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Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind [Hardcover]

David Livingstone Smith
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Book Description

July 1 2004
Deceit, lying, and falsehoods lie at the very heart of our cultural heritage. Even the founding myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of Adam and Eve, revolves around a lie. We have been talking, writing and singing about deception ever since Eve told God, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." Our seemingly insatiable appetite for stories of deception spans the extremes of culture from King Lear to Little Red Riding Hood, retaining a grip on our imaginations despite endless repetition. These tales of deception are so enthralling because they speak to something fundamental in the human condition. The ever-present possibility of deceit is a crucial dimension of all human relationships, even the most central: our relationships with our very own selves.

Now, for the first time, philosopher and evolutionary psychologist David Livingstone Smith elucidates the essential role that deception and self-deception have played in human--and animal--evolution and shows that the very structure of our minds has been shaped from our earliest beginnings by the need to deceive. Smith shows us that by examining the stories we tell, the falsehoods we weave, and the unconscious signals we send out, we can learn much about ourselves and how our minds work.

Readers of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker will find much to intrigue them in this fascinating book, which declares that our extraordinary ability to deceive others--and even our own selves--"lies" at the heart of our humanity.

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From Publishers Weekly

According to Smith, deception lies so deeply at the heart of our existence that we often cannot distinguish truth from lies in our everyday lives. Deception, he writes, is pervasive as we manage how others perceive us, from using cosmetics to lying on a job application; it is "more often spontaneous and unconscious than cynical and coldly analytical." In this superficial investigation of the biology and psychology of lying, Smith, a professor of philosophy and cofounder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England, tries to demonstrate that humans are hardwired to deceive: we do so just as frogs and lizards engage in mimicry, to insure the survival of the species. Unlike other animals, however, we have the capacity to deceive ourselves as well as others, since our mendacity is embedded not only in our evolutionary past but also in our unconscious. Smith tells us nothing that hasn't been covered by other writers in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Moreover, his study is really two books—one on evolutionary biology and the other on psychology and the unconscious—and the lack of transition makes it hard to tell what one really has to do with the other.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The brain, especially the unconscious mind, is the ultimate challenge for scientists and philosophers. Following the lead of Antonio Damasio and Diane Ackerman, Smith focuses on a particularly baffling trait, our proclivity for deception, not only our habit of lying to others but also, and far more mysteriously, the way we deceive ourselves. To show that lying is as natural as breathing, Smith presents a lively survey of the many forms of deception practiced by plants, insects, and animals. He then turns to Homo sapiens and offers cogent and provocative analysis of the link between increasingly complex societies, the evolution of the brain, and the need for "social lies" in the interest of civility. This leads to eyebrow-raising speculation regarding the source of our habitual mendacity and psyche-protecting self-deception (the extent of which is truly astonishing), a facet of the unconscious that Smith calls "Machiavellian intelligence," and a convincing theory as to why it functions "beyond the reach of introspection." With an "aha!" moment on every page, Smith's inquiry is stimulating and unsettling. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!!! July 15 2004
Format:Hardcover
Every once in a while a new book appears which lifts the veil off one's eyes. This is just such a book. Smith addresses one the most important issues of our time. Why do we tell lies? Further, why are we so good at telling them? The author tells us that "the evolutionary roots of deception and the unconscious mind"(the subheading of the book) accounts for our ease with lying.
The book addresses some of the fundamental aspects of lying - that we are indeed natural born liars, that not only is lying found throughout nature, but that organisms that lie well are successful. In addition, Smith describes the role of unconscious cognition. His use of the term "social poker" illustrates what takes place in communication.
Smith goes where no 'self-respecting' psychologists these days are willing to go, by discussing 'Freudian' ideas. This was refreshing amidst the climate of overwhelming objection to Freud's ideas in psychology. Smith's knowledge of the various areas addressed in the book is profound. His ability to express Darwinian concepts in a clear and reasoned manner is superb.
Indeed this book is a 'must read' for the scholar, the student, or even the general reader who is interested in human nature. I highly recommend it, and believe that those who read it will find it fascinating and compelling.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Natural Born Liars Aug. 4 2004
By Loren Rosson III - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature; essential to our humanity but disowned by its perpetrators at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It is not, as popular opinion would have it, reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Human society is a network of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty." (p 2)

David Livingstone Smith has written a stunning book with four aims in view. First, he explains deception and self-deception from an evolutionary perspective, how lying to ourselves soothes the stresses of life and in the process helps us lie efficiently to others. But in order to deceive ourselves, we had to evolve an unconscious region of the brain where truth can be effectively obscured. This ties with the second aim of the book, in which Smith attempts a controversial reconnection between cognitive psychology and the kinds of questions Freud once tried (unsuccessfully) to answer. Like it or not, the unconscious is a reality which must be addressed. Freud may have left us a legacy of crackpot pseudo-science, but some of his findings can be legitimately applied in scientific investigation. Smith gets us started on doing exactly this, and hopefully some of his ideas will be pursued at more length -- and more empirically -- by the scientific community. He uses examples from modern living in describing (the third goal of the book) adaptive functions of the unconscious mind implied by self-deception, showing (even if without the level of empirical proof demanded by scientific inquiry) that we are all natural psychologists, albeit unconscious ones, carefully monitoring one another's behavior, constantly deceiving others and ourselves. This may sound like a wild idea, but it's not. For the author demonstrates (the fourth objective) that our conscious and unconscious perceptions of others are disguised in the gossip, lies, deceptions, and veiled meanings in everyday conversations.

One emerges from this book feeling almost like a paranoid schizophrenic. If indeed we tell three lies for every ten minutes of conversation; if indeed we are constantly, and often unconsciously, aiming hidden missiles at people with coded transcripts and veiled meanings; if indeed we are natural born liars with "bodies that secrete deceit"; then the conclusion presses in the opposite direction of received wisdom. Psychiatric professionals teach us that mentally ill and depressed people are self-deceived and out of touch with reality, but evolutionary biology corrects this mythology. Depressives have a better grasp on reality than then most people, because they suffer from a deficit in self-deception. Smith wryly remarks that self-knowledge isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

Smith concludes that we know far less about ourselves, and far more about others, then we are aware of knowing. While acknowledging that we can hardly be taught not to deceive ourselves -- even if we could, it would only result in unhappiness -- we can at least work to rid ourselves of surplus self-deception. But that's easier said than done. In any case, this book is one hell of an eye-opener, and a delight to read. It should be mandatory reading for gnostic-thinkers, who will hate it.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!!! July 15 2004
By Elaine Stewart - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Every once in a while a new book appears which lifts the veil off one's eyes. This is just such a book. Smith addresses one the most important issues of our time. Why do we tell lies? Further, why are we so good at telling them? The author tells us that "the evolutionary roots of deception and the unconscious mind"(the subheading of the book) accounts for our ease with lying.
The book addresses some of the fundamental aspects of lying - that we are indeed natural born liars, that not only is lying found throughout nature, but that organisms that lie well are successful. In addition, Smith describes the role of unconscious cognition. His use of the term "social poker" illustrates what takes place in communication.
Smith goes where no `self-respecting' psychologists these days are willing to go, by discussing `Freudian' ideas. This was refreshing amidst the climate of overwhelming objection to Freud's ideas in psychology. Smith's knowledge of the various areas addressed in the book is profound. His ability to express Darwinian concepts in a clear and reasoned manner is superb.
Indeed this book is a `must read' for the scholar, the student, or even the general reader who is interested in human nature. I highly recommend it, and believe that those who read it will find it fascinating and compelling.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why is our mind split into conscious and subconscious? June 4 2005
By Vincent Youngs - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The first reviewer said it right: "Every once in a while a new book appears which lifts the veil off one's eyes." This book amazes me.

Why did our brains evolve a split between our conscious mind and subconscious mind? David Livingstone Smith has a hypothesis that makes sense in an astonishing way. Our brains evolved to maximize our survival potential in prehistoric ages. By far the most important survival factor to primitive humans were their relationships to other humans. Most of our brain power evolved for the purpose of getting along in (primitive) society. Man's capacity for deception evolved in response to reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism improved the life of primitive man, so long as the relationships were reciprocal. However, some individuals would cheat. They would find a way to accept the benefits of reciprocal altruism without reciprocating. Anyone who could cheat successfully had a better chance of passing on their genes. In order to cheat successfully, cheaters had to excel at deception. The genes for deceptive ability spread through the gene pool because that survived the best. With widespread deception and cheating, the ability to detect deception also became an important survival factor. Evolution of the human brain became an arms race between the ability to deceive and the ability to detect deception. As deception became more advanced and subtle, so did the detection of it. Neither side, deception nor detection, could keep the upper hand in the arms race. At some point, deception could no longer be conducted effectively enough by conscious lying. When we lie consciously, we give ourselves away by telltale signs and nervousness. The next step in the arms race was self-deception - to split the mind into a conscious and unconscious. The conscious mind could remain innocent of deception, leaving the unconscious mind free to excel at it. This separation of the mind into a conscious and unconscious, though necessary for successful deception, came at a high cost. The conscious part of our minds became deliberately dumbed down. With the conscious mind being dumbed down, the detection of deception also had to move underground, to be handled by the same "Machiavellian module" that engaged in deception. This unconscious portion of the brain is an expert psychologist, highly capable at reading other people's motivations and at manipulating them. Its high intelligence is unavailable to the conscious mind, except what it selectively allows through. This explanation of a deliberately dumbed down conscious mind accompanied by an intelligent self-deceptive subconscious makes sense. Before reading this book I couldn't see why people (including myself) are like that, but it fits. It is observationally true.

Another important revelation in this book is the survival role of gossip and idle chit chat. As mentioned, detecting cheaters in primitive society had high survival value. Gossip served the vital role of communicating reputation information. However, gossip was dangerous and could be used for mis-information as easily as for sharing reputation information. Gossip could cause the gossiper to be ostracized by friends of the subject, which was fatal in primitive society. To counter this danger, the Machiavellian module developed the ability to communicate in hidden code. Instead of gossiping directly about someone, the Machiavellian module brings up topics of conversation that seem unrelated, but which contain hidden messages. On the surface, it appears to be idle chit chat about nothing. Below the surface, people's Machiavellian modules understand the hidden messages, and have a coded conversation with each other, the meaning of which remains hidden even from their conscious minds. I used to wonder why people waste time in idle chit chat about nothing. After reading this book, my way of listening to people will be forever changed.

This book goes on my most highly recommended list of "must read" books.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to Make Friends and Influence People March 22 2007
By Clary Antome - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Now here's a familiar scenario: when I was growing up, my parents, teachers and other such authority figures every now and then found it fit to scold me for lying -- and made it sound like a character flaw, a fearful sin. Of course, they were absolutely right and managed to pass on a very valuable lesson: if you want to survive in this world, you've got to cheat in a way that makes you sound/appear totally honest!

And here is a book that can teach you everything you need to know about the origins, mechanisms and usefulness of lying to ourselves and each other. Far from being a morally dubious trait in some "bad" people, it turns out that this is one of our most vital survival strategies.

Smith makes some very important contributions to the understanding of our minds from an evolutionary point of view. He convincingly portrays social life as a highly competitive system, and our cooperation with others as a form of allegiance against competitors/enemies. But because it is so difficult and draining to make reliable friends and influence the right people (as you might have noticed after any cocktail party or family gathering), our brains have evolved mechanisms to do most of the job unconsciously, while we merrily engage in (mostly elevating) self-deception and apparently boring small-talk.

In fact, recovering some of Freud's most enlightening hypotheses, Smith (along with many other evolutionists quoted in his book) argues that our conscious mind is not at all responsible for making decisions: "only results become conscious". We're like the user-friendly computer screen, as opposed to the hard disk, where all the real important information gets processed. Which means that what's going on even in our yapping heads is not really under our "control" -- at best we are informed of the final verdict (though we actually tend to be given false information by our unconscious!).

This split between conscious and unconscious, Smith argues, actually helps us blissfully cheat and manipulate each other without noticing it (thus avoiding unnecessary and possibly violent conflict) -- except when we, all too often, betray ourselves. The book is full of witty and convincing examples of situations in which the gap between our real but unconscious opinions/intentions and our fake but morally/socially acceptable actions becomes visible.

With all this social poker taking place on a daily basis, it becomes clear that society itself is mainly sustained by lies and deception, from religion through the judicial system to elections -- like a collective hallucination. (Which would really explain why politicians, celebrities, the media, schools, etc can come up with the greatest imaginable nonsense without anyone feeling particularly insulted -- it's just normal, after all.)

Thus, Smith's book may lead to two basic conclusions:

1) Either you are totally honest with yourself (if this were possible at all) and must therefore bluntly and unashamedly lie to others;

2) Or, far more likely, you mostly deceive yourself about your true opinions/intentions, in order to keep the conviction that you can be totally honest with others (just like mum and dad and all the other grown-ups taught us).

In any case, reading Why We Lie might give you some valuable hints about how to go on participating in this farce called life -- and enjoy the brief moments of enlightenment that may follow, once we understand that we are swimming in a sea of fables... starting with our own minds.
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Why complicating things with the term Machiavellian module ? July 29 2005
By Ivo Panban - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The book contains many references to texts and some brilliant insights in evolutionary psychology revealed by Trivers, Hamilton, Alexander, Humphrey, Darwin. The author describes many evolutionary insights in a concise, interesting way (including the reason for the development of deception and self deception, unconsciousness, and split of the brain). Because of this, the book deserves 5 stars.

But the author also introduces the term Machiavellian module claiming its unconscious existence in a person, and prescribing this module intelligence and cognition. At the same time, he also try to diminish the importance of consciousness, even questioning if there is such thing as a conscious cognition and intelligence, narrowing the importance of consciousness to merely an observing role. From that point on, the book gets a little frustrating and it seems that the author unnecessarily tries hard to explain everything by this Machiavellian module. But actually he cannot introduce or explain anything new into the existing evolutionary psychology insights, but only complicate things.

Because of this, I give the book one star.

There is no such thing as Machiavellian module (unconscious cognition and intelligence as described by the author) and a weak observing consciousness, but quite the contrary - there is the term already known in evolutionary psychology - Machiavellian intelligence (active, conscious part of the brain developed in men because of immense human social relationships) which answers to questions "how" and the unconscious containing motivations and emotions (although powerful it does not contain neither cognition nor intelligence) which directs the goals of people and answer to questions "why". The author also tries, by numerous examples of unconscious discoveries, to justify the existence of a highly cognitive, intelligent unconscious, but - it seems that he confuse unconscious intelligence with unconscious memory.
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