Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life

Article excerpt

Self-Deception and the Philosophical Assumptions of Truth Telling The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life Robert Trivers. New York: Basic Books, 2011. 416 pp. $28

The possibility that deception and self-deception permeate animal life clearly poses a challenge to some of our naïve intuitions about information ethics. It seems natural to assume, for example, that people routinely form sincere intentions, and that we can communicate such intentions and rely on them in crediting discourse as a true or as an authoritative representation of another's state of mind. If there are myriad levels of deception and self-deception built into our evolved behaviors and social psychology, as Robert Trivers documents in his fascinating recent book, The Folly of Fools, then perhaps this sort of intuition needs re-examining. After reviewing the contents of Trivers's book, I will return to the question of whether and how his theoretical perspective might challenge intuitions and philosophical assumptions in information ethics.

Robert Trivers is one of the most famous theoretical biologists alive today. His 1971 paper on the evolution of reciprocal altruism was tremendously influential in theorizing human behavior from a biological, hence evolutionary, perspective. Other prominent theorists and writers, such as E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, credit Trivers as a major influence. In addition to his famous work on reciprocal altruism, Trivers developed evolutionary theories of parental investment, parent-offspring conflict, and self-deception as an evolutionary strategy. His work has been important to philosophy in several ways. The idea that altruistic behavior can be theorized within a biological understanding of the subject challenges traditional philosophical assumptions about the independence of moral behavior from nature. Trivers's work has helped philosophers and social science researchers in psychology and economics become aware of the limits of a strong assumption that humans are consistent and self-aware rational agents. Recent fields of inquiry such as evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics owe a debt to his work.

An early chapter of The Folly of Fools discusses deception in nature, starting from more widely known sorts of deception and mimicry to some delightfully strange cases that initially look far removed from human behavior but which may not be. Consider, for example, a species of birds that can mimic one or more other species's eggs and get them to raise their offspring. In another case, the male bluegill sunfish is capable of mimicking a female sunfish to attract a male suitor, who in turn increases the pseudo-males' chances to fertilize a nearby female's spawning. Illusory pattern recognition, which includes our tendency to see patterns in information more readily under the condition of diminished control, may be a culprit in such diverse phenomena as the way animals make themselves appear more lethal or fit to how humans respond to power and lack of control in their lives and societies. Overconfidence is another behavior or psychological condition that may favor self-deception. Displays of overconfidence are likely to be more effective if we can convince ourselves of our superiority.

The central theoretical claim in this wide ranging and speculative book is that "self-deception evolves in the service of deception" (4). In other words, we deceive ourselves the better to deceive others. Some of the most compelling evidence for this hypothesis comes from neurological research on "cognitive load," roughly, the demands placed on cognition by specific tasks and combinations of tasks. The thesis also fits with our intuition that the hardest liar to detect is the one who has made the transition, without self-awareness, to believing the lie. Self-deception reduces cognitive load and helps us convincingly advocate the version of reality that our decisions and various group affiliations have led us to. …

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