Musings on Trivers The folly of fools

When I first started reading through Trivers ”Folly of fools” I reacted with depression. I’ve never been terribly fond of reading about deception and lying in the literature anyway for probably deeply personal reasons (I’m fond of reminding my students that lots of lies are not about who stole, who murdered, who cheated, but about butt-size and not desiring George Clooney, and keeping surprise birthdays a surprise. Also that I have no means of knowing if someone lies, so I really don’t even try). Where are the lines here? How scrupulously honest can you be? Should I let others know about my OCD and intrusive thoughts episodes? Or pretend not to be depressed when I am?

But, despite the depression induced by some of the chapters – the tawdry flaws of people, his own tawdry flaws, that he owns up to, and seem bothered by, but that seems to have inspired his theory making, he connects human bad behavior with deep evolutionary logic; far beyond the scheming of human minds into the conflicted forces that have shaped, chiseled out, spun this beautiful living world. The mimicking done by tasty butterflies of those poisonous brilliant ones. The instantaneous camouflage by octopi. The worm lures of fish. Deception as offense and defense. Deception implemented at the molecular level, far below the mind level. Deception and counter moves as the mover of evolution. A new neat trick, and defenses against it. Perhaps deception is really not the right word for this.
I know some of the psychology work he cites – although that work doesn’t seem to ever connect to butterfly mimicry and stick-insects. For example, researchers take pictures of participants, participants close friends, morph them with beauties or uglies. You pick the more beautiful for you and your friends, not the accurate one, the unadulterated one. Deception, self deception. You think you are more beautiful than you really are.

But, I think of David Sloane Wilson’s work, where he shows how the beholder matters. For those you care about, you find them more beautiful. Those you dislike, you can’t bring yourself to rate as attractive. Does this influence the matching? After all, we have not seen accurate static pictures of ourselves for long, in an evolutionary perspective.
I have experienced this. A man of roughly average looks turning into luminous beauty as my desire increased. My sense of beauty shifting. I have also known shifting perception of beauty in more distressing circumstances. Is this self-deception?

Does Trivers deceive himself when he says that proof of our self enhancement is when he himself rates his abilities as above average in the faculty? In which way? Which direction, really. I shouted at the book “You’re Robert Fucking Trivers”.

His own character is always in the text, his horror at his own bad behavior, his own self-deception, his inability to learn from old mistakes, his own folly and foolishness, his bad treatment of women. And, bless my little female heart, how I feel the lure of him, like those insects flying into light. Not despite his flaws, but because of, and even with his face now aging and falling apart as he says. What strange evolved feature does that indicate, considering I’m far from alone. At least he is a bipolar genius and not a ruthless murderer.

The thrilling part is his connecting deception and self-deception to deep evolution – connecting it to the conflicts between paternal and maternal genes, between fathers and mothers, between offspring, between children and parents. Lying and deceiving is more than a moral flaw – it is survival, it is evolution.

Some aspects may not be so much deception as extended cognition. Here at Lund they have done work on decision blindness. Sometimes participants get to state their preference for one of two intermediately attractive faces. Or state which jam they prefer. Even surveys about their political preference. Then, they get fed back false information through sleight of hand – the nonpreferred face, the nonpreferred jam, a survey that looks like theirs, but with answers pushed towards the other side of the political spectrum. And, then you get them to expain, in fact sometimes to confabulate their reasons for their preferences. Of course, we don’t expect to be fooled, we expect to be fed back what we said, and in many cases these are perhaps answers we don’t have very stable ideas of – no stable representations, perhaps no represenations at all (as the ecological psychologists like to suggest, and I have a lot of sympathy for that). Perhaps we are more dynamic, not fixed, movable on the waves of our surroundings and external feedback. Kurzban argues that perferences are not fixed. And, if it isn’t fixed, when do we actually deceive or self-deceive, or do we need to call this another thing? Not throwing out Trivers deep insight, but to remove the research of this psychology from our folk-concerns about truths and lies and cheats (which are very real and important concerns, of course). What are the function? Are they really biases? Gigerenzer gets into this (how come we are so successful when Kahneman and Tversky so overwhelmingly demonstrate that we do not reason according to unbiased statistics).

I’m now reading Gazzanigas book based on his Gifford lectures, where our unified sense of self (well – for others than me) is an emergent property of the brain, of the deep modularity. The deception/self-deception needs to connect to these deep insights, which also maps onto evolutionary psychology’s modularity thesis. In fact, Kurzban knows his Gazzaniga and split brain research well.

When he extends his thoughts about self-deception into politics, it is clearly from his biased point of view. But, there is a take-home message: the same types of self/ingroup serving narratives exists all over the political spectrum, and throughout history, and causes foolish behavior, mayhem and death – narratives disconnected from feedback. But, again, isn’t this survival? On more of a group level? He attacks group-level selection. Individual behavior is not done for the good of the group, but for the individual, and may be detrimental to the group. And, again, I’m thinking about DS Wilson and Nowak’s ideas being described now: Multilevel selection. Kin selection surpassed (and kin selection is Trivers). I also think about Turchin’s Clio-dynamics as perhaps better being able to harness the forces that surrounds the foolish wars and the less than honest histories. But, what do I know, I’m just a psychologist that want to move even more into evolutionary logic than I already have.

I do appreciate his indictment of social sciences and their own deception – but hey, that fits my thinking. I’m exhilarated by the idea of consilience, and am reading Slingerland’s What Science offers the humanities, right now. I’m deeply bothered by the kind of “denialism” that exists surrounding evolutions profound impact on our psychologies by people who probably would snort at the denialism of other evolution and climate change. I felt deeply offended when it became clear that those doing gender studies are willing to bend things to their favor. I have no problem with sex differences. As he says, the presence of males and females is evolutionarily deep. There are reasons for the two sexes, and consequences of the two sexes – from birches to bees to humans – and no mere word play is going to paper over that.

I move away from the book, still mildly depressed, but more deeply convinced than ever how psychology will never make sense, except in the light of evolution.

Some selected refs.

Gazzaniga, Michael. Who’s in Charge?

Gigerenzer, Rationality for mortals

Kahneman. Oh, anything, as I haven’t gotten his Thinking fast and Slow yet.
Kurzban, Robert. Why everyone else is a hypocrite
Slingerland, E. What science offers the humanities
Trivers, Robert. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life
Turchin, P, War and peace and war.
Wilson, D.S., Evoution for everyone.
Wilson, E.O, Consilience


About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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