'The Folly of Fools': If it doesn't kill you, deceit can make you smarter
Robert Trivers' "The Folly of Fools" explores why humans deceive themselves, and the evolutionary role deception has played in developing our intelligence. Trivers discusses his book Monday at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
Robert TriversThe author of "The Folly of Fools" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 in advance at brownpapertickets.com and available at the door.
Back in 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 was attempting to take off from Washington, D.C., in a blinding snowstorm. Though the co-pilot was concerned the plane's wings hadn't been thoroughly de-iced and his instrument panel wasn't displaying the correct airspeed, the pilot dismissed his concerns until seconds before the plane crashed into the Potomac River, killing all but five aboard.
The crash, as cockpit voice recordings later showed, was primarily the result of the pilot's overconfidence leading him to ignore or minimize a whole series of warning signs that his more observant, but less assertive, colleague had pointed out to him. It's one of the most dramatic illustrations of the costs of self-deception in Robert Trivers' new book, "The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life" (Basic Books, 397 pp., $28).
Trivers, an evolutionary biologist who teaches at Rutgers, starts by asking one of those questions that seems obvious once someone else asks it: Why should our brains — whose job, after all, is to make sense of everything we see, hear, touch, taste and smell — be so prone to self-deception? Natural selection would seem to work against creatures who persistently fail to see the world as it is, yet self-deception seems to be deeply embedded in our psyches.
Trivers' answer, which he first advanced in 1976 and has been elaborating since, is that we deceive ourselves the better to deceive others. If we can convince ourselves that we are stronger, smarter, more skillful, more ethical or better drivers than others, we're a long way toward convincing other people too.
This fundamental insight frames Trivers' wide-ranging exploration of deceit and self-deception in the human and animal worlds. He discusses everything from fish whose body markings make it appear as though their heads are at their tail ends (the better to dart away from predators unexpectedly) to the well-established tendency of men to be more active, and less successful, stock traders than women (men's greater estimation of their abilities leads them to buy and sell more frequently).
Trivers argues that deception, self- and otherwise, has had an unappreciated importance in the evolution of human intelligence. Like the unceasing battle against spam that has led to both better spam filters and cleverer spammers, "deception spawns the mental ability to detect it ... These improved intellectual abilities select for more subtle means of deception, which, in turn, select for greater abilities to detect the deception. In short, deception continually selects for mental ability in the deceived."
The books' style ranges — sometimes within the same paragraph — from professorial detachment to chattiness verging on oversharing. Trivers makes no bones about his political beliefs (he was a close friend of Black Panther leader Huey Newton); this is not a problem per se but it unfortunately makes his chapters on false historical narratives and self-deception and war somewhat strident and tendentious. And we learn rather more about Trivers' sexual and pharmacological history than we really need to.
I also wish Trivers had spent a bit more time on those circumstances in which self-deception can have positive effects. Telling yourself that you can beat the odds against surviving cancer might spur you to try more aggressive therapies. Believing you can achieve some goal — climbing a mountain, getting a new job, rebuilding an engine — can give you the incentive to actually work at it. The trick, of course, is to not slide into overconfidence or blithely deny unpleasant facts — behaviors which, as Trivers shows time and time again, almost always precede disaster.
Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 11, 2011, was corrected Nov. 12, 2011. A previous version of this story erroneously stated all aboard Air Florida Flight 90 were killed. Five people survived.