Since last week’s focus on deception, I’ve been thinking about something my grandmother used to say. I’m not good at direct quotes, but the idea was:
Before you can lie to somebody else, you often have to lie to yourself.
As a child, I tried desperately to prove this false. Repeatedly. I could tell my mother something knowing full well that it was a blatant falsehood. Honesty was very important to her, and I often rejected that path. To my detriment. But the more I learn about this, the more I can now see that it was harming me more than I could fathom.
Let me be clear. I don’t think I was terribly worse than other children. My suspicion is that it’s quite typical to lie. Imagine my delight when I found What a tangled web we weave by Robert Trivers. The sneaky deceptions many of us were talking about last week seemed to only scratch the surface.
My question was: Why are we deceptive? Can we get closer to the root of this?
Trivers asserts right off that, ‘In order to lie better to others, we must first fool ourselves.’ Oh, this is going to be good. I can already feel it. He goes on to say:
‘Deception is a very deep feature of life. Viruses practise it, as do bacteria, plants, insects and a wide range of other animals. It is everywhere. Even within our genomes, deception flourishes as selfish genetic elements use deceptive molecular techniques to over-reproduce at the expense of other genes. Deception infects all the fundamental relationships in life: parasite and host, predator and prey, plant and animal, male and female, neighbour and neighbour, parent and offspring…It (deception) always takes the lead in life, while detection of deception plays catch-up.’
There’s something reassuring about knowing that deception happens on a cellular level. I’m not rationalising that it’s acceptable to be deceptive. Actually, quite the opposite. I’m truthfully more interested in the consequences.
Here’s how he continues:
‘At the heart of our mental lives, there seemed to be a striking contradiction – we seek out information and then act to destroy it. On the one hand, our sense organs have evolved to give us a marvellously detailed and accurate view of the outside world – we see the world in colour and 3D, in motion, texture, non-randomness, embedded patterns and a great variety of other features. Likewise for hearing and smell.
Together, our sensory systems are organised to give us a detailed and accurate view of reality, exactly as we would expect if truth about the outside world helps us to navigate it more effectively. But once this information arrives in our brains, it is often distorted and biased to our conscious minds. We deny the truth to ourselves. We project on to others traits that are true of ourselves – and then attack them. We repress painful memories, create completely false ones, rationalise immoral behaviour, act repeatedly to boost positive self-opinion and show a suite of ego-defence mechanisms.’
And there we have it. Take the truth, as we know it, and twist it round to use it somehow to our advantage. Maybe you read the above, and think to yourself, ‘Wait, I don’t do that. Do I? Am I automatically deceiving myself, and the more I deny it, the more unavoidable that it’s the case?’
That’s definitely not my belief. I can’t begin to know how much you deceive yourself. Or even if you deceive yourself at all. I wouldn’t even begin to assume that it’s a matter of being human. Not in the least.
But the question again is: Why when we’re deceiving others is it somehow inherent that we simultaneously deceive ourselves?
He asserts that while it might be true that we simply want to feel good, and self-deception is the easiest way to stay blithely unaware, that it’s foolish to do so. To wilfully disregard the obvious. And Trivers‘ main point seems to be that lying to others, while the truth is constantly swimming round in your brain, is actually too much data to mentally handle. It’s easier for you to just start believing the lies you tell yourself. It’s oddly more economical. Brainspace-wise.
He has a whole section on how to spot a liar, as well as one on self-deception and sex, which are both intriguing and deserve their own blogposts. He even devotes some virtual ink to body language when a woman’s ovulating. That’s sort of worth a bit of reflection. Once more, this and the part that follows it about whether deception is beneficial for marriage is something I could go on about at length. I reserve the right to do so another time. Would that be interesting for any of you reading? I mean, you can always see what he has to see about it by clicking on the link.
Yet what I’m drawn to…what I want to talk about is what he offers as a solution to all of this. Too often we’re provided with some sort of sociological premise such as this one, and it seems like it’s a foregone conclusion that we’re helpless to do anything to change it. That it’s somehow set in stone. I’m not so sure I would’ve brought this to you if I thought that was the case.
Here’s how Trivers argues against perpetuating the self-deception:
‘Self-deception, by serving deception, only encourages it, and more deception is not something I favour. I do not believe in building one’s life, one’s relationships, or one’s society on lies. The moral status of deceit with self-deception seems even lower than that of simple deception alone, since simple deception fools only one organism – but when combined with self-deception, two are being deceived.
In addition, by deceiving yourself, you are spoiling your temple or structure. You are agreeing to base your behaviour on falsehoods, with negative downstream effects that may be very hard to guess, yet intensify with time.’
Isn’t that great? Too much of what I hear/read about is so nihilistic. So jaded by what people seem to think of as the hopelessness of it all. Of modernity in general. But here’s somebody saying: Hey, it matters. What you do, what you say – it matters. Cynical is the easy way. The lazy road.
Then he gets personal:
‘In my life, self-deception is often experienced as a series of minor benefits followed by a major cost. I will be overly self-confident, project that image and enjoy some of the illusions, only to suffer a sharp reversal later on, based in part on the blindness induced by this overconfidence. I believe this is a general rule in life, that the cost of ignorance takes a while to kick in, while the benefit of self-deception may be immediate.’
This one I had to think about for a while. A long while. I’ve been writing this in my head for days, and it was here that I just had to take some time to let it sink in. Self-deception is the short cut. It’s the get-rich-quick scheme. It’s thinking that everyone else who’s working so hard to get something in life is a chump. If you need to ponder this one a few moments, don’t let me stop you.
Finally, he suggests a few ways in which one can go about attempting to counter self-deception:
‘There are other outlets, too: meditation, prayer, disclosure of trauma, even if only to a private journal. Friends are also useful as commentators on our ongoing life. In general, try to avoid overconfidence and unconsciousness. Showing off is a special kind of behaviour in which we tend both to be overconfident and deliberately to exaggerate our behaviour to impress others: it is one of the most dangerous things you can do.’
Oh, now wait a minute. Is he serious. It’s not enough for me to acknowledge all of this. I actually have to do something about it? No. You really don’t. The thing about the drama of life is that the more nonsense you create the more nonsense you have to deal with. But there’s nothing that says you have to stop creating nonsense. It doesn’t say that anywhere.
Isn’t it more pleasant to be unconscious? To continue to be blithely unaware?
Not so much.