Are We Confusing Self-Deceptive Enhancement with Illusory Superiority?

A New Statesman post by Uta Frith found its way to me this morning via a Tweet by @SteveSilberman with the catchphrase, “Men are more likely to think their IQ is 5 pts higher than it is, and women think theirs is 5 pts lower.” Uta Frith, neuroscientist & developmental psychologist (specializing in autism research, PhD adviser of Simon Baron-Cohen) from University College London, refers to this as “illusory superiority” & says that “many of us believe, in many matters, that we are better than average–for instance, that we have a better sense of humour and are better drivers than the average person.”  Adrian Furnham of University College London is the scholar responsible for finding this sex disparity (though the implications of illusory inferiority are not mentioned by Frith).

I admit that I suffer from both illusory superiority & inferiority in perhaps some respects, though I know one day I will be vindicated in my superiority & those around me will finally “get it” & that I will somehow overcome my inferiority (if nothing else, I will age out of it perhaps).  To be honest, I carried myself as having even more illusory superiority 20 years ago when I was a record store flunky & essentially a drunk, though I had dropped out of college as an undergrad & was a wanna-be writer/musician who had never been paid for writing anything.  But, I think in some respects, here I am in a job as a tenure-track professor to show them they are wrong.  Trivers has an even better example, well known as he is to have mental health issues despite his brilliance, when he says, “even when tied to a bed in some back mental ward of a hospital, I still believe I am performing better than half of my colleagues” (2010:384).

Conceptually, illusory superiority is a problem for me, as I’ve been under the influence of the self-deception concept of sociobiologist Bob Trivers from Rutgers University (see previous post on the subject here), who has consistently framed self-deceptive enhancement as adaptive in promoting reproductive success. In a Behavioral & Brain Sciences article from last year, Trivers & co-author William von Hippel, a psychologist from the University of Queensland, defend this model against critics like Steven PinkerDavid Livingston Smith, who point out the conceptual difference between self-deception & holding a false representation of oneself. Admittedly, I read an advance version of the BBS article I solicited from the authors & have not yet thoroughly digested the published commentaries, but I found my way to this compelling critique via Robert Kurzban’s review of Trivers’s recent book on the subject (which is by & large complimentary of this book but draws attention to Pinker’s comments in particular).

As I happen to be reviewing recent material on self-deception for what I hope will be a forthcoming article on the same, last night I read a defense of von Hippel & Trivers’ position (ultimately, Trivers’ model, in my estimation) that seems to think it synthesizes it with such critiques, namely those of D.S. Neil Van Leeuwen’s in his “The Spandrels of Self-Deception” from 2007. In the recent article, “Self-deception’s Adaptive Value: Effects of Positive Thinking and the Winner Effect,” in Consciousness & Cognition, Jason Kido Lopez, a philosopher from Siena College, & Matthew J. Fuxjager, a biologist from UCLA, suggest that Trivers’ theoretical position, as laid out in 2000, comprise “a two-step argument, which proposed that (1) self-deception leads to a positive self-perception and that (2) a positive self-perception increases an individual’s fitness” (Lopez & Fixjager 2012:315).

Van Leeuwen, on the other hand, according to Lopez & Fixjager, questions whether self-deception always leads to positive self-perception, a point with which I would agree, & “that there is no convincing evidence that a positive self-perception increases fitness” (2012:316), with which I would also agree but, with my colleagues Nate Pipitone & Julian Paul Keenan, have been trying to address.  According to Lopez & Fuxjager, Van Leeuwen suggests two scenarios in which self-deception does not necessarily contribute to individual fitness–a situation in which a cuckholded husband stays with a woman anyway, maintaining in the face of glaring evidence of her infidelities that she is faithful (there is no mention of him raising her children with other men, but I suppose that is the implication), & a situation in which a quarterback who is unnerved by the knowledge that his coach will be angry if he screws up convinces himself that his coach will not be angry so as not to become nervous & not to screw up (a situation which seems pretty adaptive to my mind).  These are what Lopez & Fixjager have termed examples of “standard self-deception” & support the broader (than Trivers’) definition derived from Van Leeuwen that they prefer, which is that “self-deception is a clearly unwarranted belief caused by a desire either to have ttha belief or for the world to be a certain way” (2012:317).

Van Leeuwen’s problem with Trivers’s self-deception model “is that some people know positive things about themselves–for instance, that they are able and accomplished–and yet still have a negative self-perception” (Lopez & Fixjager 2012:318).  This type of self-deception the authors are terming “twisted self-deception” & Van Leeuwen calls “dreadful self-deception” (I’m not sure I like either of these, as they sound a little extreme–how about “self-deceptive deprecation”?).  I know something about this.  Don’t we call it “low self-esteem”?  Of course, low self-esteem undermines some of us but merely leads others to overfill our plates in the hopes that continued accomplishments will diminish this feeling & we can somehow find peace.  In the rooms of 12 step programs, I believe they call this the “turd at the center of the universe” phenomenon.  It’s not a spot-on analogy, but it is this idea that you have low self-esteem despite doing well in life & are completely alone & unique & let this sense of self dominate all interactions.  Lopez & Fixjager do not question whether this conception of self-deception should be considered, but they do question whether it disqualifies Trivers’s model & cite John Hartung’s chapter “Deceiving Down” in Joan Lockard & Del Paulhus’s 1988 edited volume Self-Deception: An Adaptive Mechanism to the same effect.  I would have to agree with them, as the study my colleagues & I have conducted is indicating (more on that later).

So we have “explicitly standard self-deception” & “explicitly twisted self-deception,” but the authors note four conceptual approaches taken in studies of self-deception.  The other two they call “implied standard self-deception,” wihcih is “coming to a positive belief, even though it was not explicitly stated” or, as I understand it, acting as if; & “underdescribed,” which I take to mean not conceptually well-described so we could just as easily call it “miscellaneous” or throw it out altogether.  Here are the sources from which Lopez & Fixjager derive this typology:

Aside from synthesizing, the contribution Lopez & Fixjager make to this argument is the inclusion of the “winner effect” as an example of (1) a demonstration of the fitness advantage of self-deception in multiple non-human species & (2) a demonstrated case of self-deception with which natural selection has been observed to interact to the benefit of the individual (i.e., as the model suggests).  The winner effect is “an increased ability to win fights and social conflicts following prior victories” (2012:319).  In short, in numerous experimental examples (including some involving my friend & colleague, animal behaviorist Ryan Earley, whom I am now going to have to pester for more info about this), winners of agonistic encounters are more likely to win subsequent encounters, regardless of their baseline fighting abilities.  This effect is, as I recall but cannot cite at the moment, widely observed in non-human primates (particularly baboons?) & explained as the mechanism by which stable hierarchies are established & maintained (Dugatkin 1997; Dugatkin & Earley 2004).  The establishment of hierarchies is one means of establishing individual fitness.  An individual who wins a fight becomes more likely to win the next fight &, consequently, less likely to be challenged by others evaluating the potential high cost of losing (or even winning) in a challenge to a higher status individual.  The benefits of high status accrue to such individuals, which includes lots of reproductive access.

The authors outline another experiment that was ingeniously concocted for studying the winner effect in humans.  Yee & colleagues (2009) randomly assigned participants to fight in a virtual scenario as either tall or short avatars.  Tall avatars tended to win, & the influence of winning carried forward to a subsequent round of real world negotiations, as the winners acted more “aggressively” in these face-to-face encounters that virtual losers (who had short avatars).

So the mechanism of selection for self-deception in the winner effect, to repeat, is proposed as (1) an individual wins a fight regardless of baseline fighting ability; (2) thinks s/he’s a badass because s/he won, acts like a badass, & proves s/he’s a badass by winning again & again; (3) ultimately lives comfortably in the “knowledge” that s/he’s a superior fighter BECAUSE s/he’s a badass, when in fact s/he may just be a badass because of one lucky first fight & strategic avoidance by others who could in fact kick his/her ass but have lower self-esteem for whatever reaason; & (4) lives comfortably insofar as s/he gets laid a LOT &/or gets the pick of high status mates.

The conceptual problem with this (&, honestly, the argument I’ve been making for a few years now) is that the winner effect appears to be a case of illusory superiority.  This does not undermine the adaptive advantage.  Honestly, the problem with these concepts is that we’re trying to understand their evolution at too high a conceptual level.  As de Waal & Ferrari point out, to recognize the selection for our human high-fallutin’ constructs of consciousness, etc., we have to break them down into their constituent parts & take a bottom-up approach, not a top-down one.  On the one hand, we can have adaptive self-deceit through the process of purposive forgetting, as illustrated by Anderson et al (2004) & pointed out by Trivers (2010, 2011).  On the other hand, the problem with the winner effect is that it does not seem to comply with Trivers’ or Lopez & Fixjager’s operational definition of self-deception, which is the knowing of truth on one hand & the holding an opposing belief on the other (which, I would argue, is also the case of Van Leeuwen’s cuckholded guy–& perhaps this was his point too).

Does a winner believe s/he has a superior ability the first time s/he fights?  And if s/he wins, doesn’t s/he actually have superior ability?  Now, just to take the contrary, anyone who watches sports regularly knows that people or teams with superior abilities can sometimes have an off night & lose, so I don’t in fact believe that merely winning constitutes superiority.  However, we don’t know what the winner thinks of him/herself.  Do they in fact know somewhere in their psyche that they are inferior to the opponent they just defeated?  Like I say, this is a conceptual problem, but it is not a problem in terms of investigating adaptive phenomenon, because the outcome, which is what our focus should really be on, is the same.  Illusory superiority would seem to be advantageous.

What about the winner effect in reproductive success?  Does getting laid produce a winner effect?  My own experience is that, as a teenager, I had no idea if I was good-looking or not, no idea whether I should be shooting high, medium, or low in terms of girlfriends, conquests, whatever.  Perhaps it is algorithmic.  If one shoots too high the first time, the tendency will be to create a loser effect, whereas if one shoots at one’s level or below, the tendency will be to create a winner effect (don’t ask me to conceptualize this, we’re just brainstorming here, though perhaps Doug Kendrick’s numbers on the head experiment in The Science of Sex Appeal points to a direction).  And for my own sake, it was only a string of successes that led me to conclude that I was at least average, which, as it turns out, has been good enough.

Finally, Lopez & Fixjager consider the possibility that self-deceptive enhancement may be maladaptive.  What if it makes you look like an asshole?  We certainly all know blowhards who think they’re all that.  The thing is, & I think what gets so many of us interested in this topic, is we see those blowhard assholes getting laid all the time, & with some pretty fine people.  And an even bigger rub, we often know very smart people who have dated such assholes–we may have even been dumped FOR such assholes–& it is totally mystifying that these otherwise perceptive people don’t see it.  But, as I touched upon in another recent post, a study of hormone variations across female menstrual cycle may point to at least a partial answer.

But what about illusory inferiority?  As my poster presention at next month’s HBES conference may be called, “If You Think You’re Hot, You’re Probably Not; If You Think You’re Not, You’re Probably Not So Bad”…


Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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