127 of 136 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2012
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.*
Self-deception is a tricky object of study. We often cannot know whether something is truly self-deception, because we do not know whether people really believe what they say, and what information they started out with. Therefore, any theory of self-deception will need a subtle empirical argument. In my view, other recent books on self-deception (especially Stanley Cohen's "States of Denial" and Cordelia Fine's "A Mind of its Own", none of them cited by Trivers) do a better job at organizing the available evidence. Trivers has added an interesting evolutionary argument to the discussion, but a convincing test is still in the future.
* For example, Trivers claims that economists "tend to be blind to the possibility that unrestrained pursuit of personal utility can have disastrous effects on group benefit", even though exactly this tension is the core issue in many disciplines in economics, like (behavioral) game theory, social choice and political economy. His dismissal of social psychology also rings somewhat hollow after quoting extensively from this discipline in earlier sections.
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2013
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. . .
34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2011
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.
78 of 100 people found the following review helpful
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. This group has won the day intellectually, though the Marxist/leftist cadres which still largely dominate our universities despise their findings and do their best to simply ignore the science. Trivers in turn richly despises them.
The point of disagreement is a matter of the very definition of science. Starting with Francis Bacon, the principle of science has been reproducible results. You do an experiment, you describe your theory - what you expect to prove, your experimental technique, your measurements, and your conclusions. The idea is that you lay everything out for the whole world to see, so that they can challenge your findings by critiquing your technique and the reproducibility of your observations.
Several so-called sciences - economics, psychiatry, and cultural anthropology, to name three the Trivers assails with gusto, are not built on any such solid foundation. Psychoanalysis is built on clinical notes and surmises by Sigmund Freud. In other words, his theories of penis envy and anal retention are purely creations of his own imagination based on clinical notes of his patients in Vienna. He didn't do any rigorous data collection, statistical analysis, and certainly didn't have any biological foundations for the theory for what he came up with. Instead, Freud used his dominant personality to dictate a dogma which reigned for the best part of the century. Trevor's notes that sciences which flourish are usually built on solid foundations; sciences likes psychoanalysis, which have no more foundation than Scientology, tend to wither away over time. Trivers doesn't mention it, but Marx' "scientific socialism" certainly falls into this category as well.
Trivers is harsh on the self-deception among people in authority, who suppress facts that they perceive to be inimical bowl to their own ends. He observes that such self-deception can be incredibly expensive. A few trillion, for example, in the most recent Iraq war. The people who got the US and Britain into that war neglected the intelligence to the effect that Saddam really wasn't a threat, Saddam wasn't allied with Al Qaeda, and they underestimated the amount of manpower that it would take to win the war. It was telling that prominent military figures such as Eric Shinseki and Colin Powell refused to support him. The utter absence of a plan for occupation once Baghdad fell was nothing more than willful ignorance. Because there could not be a meaningful plan, they simply went forward with no plan at all for the most part. The people who had been charged with developing such a plan were systematically isolated from the decision-makers, and their work ignored. Trivers documents the same willful ignorance in NASA, the air transport industry, and in economics. He faults the economists for having theories of human behavior, especially the notion that our behavior is rational, which are not empirically grounded in evolutionary biology or a close observation of how humans actually work. He echoes Norman Finkelstein's unpopular, but difficult to refute, assertions about Israel's denial of the reality the their country was rather fully occupied by Arabs when they took it over, and of their ongoing harsh measures to control the land they captured and continue, with strong support from the US, to possess.
As a young man Trivers opposed the theory of group evolution, saying the common sense requires that evolution be a matter of selection of individuals. Such traits as altruism, which favored groups, would have to be beneficial to individuals. Certainly deceit, the organizing theme of this book, is as well something that favors individuals. Trivers also posited that each individual has its own interests, and it particular, within a family the father, mother, and children may have interests which conflict with one another. Specifically, the father's reproductive success may be enhanced by philandering, which doesn't help his wife. A child's reproductive success is enhanced by commandeering his parents full resources, whereas the parents' reproductive success will be maximized by sharing their attention among several offspring.
Trivers predictably goes on to the deceit which is involved in religion, the fables which underlie any system of belief. He would do well to take on atheism as well, inasmuch as militant atheism usually depends just as much as religion on a number of a prioris. And it is more deadly - explicitly atheist governments such as the Communists, and others which had no more interest in religion than to exploit it, such as Nazism, Japanese imperialism, the World War I powers and the Napoleonic Empire, caused more bloodshed than purportedly Christian governments ever did.
I would advocate that Trivers investigate the hypothesis that self deceit is essential for propagating our species. My premise is that having children in any modern society is a fundamentally absurd proposition: they do not generally benefit parents. They are an immense sink for resources: food, clothes, education, entertainment and so on. They cannot be counted on to contribute economically when they grow up, and because they did not have much societal or cultural pressure to do so, they all too seldom even express gratitude.
The self deceit of religion, that having children is God's will, may be required if we are going to perpetuate ourselves. No other species is as successful as ours at curbing its fertility. Even in classical times we had enlarged our perspective on sex from being primarily a process for procreation to being a recreation and a vehicle for displaying status. In modern times we have almost completed the transition. Playboy and Cosmo celebrate sex for its own sake, everybody insists that whether or not the aim is procreation, the sex has to be great, and increasing population has few supporters in secular society. Birth control and abortion have been almost perfected. Recoiling from such horrors as the USSR's "Mother Heroines" who bore ten children as cannon fodder, and the Nazis offered a "Mother's Cross of Honor," few governments in our times offer incentives great enough to put much more than a dent in the tremendous costs of raising children. If we are to survive, it will be on the strength of self-deception, chiefly of a religious nature.
I'll close in observing that no matter who you are, Trivers has something to say which you may find disagreeable. He is smart enough that you should at least think about it. He might have a point, and could change some of your views.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2012
You should never write a book on self-deception without first holding your own ideas up to the same scrutiny that you apply to others and this book offers no exception to the general rule. Indeed, his key insight, that self-deception can have evolutionary advantages might well be true in some circumstances, particularly where credibility might be an issue (the advantage in believing your own lies is that you appear more convincing to others, such as a potential mate, and thus gain an advantage over those unable to dissemble so nimbly). But then, rather oddly, the author goes off on a journey into the world of just how self-destructive self deception can be, adding a liberal dose of his own political biases in the process, instead of elaborating on his main thesis. I don't necessarily disagree with his politics, they just seem somehow misplaced here, at least without presenting examples of political folly conducted by ones own political brethren, if for no other reason but to show one hasn't deceived oneself at the same time he is pointing out others shortcomings.
Alas, Nietzsche once wrote a short chapter on self-deception entitled "On The Prejudices of Philosophers" that has easily stood the test of time. Mr Trivers might well have benefited from reviewing it before starting his own tract, as the influence of his own self-deception is simply too ironically palpable throughout this work. Too bad, some of the examples he does bring up at least have good entertainment value.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2012
After seeing favorable review in the journals Science and Nature, I bought this for my Kindle, and have been quoting from it to my friends and family ever since. Unrelentingly cynical, it is the most enlightening book I've read that I can remember. Don't listen to the nit-picking comments here about the perceived failures, look at the reviews in the leading journals by scientists in the field, who are unusually laudatory.
Trivers, an internationally acclaimed scholar with a track record of charting new fields, reviews deceit and self-deceit from a game-theory point of view - how interactions can be thought of to work, the evolutionary forces they might create, and ties to many branches of science and social science. He sprinkles numerous vivid examples into the discourse, and generally makes many sound arguments.
His cynical and liberal opinions come clearly through - I consider them sensible, but I note a large fraction of the negative reviews find them annoying. He paints with a broad brush - more of the negative reviewers had wished for more meticulous and generous citation of each field, and recommend more pedestrian books instead. Many no doubt took offense at the bashing of US foreign policy, psychology, sociology and many other topics, professions, and dearly-held beliefs.
Very, very interesting and thought provoking - a bold survey of an important and pervasive facet of humanity.
31 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2011
I deeply enjoyed this book, it was written in a very conversational, and personal tone. The topic is really depressing, and Triver's does admit this at the beginning, but he doesn't hold back, citing tons of studies to back up his theory and providing some personal details as well.
The other thing I liked about this book, is how it can be used a point of reference for some pretty interesting topics. For example, the chapters are titled and the subjects covered in those chapters are page titled, so you can easily read on that topic. This is how Trivers composed the book, and he states this intension in the introduction.
Highly recommend it.
37 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2012
The author has written several interesting papers on reciprocal altruism and other aspects of human behavior that are seemingly difficult to explain by standard evolutionary theory, but this book is a poor read. It can be divided into three parts: "TMI," "political ranting and raving," and "why are social scientists so stupid?". The first part focuses on the author's problems with women: before, during, and [presumably] after, his marriage. More than I care to know (hence, "Too Much Information") and not very enlightening on self-deception. I thought I was reading a Noam Chomsky book in the second section. This was all about groups of people who don't fit the author's left-wing political views. The author, however, never gets around to a theory of individual or gene-based selection and how such group behavior would evolve. At least, that's supposedly the theme of the book. The chapter on airline and space disasters was better, but I would strongly recommend "The Golem at Large: What You Should Know about Technology" by Collins and Pinch for a more interesting treatment. Part 3 also had little to do with the supposed theme of the book. I was curious about the distinction between social and cultural anthropology, since both "sub-disciplines" were around long before "kin selection" and others sociobiology concepts were popularized. I always enjoy a good Freud-bashing, so that section made me happier than the rest of this section. It just came across as the usual, "Why don't scientists in Field X just accept my ideas from Field Y and acknowledge that they have been wrong for N years."
Well, I bought the book, so deception worked. If I could just convince myself that it was money worth spending,...
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 2014
Humans are so puffed up with pride (read the last page of Gulliver's Travels) over their supposed intelligence, that I love to see them taken down a notch or two or three, so this book was an enjoyable and satisfying read for me. If you think it's OK or even admirable for a stronger ethnic group to invade a weaker ethnic group and take their territory (read the next to last page of Gulliver's travels), then you may not enjoy parts of it.
Also, before you dismiss Trivers, check out Steven Pinker's comments on him at edge.org. (And if you think you know better than Pinker, you're probably deceiving yourself!)
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2013
I have been a fan of Robert Trivers academic work, but this book left me wondering what the point was. I think I got it very early on and I kept wondering what he was going on about? Many good scientists try to make their work more accessible to the general public; this is not a good example. If you are aware of the general work in sociobiology (evolutionary psychology) you will get a lot out of this. If not, then not so much.