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Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind Hardcover – July 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to Smith, deception lies so deeply at the heart of our existence that we often cannot distinguish truth from lies in our everyday lives. Deception, he writes, is pervasive as we manage how others perceive us, from using cosmetics to lying on a job application; it is "more often spontaneous and unconscious than cynical and coldly analytical." In this superficial investigation of the biology and psychology of lying, Smith, a professor of philosophy and cofounder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England, tries to demonstrate that humans are hardwired to deceive: we do so just as frogs and lizards engage in mimicry, to insure the survival of the species. Unlike other animals, however, we have the capacity to deceive ourselves as well as others, since our mendacity is embedded not only in our evolutionary past but also in our unconscious. Smith tells us nothing that hasn't been covered by other writers in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Moreover, his study is really two books—one on evolutionary biology and the other on psychology and the unconscious—and the lack of transition makes it hard to tell what one really has to do with the other.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The brain, especially the unconscious mind, is the ultimate challenge for scientists and philosophers. Following the lead of Antonio Damasio and Diane Ackerman, Smith focuses on a particularly baffling trait, our proclivity for deception, not only our habit of lying to others but also, and far more mysteriously, the way we deceive ourselves. To show that lying is as natural as breathing, Smith presents a lively survey of the many forms of deception practiced by plants, insects, and animals. He then turns to Homo sapiens and offers cogent and provocative analysis of the link between increasingly complex societies, the evolution of the brain, and the need for "social lies" in the interest of civility. This leads to eyebrow-raising speculation regarding the source of our habitual mendacity and psyche-protecting self-deception (the extent of which is truly astonishing), a facet of the unconscious that Smith calls "Machiavellian intelligence," and a convincing theory as to why it functions "beyond the reach of introspection." With an "aha!" moment on every page, Smith's inquiry is stimulating and unsettling. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (July 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312310390
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312310394
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,313,098 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I was born in New York City, and grew up in South Florida, where I spent many happy hours observing, catching and studying the insects, fish and especially reptiles that abounded in the area. I moved to London in 1976, where I continued my education and became a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and director of the MA program in psychotherapy and counseling at Regents College.I eventually became skeptical of the field of psychotherapy in general, and turned to philosophy to gain conceptual clarity. I earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of London (Kings College) where I did work on the philosophy of mind and philosophy of psychology. These studies introduced me to the significance of evolutionary biology for understanding human nature, enabling me to come full circle by fusing my interest in the human mind with my earlier love of the natural world.

In 2000 I moved from the United Kingdom with my wife Subrena to take up a position at the University of New England, a private liberal arts college in southern Maine, where I am associate professor of philosophy. I teach a range of courses on philosophy of biology, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology and the history of philosophy. I am the co-founder and director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Studies. The New England Institute hosts an lively program of public lectures, including the annual William D. Hamilton Memorial Lecture.

More information about me and my work, visit http://lessthanhumanbook.com and http://www.realhumannature.com

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Loren Rosson III on August 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature; essential to our humanity but disowned by its perpetrators at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It is not, as popular opinion would have it, reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Human society is a network of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty." (p 2)

David Livingstone Smith has written a stunning book with four aims in view. First, he explains deception and self-deception from an evolutionary perspective, how lying to ourselves soothes the stresses of life and in the process helps us lie efficiently to others. But in order to deceive ourselves, we had to evolve an unconscious region of the brain where truth can be effectively obscured. This ties with the second aim of the book, in which Smith attempts a controversial reconnection between cognitive psychology and the kinds of questions Freud once tried (unsuccessfully) to answer. Like it or not, the unconscious is a reality which must be addressed. Freud may have left us a legacy of crackpot pseudo-science, but some of his findings can be legitimately applied in scientific investigation. Smith gets us started on doing exactly this, and hopefully some of his ideas will be pursued at more length -- and more empirically -- by the scientific community. He uses examples from modern living in describing (the third goal of the book) adaptive functions of the unconscious mind implied by self-deception, showing (even if without the level of empirical proof demanded by scientific inquiry) that we are all natural psychologists, albeit unconscious ones, carefully monitoring one another's behavior, constantly deceiving others and ourselves. This may sound like a wild idea, but it's not.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Elaine Stewart on July 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Every once in a while a new book appears which lifts the veil off one's eyes. This is just such a book. Smith addresses one the most important issues of our time. Why do we tell lies? Further, why are we so good at telling them? The author tells us that "the evolutionary roots of deception and the unconscious mind"(the subheading of the book) accounts for our ease with lying.
The book addresses some of the fundamental aspects of lying - that we are indeed natural born liars, that not only is lying found throughout nature, but that organisms that lie well are successful. In addition, Smith describes the role of unconscious cognition. His use of the term "social poker" illustrates what takes place in communication.
Smith goes where no `self-respecting' psychologists these days are willing to go, by discussing `Freudian' ideas. This was refreshing amidst the climate of overwhelming objection to Freud's ideas in psychology. Smith's knowledge of the various areas addressed in the book is profound. His ability to express Darwinian concepts in a clear and reasoned manner is superb.
Indeed this book is a `must read' for the scholar, the student, or even the general reader who is interested in human nature. I highly recommend it, and believe that those who read it will find it fascinating and compelling.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Vincent Youngs on June 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The first reviewer said it right: "Every once in a while a new book appears which lifts the veil off one's eyes." This book amazes me.

Why did our brains evolve a split between our conscious mind and subconscious mind? David Livingstone Smith has a hypothesis that makes sense in an astonishing way. Our brains evolved to maximize our survival potential in prehistoric ages. By far the most important survival factor to primitive humans were their relationships to other humans. Most of our brain power evolved for the purpose of getting along in (primitive) society. Man's capacity for deception evolved in response to reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism improved the life of primitive man, so long as the relationships were reciprocal. However, some individuals would cheat. They would find a way to accept the benefits of reciprocal altruism without reciprocating. Anyone who could cheat successfully had a better chance of passing on their genes. In order to cheat successfully, cheaters had to excel at deception. The genes for deceptive ability spread through the gene pool because that survived the best. With widespread deception and cheating, the ability to detect deception also became an important survival factor. Evolution of the human brain became an arms race between the ability to deceive and the ability to detect deception. As deception became more advanced and subtle, so did the detection of it. Neither side, deception nor detection, could keep the upper hand in the arms race. At some point, deception could no longer be conducted effectively enough by conscious lying. When we lie consciously, we give ourselves away by telltale signs and nervousness. The next step in the arms race was self-deception - to split the mind into a conscious and unconscious.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Clary Antome on March 22, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Now here's a familiar scenario: when I was growing up, my parents, teachers and other such authority figures every now and then found it fit to scold me for lying -- and made it sound like a character flaw, a fearful sin. Of course, they were absolutely right and managed to pass on a very valuable lesson: if you want to survive in this world, you've got to cheat in a way that makes you sound/appear totally honest!

And here is a book that can teach you everything you need to know about the origins, mechanisms and usefulness of lying to ourselves and each other. Far from being a morally dubious trait in some "bad" people, it turns out that this is one of our most vital survival strategies.

Smith makes some very important contributions to the understanding of our minds from an evolutionary point of view. He convincingly portrays social life as a highly competitive system, and our cooperation with others as a form of allegiance against competitors/enemies. But because it is so difficult and draining to make reliable friends and influence the right people (as you might have noticed after any cocktail party or family gathering), our brains have evolved mechanisms to do most of the job unconsciously, while we merrily engage in (mostly elevating) self-deception and apparently boring small-talk.

In fact, recovering some of Freud's most enlightening hypotheses, Smith (along with many other evolutionists quoted in his book) argues that our conscious mind is not at all responsible for making decisions: "only results become conscious". We're like the user-friendly computer screen, as opposed to the hard disk, where all the real important information gets processed.
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