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See Inside February 2012

Lies We Tell Ourselves: How Deception Leads to Self-Deception

How deception leads to self-deception



Illustration by Richard Mia

In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, a skeptical Judas Iscariot questions with faux innocence (“Don’t you get me wrong/I only want to know”) the messiah’s deific nature: “Jesus Christ Superstar/Do you think you’re what they say you are?”

Although I am skeptical of Jesus’ divine parentage, I believe he would have answered Judas’s query in the affirmative. Why? Because of what the legendary evolutionary theorist Robert Triv­ers calls “the logic of deceit and self-deception” in his new book The Folly of Fools (Basic Books, 2011). Here’s how it works: A selfish-gene model of evolution dictates that we should maximize our reproductive success through cunning and deceit. Yet the dynamics of game theory shows that if you are aware that other contestants in the game will also be employing similar strategies, it behooves you to feign transparency and honesty and lure them into complacency before you defect and grab the spoils. But if they are like you in anticipating such a shift in strategy, they might pull the same trick, which means you must be keenly sensitive to their deceptions and they of yours. Thus, we evolved the capacity for deception detection, which led to an arms race between deception and deception detection.

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