The positive feedback of misinformation
Self-deception is prevalent enough that we all have likely experienced it; both as an observer, and first-hand. Unfortunately, self-deception can lead to disastrous situations, such as drink driving, prejudice, and global financial crises. Consequently, better understanding the cause for self-deception is crucial. One theory, pioneered by Robert Trivers, has found increasing support among evolutionary biologists in recent years: the theory that self-deception is a tool for better deceiving others. The theory states that as deception is a fundamental element of communication in nature, both within and between species, that there must be a strong selective pressure to spot deceit. This in turn would select for ever increasing degrees of self-deception: if some facts and motives are hidden from the self, the tell-tale signs which typically accompany an awareness of acting deceptively are diminished, making the individual’s deception all the more convincing.
The first direct test of this theory in a real-world setting was just recently published. The study used university tutor groups; small groups of students that meet up weekly with a tutor to examine and discuss course material. This context was ideal, as students would interact freely with each other within the sessions, but in most cases had had little or no interaction previously. After the first session, the researchers asked the students to privately predict how well each of their peers would perform on the next assignment. They were also required to make a prediction as to their own performance. Each correct prediction was rewarded with a pound.
Self-deception was measured as the discrepancy between the actual grade of an individual, and the grade they predicted for themselves, with deception being determined as the difference between the student’s actual grade, and the median estimate made by peers. The researchers found that self-deception and deception were positively associated with each other, demonstrating that self-deception indeed does better enable us to deceive others. Though this does create the possibility that self-deception may have been selected for in our evolutionary past to facilitate deceit of others, it may also mean that self-deception is an adaptive behaviour that arises through abstract thinking in response to conditioning.
The implications of this study are broad; however, of particular significance is the possibility that overconfidence is being rewarded irrespective of ability. Additionally, as overconfident individuals may be more risk prone, by promoting such individuals, institutions such as government, law and military may be made vulnerable.
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