Assholes and Self-Deception



Findings just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Kristina Durante et al. indicate that women are hormonally deluded during ovulation to believe that hot guys will stick around. This is a crass way of saying what we already know–we’re all self-deceptive when it comes to having what we want. Read a summary of the article here, but the long & the short of it is an extension of the dad/cad paradigm (that women would prefer less roguish but faithful & resourceful “dad” types for marriage but more roguish & less faithful & resourcing “cad” types for short-term affairs).


I often trot dad/cad slides out in class for students when demonstrating classic evo psy experiments in human mate selection, using the dad from 7th Heaven & Johnny Depp as “Captain Jack Sparrow” as the cad, & it works every time. Honestly, I’m surprised because, like some but not all students, I’d still pick Jack Sparrow over 7th Heaven guy even knowing he’d leave me. And I’m not alone. Durante et al. wanted to know why women, whose eggs are a valuable resource in limited supply (don’t you remember your moms always saying that growing up, ladies? “your eggs are precious, dear. build your nest & guard them well.” no?), so frequently put themselves in a bind by hooking up with hot asshole guys with reputations for being letharios, convince themselves that the guy has changed, they’ve changed him, will be a good dad, etc., then get themselves knocked up & get predictably left high & dry with a babe in arms. This is not a socioeconomic phenomenon–it’s ubiquitous, apparently. So without checking on that presumption, let’s take it at face value & proceed to the findings, which are that women, in three studies that included college-age & community-based samples, when ovulating, experience perceptual shifts such that they are more likely to believe in their current mate’s good intentions.  Hmm…

Now, mind you, I have yet to read this article. I preface with this because it connects directly with what I have been reading, which is a 2010 chapter by Robert Trivers called “Deceit & Self-Deception” in Kappeler & Silk’s Mind the Gap: Tracing the Origins of Human Universals. Trivers has been modeling self-deception from an evolutionary perspective since his introduction to Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, culminating in his recent 2011 book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Much of this chapter is reiterated in that book, which I have read in parts, & both restate to some extent what he laid out in his 2010 article, though he has a more elaborated theory now.

The crux for me is an operationalizable definition of self-deception as “hiding true information from the conscious mind in the unconscious.” The classic model for this was demonstrated in a 1979 study by Ruben Gur & Harold Sackeim in which voices of self & other were played back & subjects were asked to indicate which voices they recognized & which they did not. Even when the conscious mind did not recognize one’s own voice, galvanic skin response measures indicated familiarity, suggesting that true information was known to the sub-conscious but was not getting through to conscious awareness. Even more interesting is that by priming responders by deceptively criticizing their performance as being high in false positives, the respondents denied their own voices more but their GSR spiked even higher.  According to Trivers, this suggests an imperative for self-deception (& this is significant for findings in a study I am currently analyzing & will share more on later).

Trivers suggests that humans have a general tendency toward self-deceptive enhancement, to promote oneself positively, which has been validated by fMRI studies showing suppression of thought occurs in the dorsolateral prefrontal area. He also points to evidence in the primate line. As relative neocortical size increases, so does the frequency of deceptive acts. The same is true in human children over the course of development. As children become increasingly intelligent with age, their rates of social manipulation increase.  We intuitively know & have experienced that but coupled with other findings that “natural variation in intelligence, corrected for age, is positively correlated with deception in children (Lewis unpubl. data),” we begin to see the pattern of self-limiting on awareness as cortical elaboration increases.

There is an extensive body of literature in social psychology, philosophy, economics, & other fields on self-deception, but Trivers has continually criticized the lack of studies seeking to elucidate its neural mechanisms or evolutionary frame.  He told me as much in 2001, when I was applying to Rutgers for grad school, that he had laid out a rough model for someone to pursue but didn’t have the time to test it himself.  It seems that it must nag at him, as he keeps coming back to it & adding more to the theory, piece by piece.  But he is nonetheless critical of the proximal studies, for they are comfortable resting on the analogy that self-deception is like the immune system & protects happiness like the immune system protects health–too little self-deception & we are pained by consciousness, too much & we are hopelessly deluded (Gilbert 2006).

This defense mechanism model is an elegant analogy but fails to consider the extreme variability & moving target that is human happiness, in addition to how truly unimportant it may be with respect to reproductive fitness.  Or, perhaps more accurately, momentary happiness may be important, the kind that leads an otherwise intelligent woman to believe a compulsive womanizer has changed for her (kinda like a male believing a stripper really likes him?), but long-term happiness may be no more important than a sense of duty or acceptance or any number of other nebulous states of being.  What Trivers does not come right out & say in this chapter but does in other articles & much of his life’s work is that reproduction is the name of the game, because it–whatever it is–has to get carried by genes to the next generation.  So if making someone self-deceptively happy to convince him or her to have sex with you is important, timing is everything.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he founded 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
This entry was posted in Adaptation, Evolution and Psychology, Hypotheses, Mating and Sexuality and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Assholes and Self-Deception

  1. Pingback: Are We Confusing Self-Deceptive Enhancement with Illusory Superiority? | Welcome to the EvoS Consortium!

Comments are closed.