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Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind Paperback – August 7, 2007
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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.
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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Top Customer Reviews
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. For the author demonstrates (the fourth objective) that our conscious and unconscious perceptions of others are disguised in the gossip, lies, deceptions, and veiled meanings in everyday conversations.
One emerges from this book feeling almost like a paranoid schizophrenic. If indeed we tell three lies for every ten minutes of conversation; if indeed we are constantly, and often unconsciously, aiming hidden missiles at people with coded transcripts and veiled meanings; if indeed we are natural born liars with "bodies that secrete deceit"; then the conclusion presses in the opposite direction of received wisdom. Psychiatric professionals teach us that mentally ill and depressed people are self-deceived and out of touch with reality, but evolutionary biology corrects this mythology. Depressives have a better grasp on reality than then most people, because they suffer from a deficit in self-deception. Smith wryly remarks that self-knowledge isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
Smith concludes that we know far less about ourselves, and far more about others, then we are aware of knowing. While acknowledging that we can hardly be taught not to deceive ourselves -- even if we could, it would only result in unhappiness -- we can at least work to rid ourselves of surplus self-deception. But that's easier said than done. In any case, this book is one hell of an eye-opener, and a delight to read. It should be mandatory reading for gnostic-thinkers, who will hate it.
In my opinion, the author plays fairly fast and loose with these definitions; changing which one is relevant according to the point he is trying to make at the moment. Is this deceptive? Could be!
For example, I am not at all sure if I would lump the cosmetic mimicry some animals use to disguise themselves or benefit in other ways as "lying". However, the juvie chimp who'd wait until another chimp had dug up a root, then SCREAMED as if he were being attacked, whereupon Mom would come, attack the root-digging chimp, and Junior would steal the root- now, THAT'S lying!
Most valuable to me was the discussion of un- or sub-conscious "brain modules" that pre-process most of our thoughts before we are consciously aware of them. I've seen that myself, and even used it; when in school and needing to write an essay, I'd do the research, put it aside until a couple of days before it was due... and by that time my subconscious had made4 sense out of the whole thing and pretty much all I needed to do was type it up! Currently, I find the same technique useful for solving design and fabrication problems in the jewelry I'm designing. The brain research used to bacdk up this aspect of the book's premises was fascinating.
I was also fairly convinced that seemingly random chatter in a situation can be used to unconsciously discuss that situation with others, and come to some sort of consensus. I know my mind is very associative, and the idea that a "random" anecdote I'll pop up with is really not random at all makes perfect sense. (Similarly, I can often tell something about what's happening in my subconscious by the music that is currently going through my head.) However, in the last chapter he goes pretty heavily into this theory, including a lot of rather occult-seeming numerology that purports to relate to the situation but seems to me to really be stretching.
an our subconscious minds hide some of our "real" motivations from us? Sure, I think so. Does this make us all natural-born liars? Maybe; it depends on how one defines lying and intent.
I found the most fascinating parts to be about the existence of a subconscious mind, that pretty much does all the work and presents our consciousness with the results.I find that very plausible based on my own mind, and to read the research data cited was fascinating. I also enjoyed the animal stories!
This is a provocative book, and I think intentionally so. The author has a few axes he likes grinding. Still, it's pretty readable 9albeit sometimes repetitive), and has some intriguing content.
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.