Robert Trivers – The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life

Trivers, Robert  (2011). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. New York: Basic Books. 2011.

The Folly of Fools

Difficilmente inquadrabile, Robert Trivers. Non ancora settantenne (ne compirà 69 il 19 febbraio), è considerato uno dei più importanti studiosi dell’evoluzione contemporanei. Basti pensare che è lui che ha scritto l’introduzione al libro sull’evoluzione più influente degli ultimi 40 anni, The Selfish Gene (Il gene egoista) di Richard Dawkins (non ditemi che non ne avete sentito parlare e, soprattutto che non l’avete letto: fatelo immediatamente).

A differenza di Dawkins, però, Trivers non è mai stato un “divulgatore” (per le mie riserve su questo termine, che giustifica la presa di distanza implicita nelle virgolette, vi invito a guardare questo post). Se non mi sbaglio, questo è il suo primo scritto non tecnico, se si esclude quello scritto – a 4 mani – sul disastro aereo del 13 gennaio 1982, quando un Boeing 737 diretto in Florida precipitò durante il decollo da Washington DC, schiantandosi su un ponte e precipitando nel Potomac a poche centinaia di metri dal National Mall e dalla Casa Bianca.

Robert Trivers

Robert Trivers

Non aiuta la popolarità di Robert Trivers, soprattutto nella bacchettona America, che si professi comunista, che sia stato un amico personale di Huey P. Newton, leader delle Pantere Nere, dal 1978 alla sua morte violenta nel 1989 (è con lui che Trivers ha scritto il libro sul disastro aereo del 1982 ed è a lui che The Folly of Fools è dedicato), che sia stato membro delle Pantere Nere dal 1979, che – pur essendo figlio di un ebreo profugo dalla Germania nazista – sia attivamente schierato a favore del popolo palestinese e accusi Israele di genocidio (altra posizione piuttosto impopolare negli Stati Uniti) e, last but not least, che sia un consumatore sistematico e confesso di cannabinoidi. Se vi interessa la sua biografia, che è piuttosto pittoresca, vi suggerisco la lettura di un profilo pubblicato sul Guardian nel 2005, in occasione di un precedente libro di Robert Trivers (Andrew Brown, The kindness of strangers, pubblicato il 27 agosto 2005).

Huey P. Newton

Huey P. Newton -

Un aspetto essenziale della vita di Trivers è che è stato colpito in almeno due occasioni dalla depressione e dal disagio mentale. La prima volta fu quando, ancora intenzionato a laurearsi in legge, fu ricoverato per una grave forma di esaurimento nervoso (come si diceva all’epoca, testimoni gli Stones), apparentemente innescata da un eccesso di studio di Ludwig Wittgenstein (altro bel tipino: ma questa è tutta un’altra storia). La seconda fu quando nel 1978 lasciò Harvard per l’Università di California a Santa Cruz. Secondo lo stesso Trivers era “perhaps the second worst school in its class in the country. Lord, what a place. It was a very, very bad fit for me, and a dreadful 16 years.” Secondo il citato articolo del Guardian: “Santa Cruz [was] a university with a reputation for drug abuse and slackness. ‘It was a once-in-a-lifetime mistake,’ [Trivers] says, ‘in the sense that I can’t afford to make another one like that. I survived, and I helped raise my children for a while; but that was all.’

Trivers ha scritto 5 articoli entrati nella storia della teoria dell’evoluzione ancora prima di conseguire il Ph. D.:

Poi, come abbiamo detto, sostanzialmente sparisce. Nel 2004 John Brockman (ne abbiamo parlato qui) racconta la storia così:

Thirty years ago, Robert Trivers disappeared.
My connection to him is goes back to the 1970s. He had left Harvard and was roaming around Santa Cruz when I was introduced to him in a telephone call by our mutual friend Huey P. Newton, Chairman of The Black Panther Party. Huey put Robert on the phone and we had a conversation in which he introduced me to his ideas. I recall noting at the time the power and energy of his intellect. Huey, excited by Robert’s ideas on deceit and self-deception, was eager for the three of us to get together.
We never had the meeting. Huey met a very bad end. I lost track of Robert. Over the years there were rumors about a series of breakdowns; he was in Jamaica; in jail.
He fell off the map.
Several weeks ago, […] the mathematician Karl Sigmund […] and I talked about theories of indirect reciprocity, generous reciprocity, reputation, and assessment, and the relevance of these concepts in our everyday lives.
“Where did you come up with these ideas?” I asked Karl.
“In the early 70s,” he said. “I read a famous paper by Robert Trivers, one of five he wrote as a graduate student at Harvard, in which the idea of indirect reciprocity was mentioned obliquely. He spoke of generalized altruism, where you are giving back something not to the person you owed it to but to somebody else in society. This sentence suggested the possibility that generosity may be a consideration of how altruism works in evolutionary biology.”
Karl went on to explain how evolutionary concepts of indirect reciprocity, generous reciprocity, reputation assessment, cooperation, evolutionary dynamics—all inspired by Trivers’ early paper—are very much in play in all our lives: in Google’s page rankings; in’s reader reviews; in the reputations of eBay buyers and sellers, and even in the good standing of a nonprofit web site such as Edge (for example, type the word “edge” in the Google search box, you arrive at this web site).

John Brockman

John Brockman -

Nello stesso evento organizzato da Edge nel 2004 (che trovate qui) Steven Pinker (su questo blog ne abbiamo parlato, tra l’altro, qui) riassume così l’enorme influenza di quei 5 paper:

I consider Trivers one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that he has provided a scientific explanation for the human condition: the intricately complicated and endlessly fascinating relationships that bind us to one another.
In an astonishing burst of creative brilliance, Trivers wrote a series of papers in the early 1970s that explained each of the five major kinds of human relationships: male with female, parent with child, sibling with sibling, acquaintance with acquaintance, and a person with himself or herself. In the first three cases Trivers pointed out that the partial overlap of genetic interests between individuals should, according to evolutionary biology, put them in a conflict of psychological interest as well. The love of parents, siblings, and spouses should be deep and powerful but not unmeasured, and there should be circumstances in which their interests diverge and the result is psychological conflict. In the fourth case Trivers pointed out that cooperation between nonrelatives can arise only if they are outfitted with certain cognitive abilities (an ability to recognize individuals and remember what they have done) and certain emotions (guilt, shame, gratitude, sympathy, trust)—the core of the moral sense. In the fifth case Trivers pointed out that all of us have a motive to portray ourselves as more honorable than we really are, and that since the best liar is the one who believes his own lies, the mind should be “designed” by natural selection to deceive itself.
These theories have inspired an astonishing amount of research and commentary in psychology and biology—the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, Darwinian social science, and behavioral ecology are in large part attempt to test and flesh out Trivers’ ideas. It is no coincidence that E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene were published in 1975 and 1976 respectively, just a few years after Trivers’ seminal papers. Both bestselling authors openly acknowledged that they were popularizing Trivers’ ideas and the research they spawned. Likewise for the much-talked-about books on evolutionary psychology in the 1990s—The Adapted Mind, The Red Queen, Born to Rebel, The Origin of Virtue, The Moral Animal, and my own How the Mind Works. Each of these books is based in large part on Trivers’ ideas and the explosion of research they inspired (involving dozens of animal species, mathematical and computer modeling, and human social and cognitive psychology).
But Trivers’ ideas are, if such a thing is possible, even more important than the countless experiments and field studies they kicked off. They belong in the category of ideas that are obvious once they are explained, yet eluded great minds for ages; simple enough to be stated in a few words, yet with implications we are only beginning to work out.
The point that partial genetic overlap among individuals leads to partial conflicts of interests in their motives explains why human life is so endlessly fascinating – why we love, and why we bicker with those we love; why we depend on one another, and why a part of us mistrusts the people we depend on; why we know so much about ourselves, but can’t see ourselves as others see us; why brilliant people do stupid things and evil men are convinced of their rectitude. Trivers has explained why our social and mental lives are more interesting than those of bugs and frogs and why novelists, psychotherapists, and philosophers (in the old sense of wise commentators on the human condition) will always have something to write about.
Trivers is an under-appreciated genius. Social psychology should be based on his theory, but the textbooks barely acknowledge him. Even in his own field he has been overshadowed in the public eye by those who have popularized his ideas. An Edge event with other leading third culture thinkers focusing on his work will be a major contribution, and begin to give this great mind the acknowledgement it deserves.

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker -

Tutte queste divagazioni per introdurre una recensione del libro che, a questo punto, è quasi superflua: il libro è come l’autore: affascinante, geniale, molto dispersivo e a tratti francamente irritante. una summa della biografia e degli interessi di Trivers. Stiamo parlando di oltre 300 pagine di testo, articolate in 14 capitoli.

I primi 3 sono dedicati alla teoria evoluzionistica dell’inganno e dell’autoinganno, come emerge dagli approfondimenti condotti nell’arco di 40 anni da Trivers, dalla sua logica evoluzionistica dell’autoinganno, alla sua presenza in natura, alla sua neurofisiologia.

I 4 capitoli successivi trattano della fenomenologia dell’inganno e dell’autoinganno, nella famiglia, nelle relazioni tra i sessi, nell’immunologia (una tesi artdita ma convincente), nella psicologia. Il passaggio alla vita quotidiana (capitolo 8) permette a Trivers di riprendere qui alcune sue ossessioni eccentriche (se così posso dire) al suo campo di ricerca principale: i disastri aerei (capitolo 9, il che permette a Trivers di riprendere l’analisi del disastro del 1982 e a noi di confrontare il suo metodo con quello proposto da Feynman per l’esplosione dello Space Shuttle), la genesi e l’inganno del sionismo (capitolo 10), la mistificazione della guerra in Iraq (11), la religione come autoinganno (12) e le stesse scienze sociali come pseudoscienze.

Lascio la parola allo stesso Trivers, in un TEDtalk in cui parla proprio di questo libro.

* * *

Citazioni: sono miei personali appunti che non siete obbligati a leggere, ma se siete curiosi qualcosa di utile e stimolante certamente lo troverete. Come di consueto il riferimento è alla posizione sul Kindle:

Although the biological approach defines “advantage” in terms of survival and reproduction, the psychological approach often defines “advantage” as feeling better, or being happier. Self-deception occurs because we all want to feel good, and self-deception can help us do so. There is some truth to this, as we shall see, but not much. [249]

[…] dishonesty has often been the file against which intellectual tools for truth have been sharpened. [273]

[…] overconfidence is one of the oldest and most dangerous forms of self-deception—both in our personal lives and in global decisions […] [424]

It has been said that power tends to corrupt and absolute power, absolutely. This usually refers to the fact that power permits the execution of ever more selfish strategies toward which one is then “corrupted.” But psychologists have shown that power corrupts our mental processes almost at once. When a feeling of power is induced in people, they are less likely to take others’ viewpoint and more likely to center their thinking on themselves. The result is a reduced ability to comprehend how others see, think, and feel. Power, among other things, induces blindness toward others. [526]

In short, powerful men suffer multiple deficits in their ability to apprehend the world of others correctly, due to their power and their sex. [540]

We often think that greater intelligence will be associated with less self-deception—or at least intellectuals imagine this to be true. What if the reverse is true, as I believe it is—smarter people on average lie and self-deceive more often than do the less gifted? [800]

Camouflage is so common in nature as almost to escape notice. [846: Non so l’autore ne è consapevole, ma questa frase ha un meraviglioso sapore escheriano e piacerebbe da morire a Douglas Hofstadter!]

One species of squid has also evolved a female mimic, one so good that he sometimes fools even fellow female mimics, who approach in search of copulation. [859]

The importance of aggression following knowledge of deception is that it may greatly increase the costs of deceptive behavior and the benefits of remaining undetected. Fear of aggression can itself become a secondary signal suggesting deception, and its suppression an advantage for self-deception. Of course, aggression is not the only social cost of detected deception. A woman may terminate a relationship upon learning of a lie, usually a crueler punishment than her giving you a good beating, assuming she is capable. [927]

Because we live inside our conscious minds, it is often easy to imagine that decisions arise in consciousness and are carried out by orders emanating from that system. We decide, “Hell, let’s throw this ball,” and we then initiate the signals to throw the ball, shortly after which the ball is thrown. But detailed study of the neurophysiology of action shows otherwise. More than twenty years ago, it was first shown that an impulse to act begins in the brain region involved in motor preparation about six-tenths of a second before consciousness of the intention, after which there is a further delay of as much as half a second before the action is taken. In other words, when we form the conscious intention to throw the ball, areas of the brain involved in throwing have already been activated more than half a second earlier. [1039]

[…] the proof of a long chain of unconscious neural activity before conscious intention is formed (after which there is about a one-second delay before action) does not obviate the concept of free will, at least in the sense of being able to abort bad ideas and also being able to learn, both consciously and unconsciously, from past experience. [1062]

A relatively gentle form of imposed self-deception is flattery, in which the subordinate gains in status by massaging the ego or self-image of the dominant. In royal courts, the sycophant has ample time to study the king, while the latter pays little attention to the former. The king is also presumed to have limited insight into self on general grounds; being dominant, he has less time and motivation to study his own self-deception. [1243]

Remunerectomies, for example, are performed solely to remove a patient’s wallet. [1342]

The neocortex is largely the social brain, differentially involved in interactions with close relatives and other social relationships; the hypothalamus is involved in hunger and growth, much more egocentric motives. One can well imagine an argument between the two, with the (maternal) neocortex saying, “Family is important; I believe in family; I will invest in family,” while the (paternal) hypothalamus replies, “I’m hungry.” That is, each argues for its favored position as if arguing for the good of the entire organism (“I”). [1508]

[…] when there is no disagreement, a whisper will do; shouting suggests conflict. [1610]

Few relationships have more potential for deceit and self-deception than those between the sexes. Two genetically unrelated individuals get together to engage in the only act that will generate a new human being—sex, an intense experience that is at best ecstatic and at worst deeply disappointing, or when forced, extremely painful and damaging. The act is often embedded in a larger relationship that will permit the two to stay together for years or even life—long enough to raise children. Opportunities for misrepresentation and outright deception are everywhere, and selection pressures are often strong. Likewise, each partner’s knowledge of the other is usually detailed and intense and (absent denial) grows with time.
Sex itself is fraught with psychological and biological meaning at every depth. Are we misrepresenting our level of interest, sexual or romantic, our deeper orientation toward the other, positive or negative, or our very sexual orientation? [1675]

Why sexual reproduction? Why not go the simple, efficient route and have females produce offspring without any male genetic contribution? Females typically do all the work; why not get all the genetic benefits? In other words, why males? [1691]

The metabolic requirements of mammals raised in germ-free environments drops by as much as 30 percent. Supplying antibiotics in food is associated with growth gains in birds and mammals on the order of 10 percent. [2032]

After all, they may just have met you, but you have known yourself all your life. So we expect overconfidence on deceptive grounds alone. [2361]

A nice example of unconscious persuasion concerns metaphors about the stock market taken from daily news broadcasts. The stock market moves up or down in response to a great range of variables, about most of which we are completely ignorant. The movement mirrors a random walk, with no particular pattern. And yet at the end of the day, its movements are described by the media in two kinds of language (agent or object) that are often used for movement more generally. The average listener will be completely unconscious of the metaphors being used. The key distinction is whether an agent controls the movement of something or it is an object moved by outside forces (such as gravity). Here are examples of the agent metaphor for stock movements: “the NASDAQ climbed higher,” “the Dow fought its way upward,” “the S&P dove like a hawk.” The object metaphors sound more like: “the NASDAQ dropped off a cliff,” “the S&P bounced back.” Agent metaphors tempt us to think that a trend will continue; object ones do not. The interesting point is that there is a systematic bias in the use of the language—up trends are more the action of agents, while down trends are externally caused. [2668]

[…] malphemism […] [2715: bello, se l’è inventato Trivers? Io sul Webster non l’ho trovato.]

An extraordinary verbal one-step has been spearheaded in multiple disciples in the past fifty years—the switch from “sex” to “gender” as words to denote the two sexes. From time immemorial (at least a thousand years), sex referred to whether an individual was a male (sperm producer) or a female (egg producer). In the past hundred years, the word was extended to “having sex.” “Gender” was strictly a linguistic term. It referred to the fact that in various languages, words may be feminine, masculine, or neuter, apparently in almost random ways. “Sun” is feminine in German, masculine in Spanish, and neuter in Russian, but “moon” is feminine in Spanish and Russian, and masculine in German. In German, a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are masculine, while noses, lips, shoulders, breasts, hands, and toes are feminine and hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, and the heart are neuter. Pronouns are assigned by gender, so you can say about a turnip, “He is in the kitchen.” You tell me. I have been a biologist for forty-five years and I can see no rhyme or reason to this system. It seems completely arbitrary, and this is perhaps the point. Since grammatical gender is arbitrary and meaningless, so also are biological sex differences if they can be rendered in the language of gender.
In a remarkable burst of activity, in fewer than forty years, “gender” took over entirely in many disciplines as the word for sex. [2722]

[…] a recurring theme in self-deception and human disasters: overconfidence and its companion, unconsciousness. […] This is a distressing feature of self-deception and large-scale disasters more generally: the perpetrators may not experience strong, nor indeed any, adverse selection. [3150-3155]

[…] [a] circular arguments with a remarkably small radius […] [3350]

It has been argued that organizations often evaluate their behavior and beliefs poorly because the organizations turn against their evaluation units, attacking, destroying, or co-opting them. Promoting change can threaten jobs and status, and those who are threatened are often more powerful than the evaluators, leading to timid and ineffective self-criticism and inertia within the organization. [3436]

In Franklin Roosevelt’s famous words (about Samosa), “He maybe a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” [3640]

Faulty decisions are said to arise from four main causes: being overconfident, underestimating the other side, ignoring one’s own intelligence reports, and wasting manpower. All are connected to self-deception. [4035]

[…] instrumental phase [4243: the phase of carrying out decisions, no longer wishing to hear about the choices not made or the possible downside to the decisions we have made]

Consider greater sexual promiscuity, or diversity of mating partners, well known to be higher in both birds and humans in the tropics, and presumed to represent an adaptive response to parasite load by increasing genetic quality of offspring. [4721]

As we have seen, power corrupts: the powerful are less attentive to others, see the world less from their standpoint, and feel less empathy for them. The converse is that the powerless are more apt to see things from the other person’s standpoint, to be committed to the principle of fairness, and to identify with people like themselves. [4739: poco oltre confonde Costantinopoli con Costantino, ma penso sia un errore materiale]

The Greek sage Thales once put the general matter succinctly. “Oh master,” he was asked, “what is the most difficult thing to do?” “To know thyself,” he replied. “And the easiest?” “To give advice to others.” [4844]

The structure of the natural sciences is as follows. Physics rests on mathematics, chemistry on physics, biology on chemistry, and, in principle, the social sciences on biology. At least the final step is one devoutly to be wished and soon hopefully achieved. Yet discipline after discipline—from economics to cultural anthropology—continues to resist growing connections to the underlying science of biology, with devastating effects. Instead of employing only assumptions that meet the test of underlying knowledge, one is free to base one’s logic on whatever comes to mind and to pursue this policy full time, in complete ignorance of its futility. [4943]

Is economics a science? The short answer is no. [5006]

Regarding one’s personal life, the problem with learning from living is that living is like riding a train while facing backward. [5168]

[…] an ancient Chinese expression: “When planning revenge, build two graves, not one.” [5177]

Self-deception, by serving deception, only encourages it, and more deception is not something I favor. I do not believe in building one’s life, one’s relationships, or one’s society on lies. The moral status of deceit with self-deception seems even lower than that of simple deception alone, since simple deception fools only one organism—but when combined with self-deception, two are being deceived. In addition, by deceiving yourself, you are spoiling your own temple or structure. You are agreeing to base your own behavior on falsehoods, with negative downstream effects that may be very hard to guess yet intensify with time. [5196]

There are two great axes in human mental life: intelligence and consciousness. You can be very bright but unconscious, or slow but conscious, or any of the combinations in between. [5291]