Self Deception

The basics

Achievement of the real thing would not produce any satisfaction if he were unaware of it. The belief is the intermediary, the messenger with the good news, and, when actual achievement causes satisfaction, it is the belief in achievement that is the immediate cause. This causal linkage makes it possible for him to take a short cut to satisfaction: he simply manufactures the belief without the real thing.

- Ian Pears, Motivated Irrationality

Evolutionary basis?

The best guarantee of successful deception might well be self-deception, that is, a lack of awareness that one is lying at all, because a person who did not realize he was lying would likely be more convincing than one who knew he was distorting the truth.
- Robert B. Edgerton, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, 0029089255, 67

In a messy real world, social norms expressed in language typically have many iffy boundary cases and ambiguities. How much of what sort of food of what quality offered how conveniently counts as food sharing? How big a frown is a grimace? Sex with how close a relative counts as incest? And so on. This wouldn’t matter if boundary cases were decided randomly, but that seems unlikely. Instead big brain gains come five ways:

Unnormed – coalition politics on acts uncovered by norms.
Skirt – keep actions near but not over edge of violating norms.
Cover – politics of observers on if to report an act to others.
Frame – lawyer-like arguing on if acts violate social norms.
Conspire – form coalitions on how to publicly interpet iffy acts.

Most norms have meta-norms against consciously trying to evade them. Self-deception should help here; foragers might sincerely believe they usually just do their job and “tell it like it is”, and then unconsciously try to act, selectively report and frame acts, and support interpretation coalitions, to their advantage. Instead of “man the tool user”, we might be better understood as “man the sly rule bender.”

Gains to rule bending could be greatly reduced via social norms with very clear simple rules. But humans seems to usually prefer complex and ambiguous rules that require “judgment” to apply.
- Overcoming Bias : Homo Hypocritus

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