Don't call it a spade
Self-Deceptive Status Filters
People call me cynical because I say ideology is crap. It’s just stuff people say to look good to their peers. Signaling, that is. And I support this claim by pointing out that people just don’t know shit. David Hume proved that. We don’t even “know” the laws of nature with any certainty. Yes, we’re used to some things happening after certain things. There’s chains of events that strongly hint at causality. But you can never know for sure.
Of course that kind of fuzzy knowledge is good enough for human purposes; people do get by in their lives, do things expecting consequences to occur, and they almost invariably do. But the strength of that knowledge depends on the frequency of their repetition. So people only really know what they’re very familiar with. Their job, generally. This maps to Conquest’s Second Law: everybody is conservative about what they know best. People are not conservative (i.e. they are leftist) on the things they don’t know. Why would they be? They don’t know much about it. And yet they have an opinion about it. They talk about it. Why would you talk about something you don’t know about? Signaling, of course.
Signaling doesn’t exactly equate leftism, but it kinda does. Signaling is about gaining status. That’s why you signal, that’s what living in society is about. If you were a tiger you’d be in the jungle eating animals and looking for females to rape; as it happens humans are social primates, and we need to get along with other humans. We want other humans to help us for the lower cost possible; getting what you want in society is the definition of having status. Of course everybody wants to get their way; everybody wants status, but it’s physically impossible for everyone to get what they want. Basically food and pretty women. You need people to help you out, to work for you, and there’s only so much work available. Status is scarce. So people compete for it. Compete all the time. Animals do all the time too; see all those deers and goats and bulls jousting for access to females. Humans do that all the time too, but human bands need common labor so they evolved ways to try to avoid ingroup violence. You can’t just beat and kill your status-rivals; you need them to grow crops with you. And humans can make weapons so there’s no obvious hierarchy of strength where the biggest dude gets to rule forever, as in lions.
So you gotta status-jock without violence. So you signal. I guess women started that; they can’t just beat up other women by sheer physical strength, and odds are the woman you wanna beat up is some dude’s bitch, and as a woman you don’t wanna cross him. Or maybe it’s sexual selection of men just not being into murderous women. At any rate, civilized society is about signaling. And it’s much better than constant jousting. Civilization is nice. Not having to kill or maim all your rivals for access to food and women is nice. But signaling has its own problems. For one you gotta make up stuff. You gotta get used to lying, having an opinion on no grounds, repeating high-status opinions like they were your own. Civilization requires constant bullshit on a massive scale.
Of course this implies that humans, or animals in general are wired up to accurately perceive reality. But that’s a pretty baseless assumption. Living beings evolve so that they can survive and reproduce. They are wired up to find food, avoid danger and mate as much as possible. That’s all there is to it. Their reality-perception abilities will only develop to the extent that they improve survival and reproduction, i.e. fitness. For solitary animals one would assume that they gotta be pretty accurate at analyzing their environment. They’re busy enough finding food and females to entertain bullshit. At most nature may favor some amount of baseless optimism so they don’t get discouraged. But social animals are different. You need to get along. You need to interact with others to get your way. A good way of getting your way is lying your way. Cheating your peers so that they give you stuff. Of course this creates incentives to avoid being cheated yourself. So you wanna be able to notice if someone’s lying to you. You need to find signals that your friends are lying. Tone of voice, twitching of the eye, posture. There’s always ways to tell. But this detection-race of course creates the ultimate incentive. Bullshit without lying. Believe your own bullshit so that you don’t produce any sign of cheating. That way you can’t be detected.
Some people may have noticed this is the argument of the great evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers in a series of papers on Self-Deception. Let me paste some quotes from his 2000 paper, The Elements of a Scientific Theory of Self-Deception.
(…) the argument for self-deception is not so obvious. For a solitary organism, the prospects seem difficult, if not hopeless. In trying to deal effectively with a complex, changing world, where is the benefit in misrepresenting reality to oneself? Only in interactions with other organisms, especially con-specifics, would several benefits seem to arise. Because deception is easily selected between individuals, it may also generate self-deception, the better to hide ongoing deception from detection by others. In this view, the conscious mind is, in part, a social front, maintained to deceive others—who more readily attend to its manifestations than to those of the actor’s unconscious mind.
My bolding. This maps pretty well with Randall Collins’ theory of people’s behavior being formed by interactional rituals, where you learn what to say and do while watching your peers do it together. Note that speech is also a form of behavior. In the rationalist West we assume that speech this special power that reflects the content of the mind, but there’s no evidence for that, nor can there be. Speech is like gestures or grunts; things you do to communicate with others. There’s nothing magical about it.
there are also situations in which your dominant activity (say, lecturing) is honest, but a minor activity is deceitful (stealing the chalk). These can be thought of as directed by unconscious modules favored by selection so as to allow us to pursue surreptitiously strategies we would wish to deny to others. Naturally these will often remain unconscious to us.
I will shortly describe in detail a deceitful little module in my own life which I have discovered primarily because my pockets fill up with contraband: hard, concrete objects that others may soon miss. What is the chance that I perform numerous unconscious selfish modules whose social benefits do not pile up in one place, where I can notice them (and others confirm them), e.g., ploys of unconscious manipulation of others (including, of course, as an academic, expropriating their ideas)?
I have discovered over the years that I am an unconscious petty thief. I steal small, useful objects: pencils, pens, matches, lighters and other useful objects easy to pocket. I am completely unconscious of this activity while it is happening. I am, of course, now richly aware of it in retrospect, but after at least 40 years of performing the behavior I am still unconscious ahead of time, during the action, and immediately afterwards. Perhaps because the trait is so unconscious, it appears now to have a life of its own and often seems to act directly against even my narrow interests. For example, I steal chalk from myself while lecturing and am left with no chalk with which to lecture (nor do I have a blackboard at home). I steal pencils and pens from my office and, in turn, from my home, so if I download my pockets at either destination, as I commonly do, I risk being without writing implements at the other end. Recently I stole the complete set of keys of a Jamaican school principal off of his desk between us. And so on.
In summary, noteworthy features of this module are that: (1) it is little changed over the course of my life; (2) increasing consciousness of the behavior after the behavior has done little or nothing to increase consciousness during or in advance of the behavior; and (3) the behavior seems increasingly to misfire, that is, to fail to steal useful objects.
What is the benefit of keeping this petty thievery unconscious? On the one hand, if challenged, I can act surprised and be confident in my assertion that nothing like this was ever my conscious intention (see below). On the other hand, unconsciousness ensures that my thievery will not interfere with ongoing behavior, while the piece of brain devoted to stealing can concentrate on the problem at hand, i.e., snatching the desired item undetected. Part of its consciousness has to be devoted to studying my own behavior since integrating its thievery into my other behavior will presumably make this harder to detect by others, including myself.
Lol. This guy’s a piece of work. But hey, insight comes from the unconventional. Anyway, I digress.
3. Self-deception as self-promotion. Another major source of self-deception has to do with self-promotion, self-exaggeration on the positive side, denial on the negative, all in the name of producing an image that we are “beneffective,” to use Anthony Greenwald’s apt term, toward others. That is, we benefit others and are effective when we do it. If you ask high school seniors in the United States to rank themselves on leadership ability, fully 80% say they have better than average abilities, but for true feats of self-deception you can hardly beat the academic profession. When you ask professors to rate themselves, an almost unanimous 94% say they are in the top half of the profession!
This is a good example. Somebody asks you where are you in a ranking in your profession. But how the hell would you know? Have you met all of your fellows? Do you even know yourself that well? Of course not. When asked a question like that people aren’t processing information stored in their brains. What they do is look very well at the interviewer, figure out that they have a chance to gain some status by signaling their awesomeness, and they do so. Of course they do. Incidentally in Japan, where humility is traditionally seen as high-status, people would answer the other way around. Oh, I’m a very bad leader. I’m just some guy. Of course that’s changing thanks to MBA culture exported by the US.
4. The construction of biased social theory. We all have social theories. We have a theory of our marriages. Husband and wife, for example, may agree that one party is a long-suffering altruist, while the other is hopelessly selfish, but they may disagree over which is which. We each tend to have a theory regarding our employment. Are we an exploited worker, underpaid and underappreciated for value given (and fully justified in minimizing output and stealing company property)? We usually have a theory regarding our larger society as well. Are the wealthy unfairly increasing their own re- sources at the expense of the rest of us? Does democracy permit us to reassert our power at regular intervals? Is the judicial system systematically b ased against our kind of people (African-Americans for example)? The capacity for these kinds of theories presumably evolved in part to detect cheating in our relationships and in the larger system of reciprocal altruism.
Social theory is easily expected to be biased in favor of the speaker. Social theory inevitably embraces a complex array of facts and these may be very partially remembered and very poorly organized, the better to construct a consistent self-serving body of social theory.
Social theory being a nice sounding name for ideology. You gotta give it to Trivers that he was an honest and insightful guy. He personally was best friends with the Black Panthers and spent decades as an activist for black power in America. And yet look at him: here he is confessing it’s all bullshit he made up, biased in favor of him and his friends.
Alexander was, I think, the first person to point out that group selection thinking—the mistaken belief that natural selection favors things that are good for the group or the species—is just the kind of social theory you would expect to be promulgated in a group-living species whose members are concerned to increase each other’s group orientation.
Touché, group selectionists. What else is there to say? Just look at E.O. Wilson and tell me he doesn’t look like a Puritan pastor.
5. Fictitious narratives of intention. Just as we can misremember the past in a self-serving way, so we can be unconscious of ongoing motivation, instead experiencing a conscious stream of thoughts which may act, in part, as rationalizations for what we are doing, all of which is immediately available verbally should we be challenged by others: “But I wasn’t thinking that at all, I was thinking such-and-such.” A common form in myself is that I wish to go to point C, but can not justify the expense and time. I leap, however, at a chance to go to point B, which brings me close enough to point C so that, when there, I can easily justify the extra distance to C, but I do not think of C until I reach B. We may have much deeper patterns of motivation which may remain unconscious, or nearly so, for much longer periods of time, unconscious patterns of motivation in relationships, for example.
This is a similar argument to Scott Alexander’s “Schelling fences on slippery slopes” post. If Less Wrongers wanted to really understand cognitive biases they could just read Trivers work, which is shorter and to the point. But of course what they really wanted is to follow Shlomo and make money scamming the government through their institute while enjoying in easy sex. But I digress.
In summary, the hallmark of self-deception in the service of deceit is the denial of deception, the unconscious running of selfish and deceitful ploys, the creation of a public persona as an altruist and a person beneffective in the lives of others, the creation of self-serving social theories and biased internal narratives of ongoing behavior which hide true intention. The symptom is a biased system of information flow, with the conscious mind devoted, in part, to constructing a false image and at the same time being unaware of contravening behavior and evidence. The general cost of self- deception, then, is misapprehension of reality, especially social, and an in- efficient, fragmented mental system. For a deeper view of these processes we must remember that the mind is not divided into conscious and unconscious, but into differing degrees of consciousness. We can deny reality and then deny the denial, and so on, ad infinitum. Consciousness comes in many, many degrees and forms. We can feel anxious and not know why. We can be aware that someone in a group means us no good, but not know who. We can know who, but not why, and so on.
We can also know things and not know quite how to put them into language. You get hunches. That happens because language is a tool to make up excuses with your friends. Practice breeds mastery; if something happens which you understand but it doesn’t serve as an excuse for anything you most likely won’t even know how to talk about it. Because you never have.
Prayer and meditation are two widespread examples of people wrestling with their phenotypes, some of which may have been favored by selection to suppress negative phenotypic traits, including the negative phenotypic trait of self-deception! Many famous passages from the world’s great religions, as well as rituals of prayer and meditation, are directed against self- deception, as in this loose translation of Matthew 7:1–5 in the New Testament of the Bible: “Judge not that ye be not judged, for you are projecting your faults onto others; get rid of your own self-deception first, then you will have a chance of seeing others objectively.”
Might be why I’ve never been into meditation.
4. Positive illusions? Another important possibility is that self-deception has intrinsic benefit for the organism performing it, quite independent of any improved ability to fool others. In the past twenty years an important literature has grown up which appears to demonstrate that there are intrinsic benefits to having a higher perceived ability to affect an outcome, a higher self-perception, and a more optimistic view of the future than facts would seem to justify. It has been known for some time that depressed individuals tend not to go in for the routine kinds of self-inflation that we have described above. This is sometimes interpreted to mean that we would all be depressed if we viewed reality accurately, while it seems more likely that the depressed state may be a time of personal re-evaluation, where self- inflation would serve no useful purpose. While considering alternative actions, people evaluate them more rationally than when they have settled on one option, at which time they practice a mild form of self-deception in which they rationalize their choice as the best possible, imagine themselves to have more control over future events than they do, and see more positive outcomes than seem justified. What seems clear is that they gain direct benefits of functioning from these actions. Life is intrinsically future-oriented and mental operations that keep a positive future orientation at the forefront result in better future outcomes (though perhaps not as good as those projected). The existence of the placebo effect is another example of this principle (though it requires the cooperation of another person os- tensibly dispensing medicine). It would be very valuable to integrate our understanding of this kind of positive self-deception into the larger frame- work of self-deception we have been describing.
Irrational confidence works. Ask Roissy about it. Fake it till you make it. You never know, right? So if all knowledge is uncertain, might as well make it look like you are capable of anything. You’re awesome, you can get anything done. I mean you could potentially get it done. The possibility might be small but it’s still possible. You might always get lucky. So why be negative? And of course people are attracted to conmen of this sort. What if it’s true? Might as well be his friend. Might as well sleep with this guy.
I also like this theory of depression. If you can’t shit-talk your way into anything, if you’re certain of that; well might as well take a break.
Self-deception appears to be a universal human trait which touches our lives at all levels—from our innermost thoughts to the chance that we will be annihilated together in warfare. It affects the relative development of intellectual disciplines (the more social the content, the less developed the discipline: contrast physics and sociology) as well as the relative degree of consciousness of individuals (generally, more self-deceived, less conscious). An evolutionary analysis suggests that the root cause is social, including selection to deceive others, selection on others to manipulate and deceive oneself, and selection on competing sections of one’s own genotype.
So to summarize: consciousness is just a social front, a social-facing program you make up so you can manipulate your peers to do your bidding. I’ll add that language is just the main (though not only) tool of this social front, and its purpose is of course to manipulate others to do your bidding. It’s nothing else; it’s not what your thoughts are made of. Is something you use to interact with others.
As such the output of this program we call consciousness is not necessarily the truth. That’s just not part of the program. The program is designed to get you status. If a careful and accurate analysis of reality gets you status; well we’ll use that. If parroting slogans about Global Warming or Black Lives Matter or Transexual Pronouns gets you status; well just parrot that shit.
Again don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everybody is a filthy liar. The definition of a lie is a misrepresentation of facts done with the conscious intend of deceiving someone. But that’s not the argument here. The argument is that brains aren’t built to represent facts accurately anyway. Animals gotta survive. They gotta reproduce. Slowly, generation by generation, they found ways to do that. In social species getting along with your friends and having them help you find food and mates is most important. So of course being able to manipulate your friends is more important than being able to accurately perceive reality. And self-deception is a pretty good strategy to achieve that.
Of course self-deception isn’t a very accurate naming. Deception implies intend to deceive. And this stuff is unconscious. It’s more like a status-filter. Your brain only processes the information that is good for you. That is useful for social life. For fitness. And again, that goes down to a basic epistemological problem. You can never be certain of things. Natural laws appear to exist, and high frequency makes you fairly comfortable of them. The way that brains work is that high frequency creates habits so that the behavior in reaction to that becomes increasingly fast and automatic. So there’s that. But that’s not certainty; that’s habit. Who’s to say that God isn’t going to come down and cut the Red Sea in half? You never know. Remember that Al Ghazali basically killed Islamic science by saying that fire doesn’t burn cotton; it’s Allah who comes down and makes the cotton turn hot and black. Which implies some day he may not do so.
You could be pretty damn certain of things if you lived by yourself with nobody to challenge your memory; but living in society people are talking all kinds of bullshit all the time, which also distorts your perception. What if they’re right? At any rate you gotta get along with them, else they might get pissed and sacrifice you to the Frog totem. So the evolutionary sound strategy for a social species isn’t caring for the truth. Not even close.
To finish up, and for no good reason, here’s a video of Chechens dancing.