The Folly of Fools


The time is ripe for a general theory of deceit and self-deception based on evolutionary logic, a theory that in principle applies to all species but with special force to our own. We are thoroughgoing liars, even to ourselves. Our most prized possession—language—not only strengthens our ability to lie but greatly extends its range. We can lie about events distant in space and time, the details and meaning of the behavior of others, our innermost thoughts and desires, and so on. But why, why self-deception? Why do we possess marvelous sense organs to detect information only to distort it after arrival?

Evolutionary biology provides the foundation for a functional view of the subject—in this case, we lie to ourselves the better to lie to others—but many other aspects are involved. Self-deception sits squarely within psychology, but if you restrict yourself to that subject, you may well go blind (and crazy as well) long before you discern the underlying principles. In many situations, an understanding of daily life is more valuable than findings from the lab, but our understanding of daily life is easily colored by ignorance and our own deceit and self-deception. This may be especially true where politics and international relations are concerned, but to leave out these topics would be a foolish omission, as if because of potential bias we best remain silent. Since the analysis of self-deception begins at home, I have included some personal stories. Naturally, I have tried to strike a balance between what can be scientifically shown with some certainty and what is provocative but far from certain, and I have tried to make clear which is which.

My hope is to engage you in applying these concepts to your own life and developing them further. I have tried not to linger unduly over points of uncertainty but to draw attention to them where they occur and move on. Some real fraction of what I write must inevitably be wrong, but I hope that the logic being advanced and facts asserted will easily invite improvements toward a deeper, integrated science of self-deception.

The topic is a negative one. This book is about untruth, about falsehoods, about lies, inward and outward. At times, it is a depressing subject but, surely more than most, deceit and self-deception deserve to see the light of day, to enjoy the benefits of explicit scientific analysis and study. It is a dark and opaque side to ourselves, one that we leave untreated at our own peril, but it is also a source of endless humor and amazement, so we can also enjoy the subject as we suffer it.

I have written the book in a certain order—evolutionary logic and deception in nature first, neurophysiology, imposed self-deception, the family, two sexes, immunology, and social psychology next, then self-deception in daily life, including airplane crashes, false historical narratives, war, religion, and the social sciences, before offering final thoughts on how we may fight self-deception in ourselves.

But in fact, after the first chapter, the book can be read in almost any order. I have made an effort to refer back and forward to related material so that if you skip over material that is later necessary you will often know at once where to find it. For any fact or theory asserted in the text, it is easy to locate the appropriate source by going to the endnotes, which begin after the last chapter and are pegged to page number and content. I have occasionally added references to related material. Full references can then be found in the bibliography.

Everyone can participate in building a science of self-deception. We