Imagine you, but better. Apparently this is what most of us do most of the time. Our tendency toward self-deception is captured in Robert Trivers' Folly of Fools in bookstores this week. Trivers is one of the greatest thinkers of our time and, early in his career, offered unifying theories on reciprocal altruism, parental investment, sexual selection, as well as deceit and self-deception -- the topic of this book. Folly of Fools takes a refreshingly critical look at human behavior, and it can be hard to stare ourselves in the face.
In an experiment, participants were given a series of photographs. One was the real deal and the others are tweaked along a spectrum up to 50% better and 50% worse looking. Subjects were asked to choose the real photograph and, more often than not chose a face that is more attractive than their own. And that's just our view of how we look.
People prefer letters found in their own names and numbers found in their own birthdays. Overconfidence is common, and it affects men more than women, at least in arithmetic contests. When given the option between getting paid for correct answers and competing with three other people where the winner takes all the earnings (presumably 4 times as profitable), 35 percent of women choose to compete -- close to the 25 percent you would expect (due to probabilities about the intelligence of the other three players). Not so with men, 75 percent of whom chose to compete.
And bad news for mothers and fathers: the brighter children are, the more often they lie. Trivers also points out that that, when lying, we tend to use "I" and "me" less often, instead using other pronouns, as if to distance ourselves from the lie. The explanation for our enlarged neocortex is still hotly debated, but the author puts his chips on our ability to deceive and to detect deceit as the reason for big human brains. He shares how deception research relates to immune function, airplane accidents, and warfare. Toward the end of the book, Trivers also takes a rare introspective look at the structure of the social sciences and the biases that must exist in fields like psychology, sociology, anthropology and economics, which inform the way we see ourselves in this world: "one might expect their very structure to be easily deformed by self-deception."
"The ultimate effect of shielding men from the effects of their folly is to fill the world with fools," wrote Herbert Spencer, whose line lends itself to Trivers' title. To fix some of the world's follies, we should lower the shield and better understand deception and our own self-deception by absorbing the wisdom, risky ideas, and generous admissions of his own foolishness in Robert Trivers' Folly of Fools. The truth can hurt, but deceit can, too.