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The Pattern Behind Self-Deception
Michael Shermer   Jun 18, 2010  

Michael Shermer says the human tendency to believe strange things—from alien abductions to dowsing rods—boils down to two of the brain’s most basic, hard-wired survival skills. He explains what they are, and how they get us into trouble.

Timely lecture.
Below is a concise intro to the subject for the layman:
"Deception and Self-Deception. Deception is pandemic in nature. Camouflage and mimicry are just two of its typical forms. Paradoxically, our tendencies to reciprocal altruism increase the potential gains from deception in our species, because exploiting reciprocators may lead to gaining benefits without having to give any in return. In our species the opportunities for deception are improved by language, which simultaneously provides a valuable medium of exchange -- information -- and the ability to counterfeit that good.
Of course, it is in the interest of those potentially deceived to discover deception, and it not surprising that human beings are natural, if imperfect, lie detectors. (That is the reason why we want jurors to hear testimony live rather than read a transcript.) This detection ability encourages selection for behavior that will avoid detection, setting up an arms race between deceptive behavior and mechanisms for detecting deception. Biologists have suggested that this arms race is, in turn, the origin of pervasive self-deception in man. By deceiving himself, an individual may suppress the cues that allow others to detect deception. Hence self-deception is most likely when there is an intense need to deceive others.
The fact that human beings have innate tendencies toward deception and self-deception buttresses the conservative defense of civil society and skepticism about state power. Civil society develops norms to combat deception in private life. In the market, individuals have strong incentives to maintain a reputation for honesty so that others will deal with them. Fraternal and religious organizations arise in part to vouch for the good behavior of their members.
In contrast, it is much harder to root deception out of large-scale politics. For instance, in a democracy citizens are rationally ignorant of most political issues; that is, they know perhaps subconsciously, that their individual votes are so unlikely to influence elections that it simply does not pay to follow the twists and turns of public debate. Politicians have a scope for deception proportionate to this ignorance. A commanding presence, a compassionate demeanor, and rhetorical virtuosity are evolutionarily designed mechanisms that fool the inattentive.
The ingrained susceptibility to self-deception also undermines the celebration of sincerity and authenticity that has been at the heart of the Left's project since Rousseau. Evolution suggests that individuals may project the most sincerity and feel the greatest measure of authenticity precisely when they are offering proposals that are deceptive -- ideas that benefit themselves and their group at the expense of others."
Professor John O. McGinnis, National Review, 12/22/97
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