Self-deception & biological bias

Recently finished the erudite and engrossing book by Robert Trivers on ‘Deceit & Self-deception‘.    Quite a few insights for relational sociology as the author is an eminent sociobiologist with influential work on ‘reciprocal altruism’.  This specific book takes a swing at the way we deceive and self-deceive, consciously and sub-consciously. The founding fathers of the US, Christopher Columbus, Vietnam, Iraq, Zionism (Christian & Jewish), organised religion and all types of biological and social parasites are examined in turn.  I was entertained and amazed, but also found a degree of biological determinism to permeate arguments.  Trivers concludes by a call to ‘fight self deception’, but this appears disingenuous.  Alex Pentland has written on ‘Honest Signals‘ and there is extensive work, some quoted by Trivers, on how deception might be responsible for the evolution of intelligence.  So, it seems counterintuitive and somewhat binary to argue that deception is evil.  Self-deception may be detrimental to an individual and group level self-deception may be dangerous for the interests of society.  But not always.

My interest in all types of perception bias I trace to my hypothesis that the mode for human endeavour is failure and success is rare.  Most often success is ex post facto identified and defined.  So bias may be an inherent evolutionary mechanism for dealing with failure, if there is evidence that we individually or collectively systematically delude ourselves.

Trivers introduces some literature I was not familiar with, for instance the work of Fincher and Thornhill who find evidence that religion and linguistic diversity are directly associated to the parasite load in a region (manifest as pressure on humans from disease).  Fascinating.  Example: Canada and Brazil are states with similar geographic size but different pressure from parasites.  It is observed that they have 15 and 159 religions respectively.  Maybe in places with higher mortality, religions propagate as there is high demand for salvational metaphysics.

Favourite quote: ‘his genes could not care the less about him, and he feels the same way towards them’.

There are so many topics touched upon that it would be unfair to offer critique on any single one as lacking depth.  It is for instance obvious that geopolitical questions are coached too easily in the assumptions of deceit and less on the more obvious case of conscious bias or as the outcome of effective manipulation.  Power seems underestimated as an explanatory variable, while the possibility that ideologies inform action is not satisfactorily examined.

I thoroughly enjoyed the onslaught on the social sciences.  His hierarchy of human knowledge is instructive.  Math – Physics – Chemistry – Biology – Social Science.  On his account ‘the more social the discipline the more retarded its development’. Biologists have made the mistake of assuming that what is good for the individual’s genes is good for groups.  Economists assume that personal utility can maximise collective utility and further err in assuming that ‘our behaviour evolved specifically to fit artificial economic games’. Cultural anthropology is a discipline of ‘idiots’ who believe that words have the power to dominate reality.  Psychology is only now escaping learning theory, social psychology and psychoanalysis none of which have any foundation in evidence.  While psychoanalysis is singled-out as ‘self deception in the study of self deception’.  A general critique of using surveys, which are distorted by the verbalisation of responses to questions and therefore biased via ‘self-presentation and self-perception’ is of particular interest, but omit the great work on methodology that tackle these biases.

Points of interest to relational theory:

  • Self presentation is expanding under success and decline under failure.  Those deluding themselves of success are likely to be better at self projection.
  • Ability of leaders to induce self-deception in followers is critical of political success.
  • Age changes the nature of the ties people have in their family.  In their biological context younger people have ‘asymmetric’ ties (to parents, half siblings, cousins) with whom they compete.  These evolve to a lack of ‘asymmetries’ as people age and relate to children and grand-children whose genomic interest they share.
  • When the ratio of positive to negative acts in a marriage drops bellow 5:1 a marriage is in trouble.
  • Half of all genes (10k) express themselves in our brain and therefore genetic variation on our mental and behavioural traits is likely to be ‘extensive and fine grained in our species – contra decades of social science dogma’.
  • Sociality is linked to the presence of external threats in studies of many primates.  By implication density of social networks could be associated to the perception of threats.
  • Agency is assumed in upwards trends and external factors in down trends.  Systemic bias in the use of language can be seen in an analysis of the financial press.  When metaphors of agency are employed (DOW climbed) there is a temptation to think that this is a continuous trend.  This is not the case if systemic metaphors are used, as the effect would be associated to a singular calamity (DOW dropped off a cliff).

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