Saturday, October 13, 2007

Why We Lie

Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind by David Livingstone Smith

This book was a disappointment to me. With a title so compelling I thought it would be full of great insights and examples similar to "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker. Instead, it is mostly a rehash of selfish gene ideas and the introduction of a supposedly new pet theory from the author which turns out to be as provocative as a cup of tea at noon in England.

Scientists have their hands tied behind their backs. They aren't allowed to state the obvious if there is no data to back it up. That's why every once in awhile you'll see some sort of headline like- "dramatic new study shows that believing in an afterlife and gathering in social groups makes people happy". Wow. Stop the world. I never would have guessed.

Smith discusses the processing of the unconscious (an idea universally accepted now and backed by neuroscience), "Social Poker", and what he calls the "Machiavellian Module". An interesting conjecture in the book is that the development of the large human brain is parallel with the use of language for social deception (social poker). With the advent of language came gossip and social maneuvering which led to a mental arms race which gave obvious Darwinian advantages and quickly led to large brains. One thing is certain- the human mind did not evolve to favor those who had the most accurate perception of reality. We are dependent on self deception to deceive others. The easiest way to deceive another is to not know you are doing it. No nervous ticks or shaking or looks give it away, when you yourself believe your lies. It would seems that our brains are so constructed to bend over backwards making sure that we believe what is most convenient to believe. Thus, somewhere in a dank paleolithic cave, the first politicians arose.

As For Smith's personal theory, it is merely the idea that certain observed events and statements lead to later conversations which involve "Coded Narratives", which are the mind's subtle ways of suggesting things safely to others without revealing the entire hand. For instance, if you think your girlfriend is cheating, you may subconsciously mention something in front of her about infidelity, without really realizing where the urge came from. That's it. Hardly earthshattering. It becomes interesting in it's window into the unconscious however, because you can put people into groups, give them various promptings and observe how the course of the conversation parallels the promptings.

"Human nature stands in the way of understanding human nature"- Smith

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