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Evolutionary Roots of Deception: Book Review

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 1467 words Published: 9th Aug 2018

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  • Loredana Lenghel

Deception – Evolution’s Hidden Agenda

“Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature” (2004, p.2) says David Livingstone Smith in his book “Why We Lie, The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind”. The author tries to show, through several examples and intriguing connections, that lying is an evolutionary adaptation which allowed the human species to thrive. He argues that “Deceit (…) is essential to humanity but disowned by perpetrators at every turn” (2004, p.2). The book proves to be an ambitious try at showing that deception is an intrinsic part of cognition; that it comes naturally to all humans. Even more spectacular is his try to convince us that deception is controlled by the unconscious mind, thus allowing for self-manipulation. For this purpose, Smith uses The Machiavellian Mind Theory arguing that humans’ extra Intelligence allows them to overcome primal needs, thus being advantageous for social manipulation.

The author’s aim is to convince the reader that manipulation plays a central role in the evolution of humans. He argues that in order for our ancestors to thrive in the ever developing social context and increase their fitness, they were required to come up with ways to mediate social encounters. He starts by showing that everyone is a “natural-born liar”. From baby monkeys to human infants, from religious myths to children stories, lying is ubiquitous and a part of all cultures. Smith argues that lying does not resume to just words, people also lie with their bodies and actions. Even more intriguing, lying is not always aimed at someone else. He proposes that “we are equally adept at deceiving ourselves” (2004, p.21). The unconscious is actively trying to conceal information from us through the process of self-deception; an idea not unique to Smith (Chance et al., 2011; Hippel & Trivers, 2001). He continues to show that not only humans are “manipulators and mind readers”. He gives examples of deception from the animal sphere, from camouflage and mimicry to more sophisticated ways of deception, such as language, he argues that these are proof that deception is an evolutionary advantage. Mind reading, an organism’s ability to predict another’s behaviour, increases its chances of survival, thus acting as an adaptation. It is the driving force behind evolution because “Mind reading facilitates deception, and deception encourages mind reading” (2004, p.35).

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In “The Evolution of Machiavelli” he elaborates on the roots of deception and self-deception. He argues that deception was used by our ancestors to conceal their true intentions. The ones that were superior in this aspect had an edge over others. He presents Nick Humphrey’s papers in which he argues that the race between the best deceiver and the best mind-reader was what gave birth to human intelligence, allowing them to manage the increasing social complexity. This hypothesis is supported by others, who, by looking at the neocortex’s size, brain part involved in relationship mediation, found evidence in support for the social intellect theory (Dunbar, 1992). They argued that the ratio of the neocortex volume is the best predictor of group size. Moreover, Orbell et al. argued that Machiavellian intelligence could have evolved alongside cooperation (Orbell et al., 2004). This idea raises the question whether, as Smith said, unconscious deception would be even more beneficial for cooperation and the increase of the human species.

His next chapter builds on the idea that self-deception is possible due human mind’s division into unconscious and conscious regions. He argues that the time between the unconscious awareness and conscious perception is what allows the Machiavellian module to act and distort the information. He supports Freud’s idea that “consciousness had no role in mental processing” (2004, p.97). To portray this intriguing proposition of self-deception being an adaptation, Smith used a creative analogy. He argued that humans are constantly part of a game of “social poker”. In order to win it, one needs to anticipate the other player’s move by using the mechanisms of deception and mind-reading. To improve their own strategy and avoid being foreseeable, the mechanism of self-deception became an adaptive advantage. By believing the lie themselves, other players could not predict their moves. This analogy shows the benefits of self-deception. That being said, some argue that even though there might be short-term psychological benefits, self-deception can come with long-term costs, such as an inaccurate prediction of future performance (Chance et al., 2011) or loss of information integrity which can result in inappropriate action (Hippel & Trivers, 2011).

The device that allowed for this to happen, he says, was the evolution of language, which ushered the struggle between deception and detection. Language offered an advantage in the social poker game, giving more chances of success to those with this skill. In his view, social exchanges are monitored by the unconscious Machiavellian mind. This module is sensitive to both the conscious and unconscious cues of others because it is the Machiavellian module itself who communicates through unconscious verbal insinuations. He argues that this idea is “less bizarre than it might at appear” (2004, p.121). Coded communication might have evolved due to the language’s initial purpose, gossip. Concealing information from third parties and exchanging confidences through cheap gossip allowed for secret alliances and a favoured position in the social circle. He affirms that “For our species, all roads lead to self-deception and thus to unconscious communication” (2004, p.147).

At a first look online, it is noticeable that only with the title this book has stirred some controversy. Commentaries stating that the book “got them hooked” from the beginning were prevailing. The book was generally regarded as an interesting read, but not a piece of strong evidence for its propositions. Pinker (2010) did not view it as an attempt to persuade readers, but rather, as an attempt to recruit researchers into conducting studies to test the theory’s value. Others regarded the book as highly speculative without even considering the “obvious counterarguments” (Sager, 2004). Sager argued that not even the speculations seem plausible, thus begging the question whether they could even lead to anything more. Dickins (2005), although being less critical, agrees with the general argument that the connection made between the unconscious and deception is questionable.

In conclusion, Smith’s book presented itself as a worthwhile read. First catching my attention by not completely disregarding Freud’s theories, and then using it to stir controversy upon human integrity, it undoubtedly offered some food for thought. Even though converting readers into believers of its cause is improbable, the book will make them critically analyse their interactions and looks for the smallest hints of (self)deception. The style of writing and creativity in portraying ideas were an additional bonus to the book’s appeal, raising interest in Smith’s other works.


Chance, Z., Norton, M. I., Gino, F., & Ariely, D. (2011). Temporal View of the Costs and Benefits of Self-Deception. PNAS, 15655-15659.

Dickins, T. E. (2005). A Necessary Pain in the Heart. Retrieved March 02, 2014, from Human Nature.

Dunbar, R. I. (1992). Neocortex Size as Constraint on Group Size in Primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 469-493.

Hippel, W. v., & Trivers, R. (2011). The Evolution and Psychology of Self-Deception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-56.

Orbell, J., Morikawa, T., Hartwig, J., Hanley, J., & Allen, N. (2004). “Machiavellian” Intelligence as a Basis for the Evolution of Cooperative Dispositions. American Political Science Review, 1-15.

Pinker, S. (2010). The Cognitive Niche: Coeolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. PNAS, 8993-8999.

Sager, A. (2004). Review – Why We Lie – The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind . Retrieved March 02, 2014, from Metapsychology: http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/poc/view doc.php?type=book&id=2262

Smith, D. L. (2004). Why We Lie – The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.


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