The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life - Robert Trivers (2011)

Chapter 14. Fighting Self-Deception in Our Own Lives

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There are two divisions in my life regarding self-deception: the personal, affecting how I relate to those around me, and the general, which refers to my scientific work and the problem of interpreting society more generally. One is much more intimate and is bound up with the biology of those relationships most important to me. The second is an enterprise that affects the thinking of many more people, but these are usually much more distantly connected to me.

Regarding one’s personal life, the problem with learning from living is that living is like riding a train while facing backward. That is, we see reality only after it has passed us by. Neurophysiologists have shown that this is literally true (Chapter 3). We see (consciously) incoming information, as well as our internal intention to act, well after the fact. It seems as if it is difficult to learn after the fact what to predict ahead of the fact; thus, our ability to see the future, even that of our own behavior, is often very limited. I believe I have learned a lot about my self-deceptions but not in ways that prevent me from repeating them—often exactly. Take one common problem I have involving both conflict and self-deception: Someone does me harm, and I imagine a spiteful response, a nasty letter or some other gesture of contempt. Then the submerged side of me says, “But, Robert, you have been in this situation 614 times already and you have talked yourself into the spiteful action, yet in every case shortly afterward you regret your action. This is no different. Do not do it.” And then the dominant part of my personality comes roaring back. “No, this time is different. This time I will feel satisfied and happy.” And there goes number 615. One form of this error is nicely captured in an ancient Chinese expression: “When planning revenge, build two graves, not one.”

By contrast, I do imagine—although this may be complete self-deception—that a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth, especially via science and logic, has honed my mind through the years, so that I practice relatively little self-deception in the work domain of my life. In fact, I have become somewhat more critical and exacting, requiring higher levels of significance and better methodologies before committing to evidence. Of course, my logical mind is weaker now but I believe I rarely bend logic to suit personal need. For most scientists, this bending results from competition with fellow scientists for recognition, and here the well-known “tender ego syndrome” of academics leads many of them to downgrade the work of those competing for similar niches in their discipline or outshining them more generally. It has always seemed absurd to me to let such petty personal concerns get in the way of understanding the truth, when that is the entire alleged purpose of your work, yet the tendency toward self-aggrandizement and diminution of others’ achievements seems as strong here as elsewhere in life.

On the other hand, I have noticed that the standards regarding my own arguments I am willing to push forward have dropped. I care less about appearing the fool, so I am willing to live with a higher ratio of foolish thought to true insight in my statements. I believe this is a function of age. Get a reputation for being foolish when you are young and people will have very long memories. Being foolish in old age may merely lead people to say, “Well, of course he did get dotty toward the end.” On the other hand, old age can comfortably coexist with some wisdom, most of your relatives being much younger and therefore more equally related on both sides of your genome, with important effects in the deeper future to which you may wish to attend.

TO FIGHT ONE’S OWN SELF-DECEPTION OR NOT?

Before we begin, we may well ask whether we should bother fighting in the first place. Self-deception has been favored by natural selection, the better to deceive others and ourselves, so why should we fight such tendencies in ourselves? They are advancing our own evolutionary interests. Surely it must be useful to adjust our self-deception strategically—toward situations where it is most likely to be effective—but oppose it in general. Why? Does this not violate our attachment to evolutionary self-interest?

My own answer is simple and personal. I could not care less. Self-deception, by serving deception, only encourages it, and more deception is not something I favor. 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 own temple or structure. You are agreeing to base your own behavior on falsehoods, with negative downstream effects that may be very hard to guess yet intensify with time.

It is worth noting that we have also been selected to rape on occasion, to wage aggressive war when it suits us, and to abuse our own children if this brings us some compensating return benefit, yet I embrace none of these actions, regardless of whether they have been favored in the past. As one evolutionist told me, his genes could not care less about him, and he feels the same way toward them.

One variable that does enter my thinking is the concept of an evolutionarily stable strategy, defined as one that can’t be driven out of a (well-defined) evolutionary game. As long as being honest, or trying to be, and as long as reducing one’s self-deception, or trying to, are strategies that cannot be driven to extinction, then I am happy to leave the long-term evolutionary outcome to the future. If my strategy of attempted honesty leads by logic to its evolutionary disappearance for good, I need give special thought to the matter, but as long as it is merely evolutionarily stable—perhaps held at low frequencies but not driven extinct—I think I will go with anti-self-deception as my approach to life, my so-called internal strategy, not that I have much hope of achieving it.

A SERIES OF MINOR VICTORIES FOLLOWED BY A MAJOR DISASTER

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 later on a sharp reversal, based in part on the blindness induced by this overconfidence. I may deny counterevidence to a happy relationship that is, in fact, deteriorating badly, each minor compromise with reality boosting mood temporarily while postponing the reckoning that may arrive with savage force. Denial, as we have seen, is often easy to get started but hard to stop. Put another way, self-deception often ends badly. This is as true of mega-events, such as misguided wars and economic policies, as it is for events in one’s personal life. We may enjoy a temporary benefit of deceiving others and self, but we suffer a long-term cost.

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. Long ago, work on rats proved that these kinds of connections—that is, those with a time delay—are among the most difficult for an organism to learn. Immediate rewards and costs are obvious, long-term life effects much more difficult to discern. In addition, there is a strong tendency to discount future effects compared to current ones so that long-term negative effects may be especially difficult to register. In what follows, I will try to sketch out a few anti-self-deception devices that may prove useful in life. There must be many, many more.

SIGNALS OF UNDERLYING MENTAL SCREW-UPS

Imagine you are washing dishes and carelessly smash a wineglass against the sink bottom, splintering it. What were you thinking about while you did this? If you are like me, more often than not, you were thinking of something hostile and foolish to do to someone else. In this particular case, I was imagining telling a woman something she did not need to know or wish to hear. The splintered glass served as a warning to me. As I picked up the fragments, I meditated on the stupidity of what I had just been contemplating, vowing that whatever I did, it would not be what had been in my mind when I shattered the glass. Likewise, I once tore off half my lower lip while shaving and simultaneously calling (in my mind) someone a motherfucker. Motherfucker, indeed—he was capable of mutilating me at a distance of miles.

I think the power of this correlation first occurred to me when I was driving off the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, around sunset one evening. I was driving too fast and cursing out in my mind a colleague with whom I had had an argument. Just as I peaked by calling him a punk in my mind, I nearly ran over two students trying to cross the intersection. They cursed and shook their fists, and I shook mine back, but it soon occurred to me that I had nearly run over two completely innocent bystanders over my conflict with the colleague. It did not take long to realize that the behavior I was contemplating was almost as self-destructive in its domain as my actual behavior was dangerous to others. I vowed to temper my language. I have no idea what my near-victims vowed.

It is not just anger. The other day I managed to break my plastic door handle while trying to enter my car. It was enthusiasm that did it—overexcitement planning a premature and overly positive e-mail as interpreted after the fact. I stored the message, later rewrote it, and later still, sent it.

I have found this rule so often in my life that it is one of the few things I actually think I have learned, at least on a short-term basis: avoid actions that are being contemplated while you are screwing up during ongoing life. As I age, I find myself scrutinizing my errors more finely—not just broken wineglasses but an unexpected lurch or tripping over the curb or some minor social failure—for deeper correlated mental mistakes. Occasionally the problem is so well hidden that I may go through several mistakes, including a broken glass and a dropped computer, before I see it. For example, I may be slowing down my work because I am unconsciously afraid of negative reaction to it when it is completed. When conscious, the remedy is obvious: speed up the work, if necessary by frequently cursing out the individual causing the slowdown.

CORRECTING FOR OUR OWN BIASES

As we have just seen, it is possible consciously to correct for a bias in yourself that you have noticed—in that case, negating intended behavior associated with mishaps in ongoing behavior. Sometimes you can correct your biases quantitatively. For example, I long ago noticed that when asked for my straight-from-the-heart, no-thinking estimate of a variable, I tended to overshoot by 30 percent in the positive direction. So when I wanted to know the approximate truth, I just subtracted 30 percent from my first estimate.

Consider another example. In which order do you search for something? Do you start first with the most likely place to find it and then search each successive place in descending order of likelihood? Or do you do it the other way around—start with the least likely and move up? The only rational system is the first—you minimize costs by always searching where the expected returns are highest—but most of my life I have done it exactly the other way around. Why? I believe it may have been a response to relatively harsh paternal reaction when I failed to turn up with what I had been sent to find. If you are very fearful as you set out to search for something, you may be tempted to start with the last place you would expect to find it—having eliminated this, you then move to a more hopeful alternative, and so on. Your mood goes right up until the very last choice, whereas in the rational search, you try your best shot first. If it fails, you start to panic; as each succeeding one fails, your panic grows. In one situation, hope grows; in the second, panic. Whatever the cause of my aberrant behavior, I see the pattern and how foolish it is, so I act consciously to counteract the bias, forcing my brain to focus first on the most likely place to find what is missing and then move steadily down from there. Yet my very first move is often still in the wrong direction, and only then does the correction set in.

I also noticed a curious fact about my mind where arithmetic is concerned. I grew up before calculators and I learned numerous tricks to solve arithmetic problems quickly. But if you put a dollar sign in front of the numbers, my mind short-circuited. I added when I should have subtracted, multiplied when I should have divided. I had to remove the dollar signs and reinsert them only at the end. I also had to proofread my work more carefully. When you are copying a long number and want to make sure you have made no mistakes, you can read through the numbers again, comparing them directly, but the better way is to read through them backward. That way, unconscious mental biases that may prevent you from seeing the error twice in a row are very unlikely to do so. Professional proofreaders often use the same device.

Another example of noticing a pattern of behavior and acting consciously against it concerns displacement activities. It is a fact of human (and monkey) psychology that aggression is easily displaced onto others. Angry with your spouse, you may be harder on your children or kick the dog, often to their surprise. It is as if your anger is incited and, looking around for targets, is blocked from the logical one, so it looks for nearby victims, preferably those smaller and less able to retaliate. This is such a common occurrence that everyone sees it coming, including me, and yet often, as before, the initial impulse is to indulge the anger, even if shortly following it with contrition and apology.

WHY ARE WE SO COMPULSIVE?

Why do we repeat ourselves so often? Why do we have compulsions that reappear despite our every effort to suppress them? Why do we have lifelong arguments inside ourselves that hardly change and are never resolved? Why no learning? The details differ from case to case, but I believe that genetics is almost always involved.

As much as 60 percent of all our genes are active in the human brain, the most genetically diverse tissue in our body (see Chapter 6). Thus we expect enormous genetic variation affecting behavior, including deceit and self-deception. This means we may often differ one from one another psychologically on genetic grounds alone, with no environmental or social rhyme or reason accessible to us. Only by studying genealogies in our immediate environment—especially in our own extended family—could we glimpse the genes in action, and this is very difficult. Thus, for all we know, much of the variation in social complexity around us is beyond our ability to understand, at least in causal terms.

Our genes do not change, although their expression patterns may. If they continue to act in the same way, we may experience this as a compulsion we are unable to change. Likewise, genes may have laid down an early structure to our desires and impulses, a structure that is difficult to modify. This may well mean that we have repetitive features to our behavior that we wish we could do without but that are entrained in us by our particular genotype.

As for our internal conflicts, remember that the interests of our maternal and paternal genes are in conflict throughout our lives, so that internal conflict resulting from such genes may be hard to resolve (see Chapter 4). On the other hand, as we have noted, the older we get, the more symmetrically we are related to others on our maternal and paternal genes (more to children and grandchildren, less to siblings and parents), so we are expected to become more internally peaceful as we head into our sixties and experience (separately) the “positivity effect” of old age (see Chapter 6).

Regarding fighting our compulsion, few are as strong or regular (in a man, at least) as the compulsion to seek out sexual companionship late in the evening, with whomever and on whatever terms. One lesson I have learned in more recent years—a good forty years after it actually would have been useful—is that it is better to go to bed lonely than to wake up guilty. Formulating this as a simple rule has helped me to enforce it, not always but more often than not. And when not, I am more conscious that I am waking up guilty and that I’d better pray myself back into my own good graces and become more conscious. I also believe that there is strength in the new approach. No guilt morning after morning starts to build up a feeling of genuine confidence and relaxed strength. You can set yourself on a better path, and now you see the reinforcing benefits. How long this effect will last, of course, is another matter, but on the assumption that repetitive behavior leading to repetitive guilt is suboptimal, the goal seems worthy and obvious.

THE VALUE OF BEING CONSCIOUS

There are two great axes in human mental life: intelligence and consciousness. You can be very bright but unconscious, or slow but conscious, or any of the combinations in between. Of course, consciousness comes in many forms and degrees. We can deny reality and then deny the denial. We can be aware that someone in a group means us harm but not know who. We can know who, but not why, why but not when, and so on.

Regarding deceit and self-deception, lack of consciousness of such tendencies in others may victimize us. We may be too likely to believe them, especially when they are in positions of authority. We may believe what is printed in newspapers. We may believe con artists. And we may easily embrace false historical narratives. To be conscious is to be aware of possibilities, including those arising in a world saturated with deceit and self-deception.

Consciousness and ability to change are two different variables. I am prone to be moralistic, overconfident, and dismissive of alternative views, more or less as expected for an organism of my type, but I am also conscious that I am biased in this way. I can cite chapter and verse. Do I wish it were otherwise? Yes. Can I change it? No. This to me is the real paradox or tragedy of self-deception—we wish we could do better but we can’t.

On the other hand, consciousness of deceit and self-deception allows us to enjoy it more, to understand it more deeply, to guard against it better (as it is directed against us), and, finally, to fight such tendencies in ourselves should we wish to. Mostly it gives us much greater insight into the social world surrounding us, everything from the lies of the government and the media to the deeper self-deceptions we tell ourselves and our loved ones.

THE DANGER OF FANTASY IN PROPAGATING DECEPTION

There is a kind of self-deception—indulging in fantasy—that makes deception less rational and less likely to succeed. Certainly for serious crimes, it is valuable to think the matter through consciously and carefully in some detail. Neither self-deception nor (especially) fantasy is apt to be of much use. Consider minor crimes. You are trying to sneak a small amount of illicit drugs through customs. The one thing you haven’t thought through is what you are going to do when you get caught, perhaps because it is unpleasant to contemplate. You may also imagine that not thinking about the matter will be to your advantage, sailing through customs based on a pretense of innocence, bolstered by absence of fear. But exactly the opposite is likely to happen. Having failed to think about what you will do when caught, you become more and more nervous as you get closer to that moment. If you were calm in your knowledge of how you would handle this awkward situation, you would project much more nearly the innocence you would like to. The Times Square bomber was required to leave his engine running to set off his bomb properly, but he was not required to have his full set of house keys attached to the ring. Did he figure the ensuing fire would incinerate them or did he simply fail to carefully think through his crime?

Two absurd examples of the futility of letting fantasy guide deception were provided by the same individual, a distinguished mathematician who was an expert on chaos theory in the 1980s. In each case, he was trying to move small quantities of hashish across international borders, and in each case, he became persona non grata in the country he was visiting, unable to return for five years. In the UK he tried to send the hashish to his girlfriend in Germany, hollowing out a mathematics book, putting it in a university envelope, with her address and his, and marking it fourth class, as indeed it was (a book). But fourth class permits the postmaster to inspect the contents at will. The post office was in the basement of his building, and the package never left, but he did. The point is that his first job was to send off something that could not be traced to him—not to create the perfect pseudo-book for the Germans, complete with a real university stamp and fourth-class postage to show he had nothing to hide.

He then tried to bring hashish into Italy by train from France. He dressed up as a Catholic priest, on the theory perhaps that a priest could get away with murder in Italy, which may well be true, but first he had to convince the Italians that he was, in fact, a priest. Since he had a large, Karl Marx beard, appearance to match, and spoke no Italian, the customs officers naturally became suspicious. Neither he nor the drugs entered Italy. In each case, he appeared to be caught up in the fantasy of deception, producing elaborate hoaxes, which failed to either defend himself or fool the adversary.

THE BENEFITS OF PRAYER AND MEDITATION

Mindful meditation can produce long-term benefits in both mood and immune function. Prayer may have similar effects. Meditation and prayer may also be used against self-deception directly, but this may depend very much on the kind of prayer we use.

Although I had studied the gospels deeply by the time I was thirteen and had given myself over completely to this system of thought insofar as I understood it, I never knew that I never knew how to say the Lord’s Prayer until I was on an airplane years later seated next to a “religious,” that is, a person who had given himself over to the understanding and love of God. Beyond a priest or a monk, he was a lone soul, way out there in his religious knowledge. So we got to talking. Did I pray? he asked. Yes, I prayed. How did I pray? I mostly said the Lord’s Prayer. And how did I say it? And here I burst forth with the old Presbyterian marching band version on which I had been raised. Out rolled the prayer as so much martial music and self-assertion:

Our father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

It rolls right along as if you are telling God where and what she is. It even ends with an assertion that, spoken properly, inverts meaning—the way we act on earth, with your blessings, is the way you would have us act (as in heaven). No, no, no, said my new friend. Here is how you pray: the emphasis is on your own humility, on submitting to God’s will—“Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come” with “thy” said very softly, and so on. I never prayed the old way again. Subject yourself to the will of the Lord and then be yourself.

If we really want to learn from experience in the sense of transforming the possibility that we will make the same mistake again, just looking at the phenomenon and saying “there goes good old self-deception again” does not do the trick. One has an anecdote for future amusement, but no change in the underlying dynamics. For this we need much deeper confrontations with ourselves and our inadequacies, ones often drenched in tears and humility. Even then it must usually be combined with a daily meditation contra the old behavior for it to have any chance of working. Seeing your self-deception in retrospect is one thing, decreasing its frequency in the future a much deeper matter.

VALUE OF FRIENDS AND COUNSELORS

As we saw in Chapter 6, disclosure of trauma, even if only to a private journal, produces both immune and related mood benefits, and this is probably at least equally true for sharing the trauma with a friend or a counselor. Sometimes the latter is necessary because we are unwilling to reveal deeply personal issues even to our close friends, but we will do so to a professional sworn to secrecy whom we typically encounter only at counseling sessions.

Friends are also useful as commentators on our ongoing life. I will talk with a friend about a recent unfortunate interpersonal interaction and tell him I am thinking of calling the person and giving him or her a good dose of personal abuse. He always argues against it and is much freer to do so than am I. He does not suffer the internal feelings I do; he simply asks what the consequence of my act will be. How will I feel afterward and what benefits will I thereby gain and what new pain will I receive in return for my spiteful behavior?

Friends have another advantage: they see the interaction from the outside, as if others were actors in a play. I am embedded in the play but they are not. They can see what I cannot. How often we look at a political leader and say, “But it is perfectly obvious what you should be doing,” and yet often it is probably not obvious to the person caught up in the action. A tree among trees, they have a harder time seeing the forest. I have often thought the popularity of plays partly came from the fact that the audience could see all, while the actors were constrained by their position on the stage.

AN INVITATION TO SELF-DECEPTION AND PERSONAL DISASTER

Try to avoid overconfidence and unconsciousness. Each is dangerous; together they can be deadly, as we saw so vividly in several airplane crashes. Showing off is a special kind of behavior in which we tend to both be overconfident and deliberately exaggerate our behavior to impress others. This can create a very bad mismatch between behavior and reality. The closest I myself came to experiencing the potentially dreadful survival costs of showing off occurred on a lizard-collecting expedition high (above one thousand meters) in the Blue Mountains north of Kingston, Jamaica. My muscular young nephew-in-law was driving the car, itself a “muscle car” in having too small a steering wheel, requiring the quick application of real muscle to turn it properly. Among the team was a young woman, allegedly with me but she seemed to be admiring my nephew’s muscular mastery of the road all too much for my comfort, so I took over the driving. We were soon rounding a corner too fast, one I was not sufficiently strong to handle, and the car drifted slowly toward the precipice, until it was caught by a small sand embankment, three wheels in the air, tilting downward, a tree six meters below that might have caught us, otherwise a clear one hundred–meter drop to a rocky death. The man behind me and I were the first ones out, and we had to reach down into the tilting car to pull out the other two, including my by then thoroughly terrified “girlfriend.” Someone had white rum and we poured some on the ground, threw some ganja seeds on top, and thanked the Almighty for our survival. I do not remember seeing the young lady again.

For this and many other reasons, I regard showing off as one of the most dangerous things you can do. I believe your attention has shifted entirely to persuading others and away from current reality. While I am focused on the young woman next to me and on impressing her—wanting to divert her attention from my more muscular nephew—I am paying little attention to driving, careless and overconfident and completely unconscious that I am doing so, not at ground level but on some narrow road high in the mountains.

A NEVER-ENDING EXTRAVAGANZA

There is no doubt that deceit and self-deception—if it does nothing else—provides us with an unending extravaganza of nonsense, comedic and tragic, large and small. No human group has a monopoly on the disease, nor is anyone immune. How else can one explain that about 20 percent of US citizens in 2011 claim to believe that their president is a Muslim and 40 percent say he was not born in the United States. Or that the argument can be seriously advanced (and believed) that the same president has a “deep-seated hatred of white people,” when his mother was white and he was raised entirely by her and her family. It has famously been said about the United States that no one ever lost a dollar underestimating the intelligence of its people. It could be said likewise that no one has lost a political position in the United States by underestimating the political intelligence of the US voter. In any case, the level of ignorance regarding fundamental facts is astonishing.

Consider other regular occurrences. Absent self-deception, how do we explain that Ponzi scheme after Ponzi scheme after Ponzi scheme marches across the pages of our newspapers despite a one hundred–year record of financial disaster (at least for all those rushing to join the scheme once it is under way). Or how—without self-deception—should we explain that every year in the United States another anti-homosexual politician or preacher is shown to have a hidden homosexual life?

Or to turn to real tragedy, without deceit and self-deception, how can we explain people across the world of various faiths murdering their daughters and sisters for often trivial infractions of local sexual mores in so-called honor killings? It is hard to believe that the feeble Y chromosome, with only a few dozen protein-coding genes, could do the job. But patriarchy—benefiting all or most of a male’s genes even at the expense of his wife and female relatives—could, with proper mental adjustments, bring about this horror. Men (largely) who murder their daughters or sisters, or horribly disfigure them or drive them to suicide, do not appear to do so with a guilty conscience. Quite the contrary, they profess moral indignation and are outraged at the sins causing them to take such extreme measures. This appears to be a case of innocent women caught in the crosshairs of conflict between local patrilines, not quite out-groups or unrelated neighbors, but sets of related genes in paternally related people. As we have seen when discussing war and religion, these kinds of conflicts are especially likely to induce self-deception, along with heartless and cruel behavior.

The newspapers disgorge fresh material daily. It turns out that the safety culture at Japanese nuclear reactors was so bad, even NASA could admire it. All effort was put into a public relations campaign to convince the country that the reactors were safe, while no effort was spent on what to do in case of crisis. Although it’s the world’s leader in robotics—Japanese robots can run on two feet, sing, dance, and play the violin—none were designed to work in a crippled, radioactive plant, because “introducing them would inspire fear.” Japan had to import them from a Massachusetts company better known for making vacuum cleaners. Nor did they have a way of introducing cooling water; they had to import a 203-foot-long water pump from China. But as we have seen so often in this book, when a company or government is in full-sale mode, mundane goals such as safety are cast aside.

Meanwhile, science continues to spit out examples. Metaphor is so strong that we wish to wash our hands when we have done something immoral (= dirty), but the form of our misbehavior can affect the disinfectant chosen: soap for a nasty e-mail sent by hand but mouthwash for a nasty message left on an answering machine. In principle, some of these subtle, unconscious associations are available for notice by others, especially those close by and motivated to do so.

And now conference calls by businesses about quarterly earnings have been subjected to linguistic analysis by economists for cues to deception, mostly using later performance restatements as the arbiter of truth. Sure enough, some of the usual villains reappear—people avoid first person references when lying, preferring “they” or impersonal pronouns, such as “people.” People use fewer extreme positive and negative terms—as if moderating their position for the sake of plausibility—and fewer certainty and hesitation terms (as if having memorized their spiel). They also prefer references to general knowledge but avoid references to shareholder value and creation. Logic can go either way. Perhaps you hype shareholder value to fool others. But the evidence suggests otherwise. You shy away from the truth (shareholder value) because that is where you are weakest, but then you are stuck with weaker pleas to aspects of “general” knowledge. The above work is tentative but very appealing. At last we are moving out of the experimental psychology lab, a near-hopeless place in which to investigate deception and its consequences.

Finally, consider a clever experiment recently run on undergraduates. Although artificial in the extreme—telling an imaginary lie to a teacher (high status) versus an imaginary lie to a fellow student (equal status)—people forgot more simultaneously learned words in the high-status case than in the equal-status one, as if self-deception (including memory impairment) were more often practiced against high-status opponents.

One nice feature of the study of deceit and self-deception is that we will never run out of examples. Quite the contrary, they are being generated more rapidly than we can deconstruct them. At least we can enjoy the never-ending extravaganza while trying to deepen our consciousness. Everybody can join in, not just academics or scientists. The logic for understanding self-deception is simple and the phenomenon universal.