Friday, January 20, 2012

killer apes: survival of the self-promoters

Physorg | Take the reaction to a recent survey in which about 52 percent of college students rated their emotional health as below average. About half of them are, after all, going to be below average. But the UCLA researchers who did the survey say it indicates a deeper problem. In past surveys, at least 64 percent of the respondents said they were above average.

What's going on here? Are we truly living in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average?

Several scientists blame evolution for our ego-inflating tendencies - call it survival of the self-promoters.

We naturally tend to puff ourselves up and kid ourselves, says Rutgers University evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers. That's because evolution has shaped many organisms into natural-born liars. In his new book, "The Folly of Fools, Trivers lays out a case that we humans are such good liars we even lie to ourselves.

People tend to overrate themselves on looks, smarts, and leadership ability, he says. Academics, he notes, are particularly deluded - in one survey, 94 percent thought they were in the top half of their profession.

Wouldn't a clear-eyed view of reality give us all the best chance for survival? Not necessarily, says Trivers, since much of our success in life and mating hinges on deception. And what better way to improve our powers of deception than to believe our own lies? It's survival of the deluded.

Trivers achieved scientific prominence in the 1970s, when he revolutionized the scientific understanding of altruistic behavior, showing how it can pay off as long as good deeds are reciprocated. He also pioneered the idea that evolution works at the level of individual genes - a concept Richard Dawkins popularized in his breakout best seller "The Selfish Gene."

Trivers starts his book with a discussion about ordinary deception, which happens throughout the natural world. Male sunfish fight over territory to get a mate, but small male sunfish can avoid all that by imitating females. That way, the little male gets to share the favors of a female with a clueless dominant male. Butterflies take on the appearance of toxic species to avoid being eaten without expending the energy of making toxins.

Among primates, the bigger the brain, the greater the tendency to deceive, says Trivers. We're the dishonest apes. Over the eons, it has been to our ancestors' advantage to convince the world they were nicer, prettier, and smarter than they really were.

Believing your own lies makes you more convincing, as long as you don't go overboard to the point that people laugh at you behind your back. Among children, he says, those who score highest on intelligence tests are most likely to lie to themselves and others.

Humans can also work together to magnify self-deception. In his chapter on religion, he notes the obvious problem with all religions that claim to be the one true system of belief about the one true God. They can't all be right.

From his part-time home in Jamaica, Trivers said he sees a blizzard of deception and self-deception in America today. One antidote, he said, is humor, of the type doled out by his favorite television personalities - Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.


nomadfiles said...

We're the dishonest apes. "

Ah, yes. I know the species very well: homo prevaricatus. Homo prevaricatus narcissus, to be precise.