The Social Implications of Self-deception in the Service of Deceit
Monday, July 13, 2009
In a book due to come out this fall, the socio-biologist Robert Trivers has contributed more work to what he calls "self-deception in the service of deceit" in which he has defined it as the deceiving of one's self in order to best deceive others. That is, the best way to fool others is to first believe or internalize the deception,
Deception (misleading others) is a very deep feature of life. It occurs at all levels and, it would seem, by any means possible. It tends to hide from view and is by its nature difficult to see and to study. Self-deception is even worse, hiding itself more deeply in our own unconscious minds. [...] When I say that deception occurs at all levels of life I mean that viruses practice it, bacteria do, so do plants, and so do the insects preying on plants and, and a wide range of other animals. It is everywhere. Even within our genomes deception may flourish as selfish genetic elements use deceptive molecular techniques to over-reproduce at the expense of the larger genome (Burt and Trivers 2006). Or when a selfish paternal orientation collides with an oppositely oriented maternal one (Haig 2002). Deception infects all the fundamental relationships in life, parasite and host, predator and prey, plant and animal, male and female, neighbor and neighbor, parent and offspring (including mother and fetus) and even the relationship of an organism to itself.
Viruses and bacteria actively deceive to gain entry to their hosts, by mimicking body parts for example. Or, as in HIV by changing coat proteins so often as to make mounting an enduring defense almost impossible. Predators gain from being invisible to their prey or resembling items attractive to them while prey gain by being invisible to their predators or mimicking items noxious to them e.g. poisonous species or their predator's predator. [...]It always amuses me to hear economists saying that the costs of deceptive excesses in our economy (so-called "white" crime robbery) will be naturally checked by "market forces". The same forces that force us to add one unit to every price we see in order to know the true price? Why should the human species be immune to the general rule that where selection is strong, deception can be generated that extracts a substantial net cost every generation.
It is the "deeper social implications" of deception that have "negative consequences" for humans, and social relations, that I want to focus on in this essay. The negative consequences can come from our failure to recognize that we are deceiving ourselves on the policies of our government or private institutions and on the social implications of their structure (i.e. authoritarian, anti-democratic, etc.), a failure to recognize that we are doing something awful, and worse, a failure to act to stop them. When we talk to ourselves (sic) about our actions or those of our "enemies" we deceive ourselves in order to lay the ground work for our planned actions of violence or subversion. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are cases in point. We talk about "evil" and "liberation," but rarely do we talk about our political and economic incentives. We deceive ourselves into thinking we are benevolent altruists simply trying to bestow freedom, liberty and democracy on the world. For the most part, we don't see this as deception. We see it as some gospel of truth. God Bless America! Let Freedom Ring!
We can sometimes see self-deception in others. American Ambassador Joseph Grew said this about Japanese aggression,
I doubt if one Japanese in a hundred really believes that they have actually broken the Kellogg Pact, the Nine-Power Treaty, and the Covenant of the League. A comparatively few thinking men are capable of frankly facing the facts, and one Japanese said to me: "Yes, we've broken every one of these instruments; we've waged open war; the arguments of 'self-defense' and 'self-determination for Manchuria' are rot; but we needed Manchuria, and that's that." But such men are in the minority. The great majority of Japanese are astonishingly capable of really fooling themselves.
The same could be said about our wars and occupation. It is doubtful if one American in a hundred really believes we have actually broken international law. And while there are a few dissenters and gadfly's in our midst, the great majority of Americans are astonishingly capable of really fooling themselves.
A couple of years ago Trivers had a lively discussion with Noam Chomsky, the iconic American gadfly, on the same topic,
RT: It's the psychology of deceit and self-deception. When you start talking about groups, there are some very interesting analogies. Psychologists have shown that people make these verbal switches when they're in a we/they situation, in a your-group-versus-another situation.
NC: Groups that are simply set up for the experiment, you mean?
RT: It can be. You can also do it experimentally, or you can be talking about them and their group versus someone that's not a member of their group.
But you have the following kinds of verbal things that people do, apparently quite unconsciously. If you're a member of my group and you do something good, I make a general statement: "Noam Chomsky is an excellent person." Now if you do something bad, I give a particular statement, "Noam Chomsky stepped on my toe."
But it's exactly reversed if you're not a member of my group. If you're not a member of my group and you do something good I say, "Noam Chomsky gave me directions to MIT." But if he steps on my toe I say, "He's a lousy organism," or "He's an inconsiderate person."
So we generalize positively to ourselves, particularize negative and reverse it when we're talking about other people.
NC: Sounds like normal propaganda. Islamic people are all fascists. The Irish are all crooks.
RT: Yes, exactly. Generalize a negative characteristic in the other.
Later, in the originally mentioned chapter above, Trivers discusses how "imposed self-deception" affects social relations. He says that "one [example] with deeper social implications" is when we look at what is called an explicit or implicit self-preference. "The explicit simply asks people to state their preferences directly, e.g. for so-called ‘black' people over ‘white' (to use the degraded language of the United States) where the actor is one or the other. The implicit measure is more subtle. It asks people to push a right-hand button for black or "good" stimuli (e.g. positive words) and left for white or bad ones—and then reverses everything, black or bad, white or good."
In the studies done, Trivers notes, we learned that there was an "explicit tendency" for "blacks—on average—[to prefer] white over black" leaving "the earmarks of an imposed self-deception—valuing yourself less than you do others—and it may come with some negative consequences."
I was given the privilege of reading this chapter after I had contacted Trivers. I told him how my wife and I were noticing some peculiar occurrences in relation to the recent death of Michael Jackson. Polls have shown for years now that there is a racial divide between blacks and whites on the guilt/innocence of charges leveled against Jackson. My wife told me how she was watching the memorial on TV in the cafeteria at her work and that she noticed blacks were more receptive of what was happening while whites were not. What I want to understand is whether some form of group selection lies behind this difference in attitudes because it is not likely that the divide is due to a difference in access to information; why are blacks, as a group, more inclined to view him as innocent whereas whites are more inclined to view him as guilty; why is race playing an issue at all; and to what extent, if any, has "priming" played a part in this phenomena?
Here is my suspicion. A historical and cultural legacy of racism in the United States, or in particular, white supremacy / white privilege, has played a part in the priming of whites to be more inclined to accept negative accusations against blacks, while this same legacy has possibly primed blacks to be more defensive. That is, a combination of group selection and racial priming may be the culprit.
And this is not unheard of or an unexpected phenomenon in itself. We all identify with groups. If I am put in a room with other young, white men who share similar ideological and cultural tastes I would not be surprised to see myself being more social and accepting, whereas if I was put in a room with others I do not identify with I could see myself being more reserved.
So where may "self-deception" fit in? Of the whites and blacks I have talked to on the MJ phenomena absolutely none claim race is an issue in the forming of their opinion. It seems as if to avoid playing the "race card" both sides have deceived themselves on how "race", or group selection, has played a part in forming their opinion. The end result is that by effectively deceiving themselves they more effectively deceive others.
I could be wrong on this, but that is my suspicion. On a conscious level I do believe those who tell me they are not using race to consider his guilt or innocence. But never the less, the massive divide between the groups exist and an unconscious self-deception seems a likely answer. It is common for natural selection - which is one of many pressures in the evolution of organisms - to evolve attributes that find unintended uses. The ability to deceive may have been intended to protect the survival of a species, but we have certainly found other nefarious uses for it.
A lot of this reminds of the work Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky have done on the media, propaganda and the "manufacturing of consent." Throughout society, whether in terms of gender relations, class warfare, racism, generational or political issues, there are ample examples of groups being "primed" to value themselves less than others, and this has, in fact, "come with some negative consequences." Under certain conditions women have accepted an inequitable status, and under existing political and economic conditions, the general population and/or working class have largely accepted a submissive and spectator status - and it is not an uncommon argument to hear that the average person cannot manage themselves and therefore we need a strong leader to do it for us.
So how do we overcome these "imposed self-deceptions"? What can we do or how can we work towards undermining these forms of "self-deception" that hampers social relations and helps heal old wounds and move forward? Trivers noted that,
Revolutionary moments often seems to occur in history when large numbers of individuals have a change in consciousness—regarding themselves and their status.
In the 1950s and 1960s we saw an explosion of change in racial, sexual and cultural consciousnesses, which helped lead to deep-seated changes still ongoing today (i.e. a rise in anarchism, the environmental movement, the global justice movement in general).
This assessment also largely mirrors the liberating social theory, Complimentary Holism, put forward in the 1980s by Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, and Holly Sklar in the book Liberating Theory.
The theory is that society is made up of four spheres - economy, polity, kinship, community - and that there are two networks: a human center where we find elements like our desires, abilities, and consciousnesses, and then there are institutional boundaries that define structural limits, and the roles we play.
All these spheres and the two networks compliment each other in holistic ways that ultimately defines our societies much like our bodies various tissue, organs and bones compliment each other in a holistic way that defines our bodies. No particular sphere has precedence over others and helps define societies - many Marxists are wrong to define labor and class as the essential issue society faces just as many Feminists are wrong to define gender as the prime issue. In fact, each sphere bleeds almost seamlessly into the others so much so that it is difficult to tell them apart, and much the same can be true for our human centers and institutional boundaries.
For example, take the market system as an institutional boundary. The institution itself is an un-democratic and anti-social institution that pits people against one another and limits who can participate and routinely awards more power and influence to those who wield the most bargaining power (which is often accrued in unethical ways). Our human centers are "primed" by this institution and we internalize some of the social consequences that it entails. As buyers we seek to fleece others by buying the best quality as cheap as we can, even if it involves terrible labor and environmental conditions in China. As sellers we will cut corners and sell as high as we can, even if those "cut corners" entail violated regulations in a peanut factory in Georgia and results in hundreds of sick people due to food contamination. But the market does have limits. Chattel slavery is illegal as an institutional boundary, we do have a minimum wage, and there are safety laws because there was a revolutionary change in consciousnesses of our society's human centers.
Using Complimentary Holism and Self-deception in the Service of Deceit as useful theories can help reverse the "negative consequences" that have come along with current modes of social relations and guide us to a more harmonious, enlightened and just society. Having a conscious awareness of our institutional boundaries, our human centers, how the four spheres of social life are inter-related, and how we are prone to various forms of group selection (race, nationality, gender, kinship, etc) or the use of deception, that may have positive or negative effects, can be liberating but it will require an active participation and self-inspection on our part in order to realize our full potential as people and societies.