You Review: Deceit and Self-Deception by Robert Trivers

Reviewed by Katherine Matthews

Deceit and Self-Deception by Robert L. Trivers is a wide-angle look at deception, its origins, functions and results. Trivers identifies at the beginning that it’s still an infant field; much more research needs to be done, so it’s an exploratory effort. This initially frees Trivers up to write hypothetically or contemplatively, which gives the writing a lot of energy. The book starts out really strong, and even gave me quite an emotional reaction, imagining the various ways that both deceit and self-deception have been a part of my own life.

He goes into the ways deception is used in nature (that is, outside of humans), and various ways individuals, couples, or family units deceive or self-deceive. These sections were, for me, the most informative and relevant to the topic.

Later in the book, Trivers introduces the concept of false historical narratives, ways that whole societies deceive by, for example, writing themselves as the righteous victor of wars, or the validated aggressors. It’s a valid discussion, but around this section, the book sort of loses the plot, and feels much more like a personal soapbox. Trivers takes on highly controversial topics like war, politics and religion. He presents a series of facts giving one perspective (because, being the nature of controversial topics, different facts can be perceived differently by other people), and basically asserts this as “the truth”, which means that if you disagree with him, you’re a pawn of a false historical narrative (i.e. you’ve been deceived, and you’re still self-deceiving). Even when I agreed with him in his telling of the story, I really resented the implication, as well as the author himself, for using his work on deception to push forward other agendas.

As an example, he writes on the 2003 US war on Iraq, “Using the false pretext of 9/11, it was a war of choice and aggression apparently designed for control of oil and related economic assets, as well as to build a regional power base and to support its joined-at-the-hip ally, Israel.”  Later, he questions why women are left out of the Catholic church and says “What continually haunts me when I think about such matters is the function of all this nonsense. Who benefits from an all-male priesthood?”  Then later, on discussing physics, “When I read of nine billion euros spent on a supercollider in which tiny particles are accelerated to incredible speeds and then run into one another, I think ‘bombs.’ This factor may lead to more resources being directed towards physics and to some subareas than is objectively sensible, but it is unlikely to have much effect on constructing theory.”

For me, as a reader, it almost doesn’t matter to me if facts are on his side because I find his writing so biased towards giving a particular perspective, that all the trust is lost. He asserts his perspective as neutral and factual, and if you’re so naive to disagree with him, you’re self-deceiving or you’ve been deceived. Can you imagine this guy at a party? You’ve probably met him and avoided him all night. He writes on each of these vast subjects as an absolute authority, but I’m not able to take him as one. Instead, I feel manipulated and preached to.

(Blogmistress’s note: In the US, this book has been published under the title The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life.  Unless, of course, we’ve all been lied to.)

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