If being confident has ever won you a job interview, or if you’ve ever accidentally stolen a pen from a friend, you might have evolution to thank – or blame.
Self-deception describes the event of misinterpreting reality, sometimes based on biased information. Being unaware of reality seems like a big handicap, but it can sometimes be a real advantage. If you have ever been to an assessment centre for a new job, you know it is basically a battlefield to show off your skills. Overestimating yourself, for example on your looks or your leadership skills, will greatly enhance your self-confidence and make you stand out. When you do not doubt yourself you are free to act with determination. All of this increases your chances of outcompeting your rivals and score the job. Ultimately, the act of overestimating oneself is nothing more than being biased about one’s own abilities and perceiving reality in a biased way.
Another example of unconscious deception might be the action of pocketing something that does not belong to you, like a pen borrowed from a friend – and then keeping it upon discovery. While you would not steal from a friend, there are circumstances in which taking and keeping seems perfectly acceptable. The action of stealing without realising it in turn allows you to maintain your social relationship and avoid detection by your friend or even yourself. Such behaviour, American anthropologist Robert Trivers has argued, is a form of self-deception which may have evolutionary roots.
Way back, our ancestors did not bother with pens or assessment centres. However, the pen could be a valuable food item and the job could be a much sought-after mating opportunity. In both cases self-deception was the key to reaching the goal, and hence proved to be advantageous. In animals that live in groups, like humans, obvious deception or deceitfulness is a trait which is often selected against. This is because the individual is often outcast, losing the trust of its group members once the deception is discovered. Without the support of the group, the individual is less likely to survive and reproduce, hence it cannot pass the trait on to its offspring. The gene responsible for the individual to deceive its group members is lost from the population, because most of its carriers would die prematurely.
Self-deception appears to act as a protection against the negative consequences of ordinary deception. This is likely due to the fact that it is not easily uncovered and its other benefits, as for example overestimating yourself. However, being deluded about reality cannot be without risks. Not being able to correctly estimate one’s own ability can be deadly: an animal may take challenge an enemy stronger than itself or attempt to catch prey to large for it. A human may launch his own business without any knowledge about economy or going to an exam without studying for it. And underestimating oneself falls under self-deception as well as its counterpart. Underestimation of one’s ability can both be negative and positive: Staying below one’s true ability, but also avoidance of unnecessary risks.
However, benefits must still outweigh the risks as self-deception is a common trait in humans, as the examples in the introduction show. Everybody is bound to be deceived by themselves in one way or another and hence self-deception impacts all our lives. The question which is still unanswered though, is “does knowing about the occurrence of self-deception influence its effects?”
Jennifer Graudenz is studying for an MRes in Clinical Research