Deception and Self-Deception - Social Strife

The Moral Animal - Whe We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology - Robert Wright 1995

Deception and Self-Deception
Social Strife

What wretched doings come from the ardor of fame; the love of truth alone would never make one man attack another bitterly.

— Letter to J. D. Hooker (1848)1

Natural selection's disdain for the principle of truth in advertising is widely evident. Some female fireflies in the genus Photuris mimic the mating flash of females in the genus Photinus and then, having attracted a Photinus male, eat him. Some orchids look quite like female wasps, the better to lure male wasps that then unwittingly spread pollen. Some harmless snakes have evolved the coloration of poisonous snakes, gaining undeserved respect. Some butterfly pupa bear an uncanny resemblance to a snake's head — fake scales, fake eyes — and, if bothered, start rattling around menacingly.2 In short: organisms may present themselves as whatever it is in their genetic interest to seem like.

People appear to be no exception. In the late 1950s and early sixties, the (non-Darwinian) social scientist Erving Goffman made a stir with a book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which stressed how much time we all spend on stage, playing to one {263} audience or another, striving for effect. But there is a difference between us and many other performers in the animal kingdom. Whereas the female Photuris is, presumably, under no illusion as to its true identity, human beings have a way of getting taken in by their acts. Sometimes, Goffman marveled, a person is "sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality."

What modern Darwinism brings to Goffman's observation is, among other things, a theory about the function of the confusion we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better. This hypothesis was tossed out during the mid-1970s by both Richard Alexander and Robert Trivers. In his foreword to Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, Trivers noted Dawkins's emphasis on the role of deception in animal life and added, in a much-cited passage, that if indeed "deceit is fundamental to animal communication, then there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray — by the subtle signs of self-knowledge — the deception being practised." Thus, Trivers ventured, "the conventional view that natural selection favors nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution."4

It should come as no surprise that the study of self-deception makes for murky science.5 "Awareness" is a region with ill-defined and porous borders. The truth, or certain aspects of it, may float in and out of awareness, or hover on the periphery, present yet not distinct. And even assuming we could confirm that someone is wholly unaware of information relevant to some situation, whether this constitutes self-deception is another question altogether. Is the information somewhere in the mind, blocked from consciousness by a censor designed for that function? Or did the person just fail to take note of the information in the first place? If so, is that selective perception itself a result of specific evolutionary design for self-deception? Or a more general reflection of the fact that the mind can hold only so much information (and the conscious mind even less) Such difficulties of analysis are one reason the science Trivers envisioned two decades ago — a rigorous study of self-deception, which {264} might finally yield a clear picture of the unconscious mind — has not arrived.

Still, the intervening years have tended to validate the drift of Dawkins's and Trivers's and Alexander's worldview: our accurate depiction of reality — to others, and, sometimes, to ourselves — is not high on natural selection's list of priorities. The new paradigm helps us map the terrain of human deception and self-deception, if at a low level of resolution.

We've already explored one realm of deception: sex. Men and women may mislead each other — and even, in the process, themselves — about the likely endurance of their commitment or about their likely fidelity. There are two other large realms in which the presentation of self, and the perception of others, has great Darwinian consequence: reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy. Here, as with sex, honesty can be a major blunder. In fact, reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy may together be responsible for most of the dishonesty in our species — which, in turn, accounts for a good part of the dishonesty in the animal kingdom. We are far from the only dishonest species, but we are surely the most dishonest, if only because we do the most talking.


People don't seek status per se. They don't chart out their desired ascent and pursue it as methodically as a field general prosecutes a war. Well, okay, some do. Maybe all of us do sometimes. But the quest for status is also built more finely into the psyche. People in all cultures, whether they fully realize it or not, want to wow their neighbors, to rise in local esteem.

The thirst for approval appears early in life. Darwin had crystalline memories of impressing people with his tree-climbing skills: "My supposed admirer was old Peter Hailes the bricklayer, & the trre the Mountain Ash on the lawn."6 The other side of this coin is an early and continuing aversion to disdain or ridicule. Darwin wrote that his oldest son, at age two and a half, became "extremely sensitive to ridicule, and was so suspicious that he often thought people who were laughing and talking together were laughing at him."7 Darwin's son may have been abnormal in this regard, but that's {265} beside the point. (Though it's interesting to note how many psychopathologies, including paranoia, may simply be evolutionarily ingrained tendencies turned up a notch too high.)8 The point is that if he was abnormal, he was abnormal in degree and not in kind. For all of us, avoiding ridicule is, from an early age, little short of an obsession. Recall Darwin's remarks about "the burning sense of shame which most of us have felt even after the interval of years, when calling to mind some accidental breach of a trifling though fixed rule of etiquette."9 Such a hair-trigger mechanism suggests large stakes. Indeed: just as high public esteem can bring great genetic rewards, very low public esteem can be genetically calamitous. In numerous nonhuman primate communities — and in not a few human ones — extremely unpopular individuals are pushed to the margins of the society and even beyond, where survival and reproduction become perilous.10 For that matter, a drop in status at any rung on the ladder carries costs. Whatever your place in society, leaving the sort of impression that exerts upward pressure on it is often worth the trouble (in Darwinian terms), even if the effect is slight.

Whether the impression is accurate is, by itself, irrelevant. When a chimp threatens a rival, or responds to a threat from one (or from a predator), its hair stands on end, making it seem larger than life. Vestiges of this illusion can be seen in people whose hair stands on end when they're frightened. But as a rule, humans do their self-inflating verbally. Darwin, in speculating about when in evolution the regard for public opinion became so strong, noted that "the rudest savages" show such a regard "by preserving the trophies of their prowess" and "by their habit of excessive boasting."11

In Victorian England, boasting was frowned on, and Darwin was an expert on how not to do it. Many modern cultures share this taste, and in them "excessive boasting" is merely a phase through which children pass.12 But what is the next phase? A lifetime of more measured boasting. Darwin himself was good at this. In his autobiography, he noted that his books "have been translated into many languages, and passed through several editions in foreign countries. I have heard it said that the success of a work abroad is the best test of its enduring value. I doubt whether this is at all trustworthy; but judged by this {266} standard my name ought to last for a few years."13 Well, if he really doubted that this standard is trustworthy, why judge by it?

Presumably, how much blatant boasting you do depends on the credible means of self-advertisement in your social environment (and was probably calibrated by feedback from kin and peers early on). But if you don't feel even some urge to disseminate news of your triumphs, however subtly, and some reluctance to talk widely about your failures, you aren't functioning as designed.

Does such self-advertisement often involve deception? Not in the grossest sense. To tell huge lies about ourselves, and believe them, would be dangerous. Lies can be found out, and they force us to spend time and energy remembering which lies we've told to whom. Samuel Butler, himself a Victorian evolutionist (and the man who noted that a hen is just an egg's way of making another egg) observed that "the best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way."14 Indeed. There are kinds of lies that, being slight, or hard to discredit, are hard to get tangled up in, and these are the sorts of lies we should expect people to tell. Among fishermen, the notorious and heartfelt embellishment of "the one that got away" has become a staple source of humor.

Such distortion may initially be conscious, or, at least, half-conscious. But if it goes unchallenged, the vague awareness of exaggeration can subside upon successive retellings. Cognitive psychologists have shown how the details of a story, even if false, embed themselves in the original memory with repetition.15

It goes without saying that the fish got away through no fault of the fisherman's. The assignment of blame and of credit, an area where objective truth is elusive, offers rich terrain for self-inflation. The tendency to attribute our successes to skill, and our failures to circumstance — luck, enemies, Satan — has been demonstrated in the laboratory and, anyway, is obvious.16 In games where chance plays a role, we tend to chalk up our losses to the luck of the draw and our victories to cleverness.

And we don't just say this; we believe it. Darwin was an enthusiastic backgammon player and, not surprisingly, he often won when playing against his children. One of his daughters recalls that "we {267} kept a list of the doublets thrown by each, as I was convinced that he threw better than myself."17 This conviction is familiar to losing backgammon players everywhere. It helps preserve our belief in our competence and thus helps us convince others of it. It also provides a steady source of income for backgammon hustlers.

Self-aggrandizement always comes at the expense of others. To say that you lost a game through luck is to say that your opponent won through luck. And even leaving aside games and other openly competitive endeavors, to toot your own horn is to mute other horns for status is a relative thing. Your gain is someone else's loss.

And vice versa: someone else's loss is your gain. This is where the unconscious pursuit of status can turn nasty. In a small group (a group, say, the size of a hunter-gatherer village), a person has a broad interest in deflating the reputations of others, especially others of the same sex and similar age, with whom there exists a natural rivalry And again, the best way to convince people of something, includ ing their neighbors' shortcomings, is to believe what you're saying. One would therefore expect, in a hierarchical species endowed with language, that the organisms would often play up their own feats, downplay the feats of others, and do both things with conviction. Indeed, in the social psychology laboratory, people not only tend to attribute success to skill and failure to circumstance; they tend to reverse the pattern when evaluating others.18 Luck is the thing that makes you fail and other people succeed; ability works the other way around.

Often the derogation of others hovers at a barely detectable level, and it may disappear if they are kin or friends. But expect it to reach high volume when two people are vying for something that there's only one of — a particular woman, a particular man, a particular professional distinction.19 One reviewer who savaged The Origin of Species was Richard Owen, an eminent zoologist and paleontolo gist who had his own ideas about how species might change. After the review came out, Darwin noted that "the Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book has been talked about." Had Owen self-servingly convinced himself (and hence others) that a rival's work was inferior? Or had Darwin self-servingly convinced {268} himself (and hence others) that a man who threatened his status was driven by selfish motives? Probably one or the other, and possibly both.

The keen sensitivity with which people detect the flaws of their rivals is one of nature's wonders. It takes a Herculean effort to control this tendency consciously, and the effort must be repeated on a regular basis. Some people can summon enough restraint not to talk about their rivals' worthlessness; they may even utter some Victorian boilerplate about a "worthy opponent." But to rein in the perception itself — unending, unconscious, all-embracing search for signs of unworthiness — is truly a job for a Buddhist monk. Honesty of evaluation is simply beyond the reach of most mortals.

If advertisement is so deeply ingrained in people, why are there self-deprecators? One answer is that self-deprecation is without cost when everyone knows better, and can actually have some benefit; a reputation for humility boosts the credibility of subtle boasting. (Witness Darwin.) Another answer is that the genetic program for mental development is very complex and unfolds in a world full of uncertainty (a world quite unlike the ancestral environment); don't expect all human behavior to serve genetic interest. The third answer is the most interesting: social hierarchy has, via natural selection, had some ironic effects on the human mind. There are times when it makes good evolutionary sense to have a genuinely low opinion of "yourself and to share that opinion with others.

The whole origin of status, remember, lies in the fact that some neighbors — some of a chicken's fellow chickens, say — are too formidable to challenge profitably. Genes that build brains that tell the animal which neighbors are worth challenging, and which aren't, flourish. How exactly do the brains convey this message? Not by sending little "Challenge" or "Don't Challenge" subtitles across the eyeball. Presumably, the message travels via feeling; animals feel either up to the challenge or not up to it. And animals at the very bottom of the hierarchy — animals that get pummeled by all comers — will get the latter feeling chronically. You could call it low self-esteem. {269}

In fact, you could say that low self-esteem evolved as a way to reconcile people to subordinate status when reconciliation is in their genetic interest.

Don't expect people with low self-esteem to hide it. It may be in their genetic interest not only to accept low status, but, in at least some circumstances, to convey their acceptance of it — to behave submissively so that they aren't erroneously perceived as a threat and treated as such.21

There's nothing necessarily self-deceptive about low self-esteem. Indeed, any feeling designed to keep people from aspiring to more than they can attain should, in theory, bear at least rough correspondence to reality. But not always. If one function of low self-esteem is to keep high-status people satisfied with your deference, then its level, strictly speaking, should depend on how much deference it takes to do that; you may, in the presence of someone powerful, feel a deeper humility — about your intelligence, for example — than an objective observer would see as warranted. The anthropologist John Hartung, who in 1988 raised the possibility of self-deceptively lowering self-esteem — "deceiving down," he called it — has come up with another kind of example. Women, he suggested, may sometimes falsely subordinate themselves to men. If, say, household income depends partly on the husband having high self-esteem at the workplace, a woman may find herself unwittingly "building her husband's self-confidence by providing a standard of lower competence."22

An ingenious experiment has shown how deeply the truth about ourselves can be buried. When people hear a recorded voice, their galvanic skin response (GSR) rises, and it rises even more if the voice they hear is their own. Surprisingly, when people are asked whether the voice is theirs, they are, on average, right less often than is their GSR. What's intriguing is the pattern of error. After self-esteem is lowered, by making subjects "fail" on some contrived task, they tend to deny that the voice is theirs even though their GSR shows that at some level they "know" the truth. When self-esteem is raised, they start claiming other voices as their own, although again their GSR shows that somewhere within, the information is tallied correctly. Robert Trivers, reviewing this experiment, wrote, "it is as if we {270} expand ourselves ... when succeeding and shrink our presentation of self when failing, yet we are largely unconscious of this process."23

Feeling bad about yourself is good for things other than sending people self-serving signals. To begin with, there is the function, mentioned above, of burning shame: a wrist-slapping for social blunders, a way of discouraging the repeat of status-reducing behaviors. Also, as the evolutionary psychiatrist Randolph Nesse has stressed, mood can efficiently focus energy.24 People of all statuses may get lethargic and glum when social, sexual, or professional prospects look dim, and then grow optimistic and energetic when opportunities arise. It's as if they had been resting up for a big match. And if no opportunities arise, and lethargy passes into mild depression, this mood may goad them into a fruitful shift of course — changing careers, jettisoning ungrateful friends, abandoning the pursuit of an elusive mate.

Darwin offers a good example of the manifold utility of bad feelings. In July of 1857, two years before publishing The Origin of Species, he wrote to his friend Joseph Hooker, "I have been making some calculations about varieties talking yesterday with Lubbock, he has pointed out to me the grossest blunder which I have made in principle, & which entails 2 or 3 weeks lost work." This left Darwin feeling even less inclined than usual to stress his worth. "I am the most miserable, bemuddled, stupid Dog in all England," he wrote, "& am ready to cry at [sic] vexation at my blindness & presumption."25

Count the ways this glumness might be valuable. One: as a self-esteem deflator. Darwin had suffered a social humiliation. In a face-to face encounter, he was shown to be gravely confused on an issue within his supposed expertise. Perhaps some long-term slippage in self-esteem was in order; perhaps he should tone down the ambition of his scholarship, so as not to be perceived as a threat to England's great intellectual stars, who would in the end outshine him anyway.

Two: as a negative reinforcement. Lingering pain from this incident may have served to discourage Darwin from repeating behaviors (the confused analysis, in this case) that lead to humiliation. Perhaps he'd be more careful next time.

And three: as a course changer. If this gloom had persisted, even verging on depression, it might have altered Darwin's behavior more {271} radically, diverting his energy into wholly new channels. "It is enough to make me tear up all my M.S. & give up in despair," he wrote the same day to Lubbock, thanking him for the correction and apologizing for being so "muddled."26 As we know, Darwin didn't tear up the manuscript. But if he had encountered a string of setbacks of this magnitude, he might well have abandoned the project. And this would probably have been a good thing for his long-term social status, if he indeed had been too consistently muddled to write an impressive book on the origin of species.

These three explanations for Darwin's gloom aren't mutually exclusive. Natural selection is a frugal and resourceful process, making multiple use of existing chemicals, and of the feelings those chemicals carry. This is one reason simple statements about the function of any neurotransmitter, such as serotonin, or any one mood, such as gloom, are tricky. But it is also a reason that a Darwinian doesn't feel stymied when something like a low (or high) opinion of oneself turns out to have several equally plausible purposes. They may all be genuine.

Where does truth belong on the spectrum of self-esteem? If one month, following a string of professional and social successes, you're fairly brimming with serotonin and feel enduringly competent, likable, and attractive, and the next month, after a few setbacks, and some serotonin slippage, you feel enduringly worthless, you can't have been right both times. Which time were you wrong? Is serotonin truth serum or a mind-numbing narcotic?

Maybe neither. When you're feeling either very good or very bad about yourself, it probably means that a large body of evidence is being hidden from view. The most truthful times come between the extremes.

Anyway, maybe "truth" is best left out of this altogether. Whether you're a "good" or a "worthless" person is a question whose objective meaning is, at best, elusive. And even when "truth" can be clearly defined, it is a concept to which natural selection is indifferent. To be sure, if an accurate portrayal of reality, to oneself or to others, can help spread one's genes, then accuracy of perception or communication may evolve. And often this will be the case (when, say, you remember where food is stored, and share the data with offspring or siblings). But when accurate reporting and genetic interest do thus {272} intersect, that's just a happy coincidence. Truth and honesty are never favored by natural selection in and of themselves. Natural selection neither "prefers" honesty nor "prefers" dishonesty. It just doesn't care.


Reciprocal altruism brings its own agenda to the presentation of self, and thus to the deception of self. Whereas status hierarchies place a premium on our seeming competent, attractive, strong, smart, et-cetera, reciprocal altruism puts its accent on niceness, integrity, fairness. These are the things that make us seem like worthy reciprocal altruists. They make people want to strike up relationships with us. Puffing up our reputations as decent and generous folks can't hurt, and it often helps.

Richard Alexander, in particular, has stressed the evolutionary importance of moral self-advertisement. In The Biology of Moral Systems he writes that "modern society is filled with myths" about our goodness: "that scientists are humble and devoted truth-seekers; that doctors dedicate their lives to alleviation of suffering; that teachers dedicate their lives to their students; that we are all basically law-abiding, kind, altruistic souls who place everyone's interests before our own."28

There's no reason moral self-inflation has to involve self-deception. But there's little doubt that it can. The unconscious convolutions by which we convince ourselves of our goodness were seen in the laboratory before the theory of reciprocal altruism was around to explain them. In various experiments, subjects have been told to behave cruelly toward someone, to say mean things to him or even deliver what they thought were electric shocks. Afterwards, the subjects tended to derogate their victim, as if to convince themselves that he deserved his mistreatment — although they knew he wasn't being punished for any wrongdoing and, aside from that, knew only what you can learn about a person by briefly mistreating him in a laboratory netting. But when subjects delivered "shocks" to someone after being told he would get to retaliate by shocking them later, they tended not to derogate him.29 It is as if the mind were programmed with a simple rule: so long as accounts are settled, no special rationalization is in order; the symmetry of exchange is sufficient defense of your {273} behavior. But if you cheat or abuse another person who doesn't cheat or abuse you, you should concoct reasons why he deserved it. Either way, you'll be prepared to defend your behavior if challenged; either way, you'll be prepared to fight with indignation any allegations that you're a bad person, a person unworthy of trust.

Our repertoire of moral excuses is large. Psychologists have found that people justify their failure to help others by minimizing, variously, the person's plight ("That's not an assault, it's a lover's quarrel"), their own responsibility for the plight, and their own competence to help.30

It's always hard to be sure that people really believe such excuses. But a famous series of experiments shows (in a quite different context) how oblivious the conscious mind can be to its real motivation, and how busily it sets about justifying the products of that motivation.

The experiments were conducted on "split-brain" patients — people who have had the link between left and right hemispheres cut to stop severe epileptic seizures. The surgery has surprisingly little effect on everyday behavior, but under contrived conditions, strange things can happen. If the word nut is flashed onto the left half of the visual field (which is processed by the right hemisphere), but not onto the right half (processed by the left hemisphere), the subject reports no conscious awareness of the signal; the information never enters the left hemisphere, which in most people controls language and seems to dominate consciousness. Meanwhile, though, the subject's left hand — controlled by the right hemisphere — will, if allowed to rummage through a box of objects, seize on a nut. The subject reports no awareness of this fact unless allowed to see what his left hand is up to.31

When it comes time for the subject to justify his behavior, the left brain passes from professed ignorance into unknowing dishonesty. One example: the command walk is sent to a man's right brain, and he complies. When asked where he's going, his left brain, not privy to the real reason, comes up with another one: he's going to get a soda, he says, convinced. Another example: a nude image is flashed to the right brain of a woman, who then lets loose an embarrassed laugh. Asked what's so funny, she gives an answer that's less racy than the truth.32

Michael Gazzaniga, who conducted some of the split-brain {274} experiments, has said that language is merely the "press agent" for other parts of the mind; it justifies whatever acts they induce, convincing the world that the actor is a reasonable, rational, upstanding person.33 It may be that the realm of consciousness itself is in large part such a press agent — the place where our unconsciously written press releases are infused with the conviction that gives them force. Consciousness cloaks the cold and self-serving logic of the genes in a variety of innocent guises. The Darwinian anthropologist Jerome Barkow has written, "It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as our folk psychology would have it, a decision-maker)."

One could go further and suggest that the folk psychology itself is built into our genes. In other words, not only is the feeling that we are "consciously" in control of our behavior an illusion (as is suggested by other neurological experiments as well); it is a purposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims. For centuries people have approached the philosophical debate over free will with the vague but powerful intuition that free will does exist; we (the conscious we) are in charge of our behavior. It is not beyond the pale to suggest that this nontrivial chunk of intellectual history can be ascribed fairly directly to natural selection — that one of the most hallowed of all philosophical positions is essentially an adaptation.


The warping effect of reciprocal altruism goes beyond a general belief in our own uprightness. It can also be seen in our skewed social accounting systems. Central to reciprocal altruism is the monitoring of exchanges — the record of whom you owe, who owes you, and how much is owed. From the gene's point of view, monitoring the two sides of the record with equal diligence would be foolish. If you end up getting slightly more than you give, so much the better. But if you give more than you get by even the smallest increment, that's an increment of loss.

That people keep closer track of what they're owed than of what they owe is hardly a news flash from the frontiers of behavioral {275} science. It has been so obvious for so long that a century and a half ago it served as the unspoken basis for a little joke Darwin relayed to his sister Caroline. In a letter from the Beagle, he wrote of a man who "in one of Lord Byrons [sic] letters is said to be so altered after an illness that his oldest Creditors would not know him." Darwin himself amassed some debts in college, and one biographer reports that he "felt rather badly about these debts and, when mentioning his extravagances in after years, seems to have scaled them down by a half."36

Darwin selectively remembered debts of an intellectual sort as well. At a young age, he had read his grandfather Erasmus's writings on evolution. They include a sentence that strikingly anticipates sexual selection, the variant of natural selection that has made males so combative: "The final cause of this contest amongst the males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved." Yet when Darwin included, in the third edition of the Origin, a prefatory outline of intellectual precursors, he dismissed his grandfather in a footnote as a pre-Lamarckian harbinger of Lamarck's confusion. And in his Autobiography, Darwin spoke disparagingly of Erasmus's Zoonomia, the book that, judging by the above quotation, may well have planted in Darwin's mind the seed not only of evolutionism, but of the theory of natural selection. It is a safe bet that Darwin's ever-vigilant conscience wouldn't have let him consciously give such short shrift to his own grandfather.

Darwin was not generally remiss in giving intellectual credit. He was selectively remiss. As one biographer wrote, "generous though Darwin always was to those whose empirical observations he found useful, he barely acknowledged those whose ideas had influenced him."38 What a useful pattern. Darwin lavished credit on scores of minor-league researchers, while diminishing the few predecessors who might have been even remote contenders for his crown; he thus incurred the debt of many young, rising scientists, while risking the offense mainly of the old and the dead. All in all, a fairly sound formula for high status. (Of course, the formula itself — "don't credit people who foreshadowed your theory" — isn't written in the genes. {276}

But there could well be a built-in tendency to refrain from bestowing status-enhancing benefits on people whose status threatens your own.)

The egocentric bias in accounting ranges from the epic to the minor. Wars routinely feature a deep and sure sense of grievance on both sides, a weighty belief in the enemy's guilt. And next-door neighbors, even good friends, can bring comparable conviction to their differing historical records. This fact can get lost in some strata of modern society, where a gloss of cordiality covers everyday life. But there is every reason to believe that through history and prehistory, reciprocal altruism has carried an everyday tension, an implicit or explicit haggling. Bronislaw Malinowski observed that the Trobriand Islanders seemed absorbed in the giving of gifts and were "inclined to boast of their own gifts, with which they are entirely satisfied, while disputing the value and even quarrelling over what they themselves receive."39

Was there ever a culture in which people didn't regularly disagree — over goods in a market, over salaries at work, over zoning variances, over whose child was wronged by whose child? The resulting arguments can have real consequence. They're seldom, by themselves, life or death matters, but they affect material well-being, and during human evolution a small slice of material well-being has at times been the difference between life and death, between attracting a mate and not attracting one, between three surviving offspring and two. So there is reason to suspect an innate basis for biased social accounting. The bias appears to be universal, and seems intuitively to be a corollary of the theory of reciprocal altruism.

Still, once you look at the situation with something other than intuition, things grow less clear. In Axelrod's computer, the key to TIT FOR TAT's success was that it didn't try to get the better of its neighbors; it was always willing to settle for an exactly equal exchange. Creatures that weren't this easily satisfied — creatures that tried to "cheat," to get more than they gave — went extinct. If evolution thus punishes the greedy, why do humans seem unconsciously compelled to give a bit less than they get?

The first step toward an answer is to see that getting more than {277} you give isn't the same as "cheating."40 Axelrod's computer conflated the two by making life binary: either you cooperate, or you don't; you're nice or you're a cheater. Real life is more finely graded. So bountiful are the benefits of non-zero-sumness that slightly uneven exchanges can make sense for both people. If you do forty-nine favors for your friend and get fifty-one in return, the friendship is probably still worth your friend's while. You haven't really "cheated" him. You've gotten the better of him, yes, but not so much that he should prefer no deal at all to the deal he got.

So it's possible, in theory, to be a little more stingy than TIT FOR TAT without really cheating, and thus without triggering painful retaliation. This sort of stinginess, as ingrained by natural selection, might well assume the form of shady accounting — a deep sense of justice slightly slanted toward the self.

Why would it be so important that the bias be unconscious? A clue may lie in a book called The Strategy of Conflict by the economist and game theorist Thomas Schelling. In a chapter called "An Essay on Bargaining" — which isn't about evolution, but could apply to it — Schelling noted an irony: in a non-zero-sum game, "the power to constrain an adversary may depend on the power to bind oneself." The classic example is the non-zero-sum game of "chicken." Two cars head toward each other. The first driver to swerve loses the game, along with some stature among his adolescent peers. On the other hand, if neither driver bails out, both lose in a bigger way. What to do? Schelling suggests tossing your steering wheel out the window in full view of the other driver. Once convinced that you're irrevocably committed to your course, he will, if rational, do the swerving himself.

The same logic holds in more common situations, like buying a car. There is a range of prices within which a deal makes sense for both buyer and seller. Within that range, though, interests diverge: the buyer prefers the low end, the seller the high end. The path to success, says Schelling, is essentially the same as in the game of chicken: be the first to convince the other party of your rigidness. If the dealer believes you're walking away for good, he'll cave in. But if the dealer stages a preemptive strike, and says "I absolutely {278} cannot accept less than x," and appears to be someone whose pride wouldn't let him swallow those words, then he wins. The key, said Schelling, is to make a "voluntary but irreversible sacrifice of freedom of choice" — and to be the first to do it.

For our purposes, take out the word voluntary. The underlying logic may be excluded from consciousness to make the sacrifice seem truly "irreversible." Not when we're on a used-car lot, maybe. Car salesmen, like game theorists, actually think about the dynamics of bargaining, and the savvier car buyers do too. Still, everyday haggling — over fender benders, salaries, disputed territory — often begins with an actual belief, on each side, in its own Tightness. And such a belief, a quickly reached and hotly articulated sense of what we deserve, is a quick route to the preemptive strikes Schelling recommends. Visceral rigidity is the most convincing kind.

Still, puzzles remain. Utter rigidity could be self-defeating. As "shady accounting" genes spread through the population, shady accountants would more and more often run into each other. With each insisting on the better half of the deal, both would fail to strike any deal. Besides, in real life, the rigidity wouldn't know where to set in, because it's often hard to say what deals the other party will Accept. A car buyer doesn't know how much the car actually cost the dealer or how much other buyers are offering. And in less structured situations — swapping favors with someone, say — these calculations are even dimmer, because things are less quantifiable. Thus has it been throughout evolution: hard to fathom precisely the range of deals that are in the interest of the other party. If you begin the bargaining by insisting irreversibly on a deal outside of that range, you're left without a deal.

The ideal strategy, perhaps, is a pseudorigidity, a flexible firmness. You begin the discourse with an emphatic statement of what you deserve. Yet you should retreat — up to a point, at least — in the lace of evidence as to the other person's firmness. And what sort of evidence might that be? Well, evidence. If people can explain the reasons behind their conviction, and the reasons seem credible (and sound heartfelt), then some retreat is in order. If they talk about how much they've done for you in the past, and it's true, you have to {279} concede the point. Of course, to the extent that you can muster countervailing evidence, with countervailing conviction, you should. And so it goes.

What we've just described are the dynamics of human discourse. People do argue in precisely this fashion. (In fact, that's what the word argue means.) Yet they're often oblivious to what they're doing, and to why they're doing it. They simply find themselves constantly in touch with all the evidence supporting their position, and often having to be reminded of all the evidence against it. Darwin wrote in his autobiography of a habit he called a "golden rule": to immediately write down any observation that seemed inconsistent with his theories — "for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. " The reason the generic human arguing style feels so effortless is that, by the time the arguing starts, the work has already been done. Robert Trivers has written about the periodic disputes — contract renegotiations, you might call them — that are often part of a close relationship, whether a friendship or a marriage. The argument, he notes, "may appear to burst forth spontaneously, with little or no preview, yet as it rolls along, two whole landscapes of information appear to lie already organized, waiting only for the lightning of anger to show themselves."42

The proposition here is that the human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right — and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they in fact have any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than for virtue.

Long before Trivers wrote about the selfish uses of self-deception, social scientists had gathered supporting data. In one experiment, people with strongly held positions on a social issue were exposed to four arguments, two pro and two con. On each side of the issue, the arguments were of two sorts: (a) quite plausible, and (b) implausible to the point of absurdity. People tended to remember the plausible {280} arguments that supported their views and the implausible arguments that didn't, the net effect being to drive home the correctness of their position and the silliness of the alternative.43

One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again — whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which — we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn't warranted.


In all the psychological literature that predates and supports the modern Darwinian view of deception, one word stands out for its crisp rconomy: beneffectance. It was invented in 1980 by the psychologist Anthony Greenwald to describe the tendency of people to present themselves as being both beneficial and effective. The two halves of this compound coinage embody the legacies, respectively, of reciprocal altruism and status hierarchies.44

This distinction is a bit oversimplified. In real life, the mandates of reciprocal altruism and status — to seem beneficial and effective — can merge. In one experiment, when people who had been part of a team effort were asked about their role in it, they tended to answer expansively if first told that the effort was a success. If told it had failed, they left more room for the influence of a teammate.45 This hoarding of credit and sharing of blame makes both kinds of evolutionary sense. It makes a person seem beneficial, having helped others in the group achieve success, and thus deserving future repayment; it also makes that person seem effective, deserving high status.

One of the most famous triumphs for Darwin's supporters came in 1860, when Thomas Huxley, a.k.a. "Darwin's bulldog," took on Bishop Samuel Wilberforce during a debate on The Origin of Species. Wilberforce sarcastically asked on which side of his family Huxley was descended from an ape, and Huxley replied that he would rather have an ape as an ancestor than a man "possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for {281} the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion." At least, that's how Huxley told the story to Darwin — and Huxley's account is the one that made it into the history books. But Darwin's close friend Joseph Hooker was also present, and he remembered things differently. He told Darwin that Huxley "could not throw his voice over so large an assembly, nor command the audience; & he did not allude to Sam's [Bishop Wilberforce's] weak points nor put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience."

Fortunately, reported Hooker, he himself had taken on Wilber-force: "I smacked him amid rounds of applause" and went on to show "that he could never have read your book" and that he "was absolutely ignorant" of biology. Wilberforce "had not one word to say in reply & the meeting was dissolved forthwith leaving you master of the field after 4 hours battle." Since the encounter, said Hooker, "I have been congratulated & thanked by the blackest coats & whitest stocks in Oxford." Huxley, meanwhile, reported being "the most popular man in Oxford for full four & twenty hours afterwards."46 Both Huxley and Hooker were telling stories that would do two things: raise their stature in Darwin's eyes, and leave him indebted to them.

Reciprocal altruism and status intersect in a second way. A common exception to our tendency to deflate the contributions of others comes when those others have high status. If we have a friend who is, say, mildly famous, we cherish even his meager gifts, forgive his minor offenses, and make extra sure not to let him down. In one sense this is a welcome corrective to egocentrism; our balance sheets are perhaps more honest for high-status people than for others. But the coin has two sides. These high-status people, meanwhile, are viewing us with even greater distortion than usual, as our side of the ledger is discounted steeply to reflect our lowliness.

Still, we seem to consider the relationship worthwhile. A high-status friend may, in time of need, wield decisive influence on our behalf, often at little cost. Just as an alpha male ape can protect an ally by looking askance at the would-be attacker, a highly placed sponsor can, with a two-minute phone call, make a world of difference for an upstart.

Seen in this light, social hierarchy and reciprocal altruism not {282} only intersect but merge into a single dimension. Status is simply another kind of asset that people bring to the bargaining table. Or, more precisely: it is an asset that leverages other assets; it means that 4t little cost a person can do big favors.

Status can also be one of the favors. When we ask friends for help, we are often asking not only that they use their status, but that they raise ours in the process. Among the chimps of Arnhem, the swapping of status support was sometimes simple; chimp A helps chimp B fend off a challenger and maintain its status; chimp B later returns the favor. Among people, status support is less tangible. Except in barrooms, junior-high schoolyards, and other venues of high testosterone, the support consists of information, not muscle, hacking a friend means verbally defending him when his interests are in dispute — and, more generally, saying good, status-raising things about him. Whether these things are true doesn't especially matter. They're just the things friends are supposed to say. Friends engage in mutual inflation. Being a person's true friend means endorsing the untruths he holds dearest.

Whether this bias toward a friend's interests is deeply unconscious is a matter for research that hasn't yet been done. A purely positive answer would clash with the treachery that has been known to infest friendships. Still, it may be that the hallmark of the strongest, longest friendships is the depth of the shared bias; the best friends are the ones who see each other least clearly. Anyway, however conscious or unconscious the lies, one effect of friendship is to take individual nodes of self-serving dishonesty and link them up into webs of collective dishonesty. Self-love becomes a mutual-admiration society.

And enmity becomes two mutual-detestation societies. If your true friend has a true enemy, you're supposed to adopt that enemy as your own; that's how you support your friend's status. By the same token, that enemy — and that enemy's friends — are expected to dislike not just your friend, but you. This isn't a rigid pattern, but it's a tendency. To maintain close friendship with two avowed enemies is to be in a position whose awkwardness is viscerally felt.

The malevolent conspiracy between reciprocal altruism and status hierarchies runs one level deeper. For enmity itself is a cocreation of the conspirators. On the one hand, enmity grows out of rivalry, the {283} mutual and incompatible pursuit of status. On the other hand, it is the flip side of reciprocal altruism. Being a successful reciprocal altruist, as Trivers noted, means being an enforcer — keeping track of those who take your aid but don't return it, and either withholding future aid or actively punishing them.

Once again, all of this enmity may be expressed not plainly and physically, as among chimps, but verbally. When people are our enemies, or when they support our enemies, or fail to support us after we've supported them, the standard response is to convincingly say bad things about them. And, again, the best way to convincingly say such things is to believe them — believe that the person is incompetent or stupid or, best of all, bad, morally deficient, a menace to society. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin captured the morally charged nature of enmity: "[F]ew individuals ... can long reflect about a hated person, without feeling and exhibiting signs of indignation or rage."

Darwin's own assessments of people sometimes had a flavor of retaliation. While at Cambridge, he met a man named Leonard Jenyns, a gentleman entomologist who, like Darwin, collected beetles. It seemed possible that, notwithstanding a natural rivalry between them, the two men could become friends and allies. Indeed, Darwin made the overture, giving Jenyns "a good many insects" for which, Darwin reported, Jenyns seemed "very grateful." But when the time came to reciprocate, Jenyns "refused me a specimen of the Necroph. sepultor ... although he has 7 or 8 specimens." In relaying this news to his cousin, Darwin commented not only on Jenyns's selfishness, but on his "weak mind." Eighteen months later, though, Darwin considered Jenyns "an excellent naturalist." This revised opinion may be related to Jenyns having bestowed on Darwin, in the meanwhile, a "magnificent present of Diptera."

When grudges are expanded into networks, as friends form coalitions to support each other's status, the result is vast webs of self-deception and, potentially, of violence. Here is a sentence from the New York Times: "In a week's time, both sides have constructed deeply emotional stories explaining their roles, one-sided accounts that are offered with impassioned conviction, although in many respects they do not stand up, in either case, under careful scrutiny."49 {284}

The sentence refers to an incident in which Israeli soldiers shot Palestinian civilians, and each side clearly saw that the other had started the trouble. But the sentence could be applied with equal accuracy to all kinds of clashes, big and little, through the centuries. By itself this sentence tells a large part of human history.

The mental machinery that drives modern wars — patriotic fervor, mass self-righteousness, contagious rage — has often been traced by evolutionists to eons of conflict among tribes or bands. Certainly such large-scale aggression has surfaced repeatedly during the life of our species. And no doubt warriors have often gotten Darwinian rewards through the rape or abduction of enemy women. Still, even of the psychology of war has indeed been shaped by out-and-out wars, they may well have been of secondary importance. Feelings of enmity, of grievance, of righteous indignation — of collective enmity and grievance and righteous indignation — probably have their deepest roots in ancient conflicts within bands of humans and pre-humans. In particular: in conflicts among coalitions of males for status.


The tendency of friends to dislike each other's enemies needn't be merely an exchange of favors. Often it's simple redundancy. One of the strongest bonds two friends can have — the great starter and sustainer of friendships — is a common enemy. (Two people playing a game of prisoner's dilemma will play more cooperatively in the presence of someone they both dislike.)52

This strategic convenience is often obscured in modern society. Friendships may rest not on common enemies but on common interests: hobbies, tastes in movies or sports. Affinities emerge from shared passions of the most innocent sort. But this reaction presumably evolved in a context in which shared passions tended to be less innocent: a context of frankly political opinions about who should lead a tribe, say, or how meat should be divided. In other words, the affinity of common interest may have evolved as a way to cement fruitful political alliances, and only later attached itself to matters of little consequence. This, at any rate, would help explain the absurd gravity surrounding disputes over seemingly trivial {285} matters. Why is it that a smooth dinner party can turn suddenly awkward over a disagreement about the merits of John Huston's movies?

And, moreover, "matters of little consequence" often turn out, on close examination, to involve real stakes. Take two Darwinianly minded social scientists, for example. Their binding interest is "purely intellectual" — a fascination with the evolutionary roots of human behavior. But this is also a common political interest. Both scholars are tired of being ignored or attacked by the academic establishment, tired of the dogma of cultural determinism, tired of its stubborn prevalence within so many anthropology and sociology departments. Both scholars want to be published in the most esteemed journals. They want tenure at the best universities. They want power and status. They want to depose the ruling regime.

Of course, if they do depose the ruling regime, and thus become famous and write best-selling books, there may be no Darwinian payoff. They may not convert their status into sex, and if they do they may use contraception. But in the environment in which we evolved — indeed, until the last few hundred years — status got converted into Darwinian currency more efficiently. This fact seems to have deeply affected the texture of intellectual discourse, especially among men.

We'll explore an example of this effect in the next chapter, in describing the particular intellectual discourse that made Darwin fa mous. For now, let's simply note Darwin's delight, in 1846, at dis covering common scientific interests with Joseph Hooker, who more than a decade later would join with Darwin in the scientific battle of the century and devote much energy to the elevation of Darwin's social status. "[W]hat a good thing is community of tastes," Darwin wrote to Hooker. "I feel as if I had known you for fifty years... ." {286}