The author of The folly of fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life, Robert Trivers, examines an alleged conundrum of human cognition and perception whereby the purported accuracy of one system is pitted against the deception supported by the other. Namely, although sensory detectors and perceptual systems make the perceiver not only sensitive to environmental changes, but also largely accurate in detecting such changes, his/her cognitive system behaves differently. Indeed, the individual's cognitive system is likely to distort sensory evidence and generate experiences that are reliant more on stored information and intentions than on the evidence collected through sensory organs.
Of course, the assumption underlying the author's alleged conundrum is that sensory organs are relatively accurate, offering to the mind unbiased evidence of an external reality. However, even sensory organs and the neural pathways that connect them to the brain contain their own biases, involving selected sensitivity and less-than-perfect signal transmission. Consequently, the issue of accuracy versus deception, if preserved, may require a different framework based on the notion of consensus. Namely, if there are some basic properties of the external world upon which most perceivers can agree irrespective of viewpoint (e.g., several people watching a video of a car accident, can report the same actions, characters and objects), then all alterations of these basic properties reported by perceivers can be described as deception of self or others. Obviously, a framework based on accord faces problems when one considers all forms of social influence and contamination of perception and judgment that have been documented in the scientific literature, including, most notably, instances of conformity and prejudice.
Irrespective of the framework one wishes to subscribe, the text is quite entertaining in each of the several categories of deception that the author explores, albeit types are so intrinsically related that they appear to be merely phenotypic manifestations of the same underlying genotypic mechanism. For instance, imagine the following narrative involving 'Tom', a hypothetical employee of a fictitious company: 'Tom claimed to be accomplished. He was convinced that colleagues would be compelled to notice and respect him. When the image his colleagues held of him did not fit his generous expectations, he ignored or actively eliminated any evidence to the contrary, including the colleagues themselves!'. This trivial narrative offers an exemplification of at least three interconnected categories of deception (as reported by the author), including self-inflation, derogation of others, and false personal narratives. This narrative also suggests not only that the perceiver's viewpoint is critical in rendering one category more relevant than the others, but that they are all merely different realizations of a common-purpose deception algorithm, whose goal is purportedly that of increasing one's survival chances.
At times, the text contains claims that appear to be mere common sense such as 'we can see things in others that we can't easily see in ourselves' or 'the conscious mind is more of an observer after the fact' (p. 5). As Endel Tulving (2001) suggested, 'much of science begins as exploration of common sense, and much of science, if successful, ends if not in rejecting it, then at least going far beyond it' (p. 1505). Yet, the account of deception-related phenomena that the text offers remains mostly descriptive with the patina of evolutionary argument offering a common theme for countless exemplifications of deception dutifully illustrated by the author. For instance, obviously, the perceiver's viewpoint and the information available to him/her varies, depending on intentions, pre-existing information and whether one is observing the behavior of others or his/her own behavior. Fundamentally, we do not merely gather and use raw information from our senses, but we immediately add to this information pre-existing knowledge, thereby framing the sensory/perceptual events and giving them meaning. As supporting evidence, consider the findings of experiments on context effects and change blindness in perception. Also consider findings of experiments on the integration of pictorial and verbal information, such as those of Carmichael, Hogan and Walter (1932) whereby a verbal label (glasses vs. dumbbells) attached to a sketchy drawing can substantially distort what perceivers remember of the drawing. Regarding the fragility of 'evidence' in our cognitive system, the basic tenet of the text, according to which a clear cut distinction between deception and lack thereof exists in one's mental life, is tenuous at best.
Even assuming a less tenuous demarcation between deception and accuracy, one can ask whether deception is truly the 'folly of fools'. Can accuracy be a chimera and thus one's search for it the real 'folly of fools'? For instance, not so uncommon is to attend a meeting where an animated debate erupts. Reflection reveals immediately after the fact that attendees held quite different records of the event, even though arousal is purported to create 'good memories' (see flashbulb memory studies). Uneventful meetings, stripped from the most elementary emotional arousal, can also easily produce contrasting reports immediately afterwards and more so as time passes, albeit the confidence with which these reports are held is likely to be weaker.
In sum, I must confess that I enjoyed reading the The folly of fools for all the examples of deception that the author has cleverly and wittingly selected for his reader. The author's modest and self-deprecating tone is also endearing. I am less enamored with the natural selection framework as explanatory device and unsatisfied with his discussion of the demarcation between deception and accuracy.
© 2012 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York