of deception in the animal kingdom, and outlines links between self-deception and genetics.

Unfortunately, almost 400 pages do not add up to a convincing thesis. Rather, the book is a loosely organized collection of hypotheses, experimental descriptions, anecdotes, accusations and political rants. The further one progresses through the book, the more the author is distracted by half-irrelevant anecdotes that often involve episodes from his own sex life and have only a foggy connection to self-deception. More problematic even is that Trivers intersperses factual statements with his own (political) opinions throughout the book, implicitly or explicitly calling his opponents self-deceivers. Although I happen to agree with him more often than not, it undermines his scientific aims. In addition, I find some of his accusations against social scientists rather bizarre.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Stanley on March 14, 2013
Format: Hardcover
It appears that I am the 36th person to review Trivers latest book. The strange thing here is that more people panned the book than praised it. In Amazon's reviews this hardly ever happens, I suppose in part because people (like me) read non-fiction books that re-inforce current beliefs and interests.

Now I gave the book five stars because it answered a question that I've had for several years. When people are alone, in the car, late at night, what do they really think about themselves? Do mean people feel bad because they've done mean things. Was the bad stuff at work today really my fault? Why couldn't I get a date with so-and-so, I'm really cool, cooler than about anybody.

According to Trivers: No. People deceive themselves and use a lot of energy in doing so. But, this is really a necessary evolutionary technique because we are all trying to put ourselves in the best light. It's necessary for our survival and for getting our genes into the next generation. It's sort of "I really don't have a big nose and a flabby stomach so I'm going to aske the prettiest girl in the senior class to the prom."

Some reviewers have knocked Trivers for his anecdotes of his own foibles. I was glad to see them. If nothing else it proves I'm not crazy. I've done similar things. This leads me to believe we all have. Trivers self-confessions actually help prove his premise.

Since we all devote so much energy to self-deception a positive spin-off is that if we realize our actions, we can save wear and tear on our minds and bodies. We should live longer. That being said, let me tell you about the time I. . .
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37 of 43 people found the following review helpful By lawyercpa on December 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought the book because I caught, by chance, an interview with the author. It is well written and really touches on a lot of topics that I had figured were off limits in the publishing field. But it does point out how people tend to deceive themselves as much as being deceived and why. It is rich in presentation and not some bland technical tome. I have so many book markers in place, it is almost like I will have to read the whole book when I go back and do so. I will keep it handy as a constant reminder of how easy it is to blind yourself from the truth at all levels.

BTW, this is my first review of a book since I am new to this forum.
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79 of 101 people found the following review helpful By Graham H. Seibert TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Occasionally you come across a polymath, somebody who has done everything in his life and seems to have done it well. One of my favorites of the genre is Richard Feynman, the nuclear physicist. Also the samba bandleader, Romeo among the airlines stewardesses of Rio, and the investigator of the Challenger disaster. He is a guy who was so talented that he could do anything he wanted in life, and he chose among things that interested him. No surprise that Robert Trivers, who has kind of done the same thing, cites Feynmann as a hero. Trivers started out wanting to become a theoretical mathematician, but burned himself out - had a nervous breakdown, he spun through the fields of psychology, anthropology, and a couple of others sparking new ideas that were so radical it took a couple of decades for them to take root. He coincidentally became a buddy of Black Panther Huey Newton, married a couple of Jamaican women, and fathered a spate of kids. Off the map unpredictable.

One of the things he did along the way was to attract the attention of the leading intellects of his age. For better and worse - Trivers is not a bland personality. He made solid enemies out of Richard Lewontin and Stephen J Gould, the reigning Marxists of his era at Harvard, and he steadfastly opposed their politically driven beliefs about man, the so-called Standard Social Science Model, which posits that all people are born with equal abilities, and it is only culture that makes us different, and the thesis of group rather than individual selection as an evolutionary mechanism.

He developed friendships, or at least alliances, with the leaders of the sociobiology movement: its founder, EO Wilson, and Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett.
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