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Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind Paperback – August 7, 2007
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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.
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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Smith gives an evolutionary account that in a nut shell goes as follows. As our evolutionary ancestors began to gather in larger and larger groups, the increasing complexity of group dynamics led to an "arms race between deception and detection [that had] huge implications for the evolution of human intelligence." The advent of language upset the balance between deception and detection and gave a huge advantage to the liar. "Most of us are embarrassingly inept at spotting liars." The problem is that we tend to privilege speech over raw observation, and thereby miss the clues that give the liar away. "Once our ancestors learned to gossip, they could form secret alliances, deceive each other far more effectively about where they stood in relation to other community members, and stab each other in the back."
Under Smith's account "the power to deceive is our main weapon in the struggle for social survival." Self-deception was an adaptation that enabled us to better deceive others. The result for us today? Not so good. "Self-deception has been a wonderful gift, but it is now destroying us. Our taste for it resembles our craving for sugar and animal fat." Further, "the most dangerous forms of self-deception are the collective ones. Patriotism, moral crusades, and religious fervor across nations like plagues, slicing the world into good and evil, defender and aggressor, right and wrong."
Smith's book is, as he admits, thin on evidence and light on research. Even so, it is a quick, easy read with enough interesting insights to nudge the reader a little closer to that ever elusive goal of self-knowledge. After all, shouldn't you know whether, at the most fundamental level, you are a self-deciever? It's worth thinking about.
Interestingly, many readers will perhaps find that the author's theses are self-evident, namely the assertion that a truthful life, i.e. a life where a particular individual has chosen to not engage in deception, would be very burdensome both for the individual and those around him. Of course, the author's view of deception is much broader than mere verbal expression. Any kind of manipulation, whether intended or not, (and subconscious motivations play an even greater role) constitutes a lie in the opinion of the author. For example, if a middle-age man dyes his gray hair black in order to appear younger at a job interview, this would be lying according to the author. Even more radical is the assertion that one can be lying without even intending to. The author's central thesis is that the elaborate mechanism of the unconscious has evolved in order that the individual does not have knowledge of his deception. Awareness of deception will result in a dead give away to those around you, since they will be able to spot the deception using their superb lie detection abilities (which have also evolved).
Indeed, the author takes lying to be the normal state for all humans, with truth telling actually anomalous and forming a definite statistical outlier. "Our minds and bodies secrete deceit", he says. This is an acceptable statement to make as a working hypothesis, for again, the author wants to instigate research that will justify it. But of course, the reader will wonder why the author himself has been excused from the evolutionary pressures that force humans into a global minimum of deception. This book, and the content within it, is supposed to be an honest assessment of the author's intentions to finding, well, the "truth". He is curious (evidently) about whether his beliefs will be verified by scientific research and the meticulous data collection that this entails. Does he expect those who carry out this research to be honest, or does he expect them to lie? If there is a propensity to lie, i.e. if humans are all "natural-born liars," then how can he expect researchers to go through the motions of collecting data and reporting it truthfully?
Several questions arise when reading this book, the answers of which would be fascinating and very important. For example, what are the energy costs associated with lying as compared with truth-telling? Why is lying the more optimal strategy in this regard? Why is truth telling considered naive and ineffective in social interactions, especially in interactions between representatives of different nations? Is there any evidence, even anecdotal, to suggest that a life of truth telling is not as enjoyable as one devoted to lying? Could it not be just as plausible to believe that humans are instead "natural-born truth tellers?" Research in neuroscience has shown what areas in the brain are activated when lies are told. Is this activation healthy or detrimental to the individual? What if further research indicates that lying actually damages the brain, resulting in emotional and intellectual disintegration, i.e. in a cynical mal-adapted individual? Given the enormous amounts of energy that has been expended by humans throughout history in pursuing the objects of their curiosity, i.e. technological inventions and scientific research, it would seem plausible to believe that further research in neuroscience will indicate that truth telling results in a healthy brain and enhances the general well-being of the individual.