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The Art of Deception

“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!”
Sir Walter Scott (no relation of course!)

We often attribute deception to those of our own species that have the intelligence and the guile to mislead us. However deception is widely practised by living organisms throughout the world. It no doubt provides some evolutionary survival advantages.

There are butterflies, for example, that can change their colouration to mimic other butterflies that are poisonous and are therefore avoided by birds and other predators that prey on such insects. There are hundreds of varieties of stick insects that have evolved to resemble twigs or leaves of the trees that they customarily inhabit. There are caterpillars that have managed to evolve to smell like and resemble the appearance of the larvae of queen ants. They are thus introduced unwittingly into the ants’ nest where attention is lavished on them in the mistaken belief that they will grow into queens. Moths evolve to produce colouration mimicking the bark of trees that they routinely perch on – and so on.

It is not surprising that in the struggle for the survival of species that even sex has been a subject of deception. There are lots of examples, but I will mention a couple. In many groups of fireflies, particular species have evolved to prey on others by sexual mimicry. The luminescent flashes that fireflies are renowned for are part of their courtship ritual. A male gives a flash (no not that sort of a flash!) and then waits for a female to send a flash in return signalling her willingness to copulate. Females of other species of firefly have learnt how to give a display in response which is not the typical display of their type but designed to stimulate the ardour of males of other species of fireflies. When the unsuspecting males approach what they believe are females willing to indulge their desires, they get promptly eaten! (It seems even among insects males are more easily duped by the wiles of females than vice versa!)

Then there are the sneaky orchids! It is said that fully one third of all orchid species are pollinated through deception. These duplicitous plants offer no actual reward to their pollinators only the illusion of one. About four hundred species of orchids mimic the appearance of a female of the pollinator insect species both in appearance and smell. The hapless male insects are so attracted and in trying to copulate with the imposter, transmit pollen that enables the deceptive ruse to provide positive outcomes for the plant.

Probably the most well-known examples of deception in the animal kingdom are the activities of parasitic birds such as cuckoos who contrive to have other birds rear their young. Over the eons such birds have adapted to trick their hosts into caring for their young even though there is no prevailing genetic advantage for their unfortunate hosts in doing so. Evolutionary biologists have argued that such deceptions and their responses have triggered a great deal of learning in the effected species. When a parasitic bird laid an extra egg in the nest various species began to learn how to count and understand there had been a subterfuge. The parasitic bird responded by learning to throw out an egg from the nest before laying their own. The host birds learnt to search for signs of broken eggs close by their nests. The parasitic birds then learnt to eat the expelled egg or carry it further away. The parents of the original clutch learnt to distinguish the colour and the texture of the shells of their eggs from the imposter’s eggs. So that each new deception triggered learning in response so that the effectiveness of the deception was reduced stimulating further innovation in the parasitic bird and so on.

The evolutionary theorist, Robert Trivers summarised the process in this way:

“Deception spawns the mental ability to detect it. ….this includes the ability to discriminate very similar objects, the ability to count, the ability to adjust discriminatory powers to contextual factors and the ability to act as if making multiple inferences….”

Hence those suffering the likelihood of deception are stimulated to learn and thus increase their intelligence. The deceivers in response must also learn to keep ahead of the victims of deception. Intelligence increases the range and quality of the deception required.

Of course in humans the strategies for deception are even richer and more diverse than those of other animals. Not surprisingly though, the same principal (viz. that deception is facilitated by intelligence) holds. In fact, for human beings the benefit of intelligence in deception is much higher.

The most common form of deception practiced by human beings is lying. Neuroscientists have established that (as one would think) lying adds to the cognitive load of the individual. When we attempt to mislead or dissemble we have to keep track not only of the world as it is but also the world as we want to portray it and that naturally adds to the cognitive load. If the perpetrator is unskilled in deception the extra demands will often cause them to talk more slowly as they construct their tale, needing to put more intellectual effort into its production than a mere description of the world as it is. Scientists working in this area report that such people will often talk at a higher pitch than normal and might display nervous responses such as twitches and tics.

Even intelligent people who have the capacity to keep track of their deception will still often display such symptoms. The principle reason for this is an underlying feeling of guilt. Most of us when trying to deceive still feel uncomfortable deceiving others even when there is a large pay-off in such deception.

There are of course dangerous exceptions – these are the psychopaths. Psychopaths are amoral and have no concern about misleading others. They are often quite intelligent as well. Consequently they have the capacity to manage complex deception and are not in the least concerned about any moral quibbles associated with their deception.

(It is interesting that psychologists Dr Robert Hare and Dr Paul Babiak found that many successful executives shared the same behavioural characteristics as a large percentage of incarcerated criminals – that of psychopaths. They suggest that the amoral behaviour, superficial charm and inherent intelligence of many psycopaths might allow them to mount successful careers either as criminals or senior executives!)

There is one over-riding enigma around the subject of deception. It is reasonably easy to understand the motivation of some people to deceive others for personal gain. Sometimes that gain is material and I can trick you into providing some physical benefit as a result of my deception. But more often than not the benefit I seek is a psychic one – I want to look good, I want you to believe that I am more than I really am. My deception is driven more by ego than physical benefit. And even here the pay-off is relatively apparent.

But the strangest form of deception is that of self-deception. Self-deception is extremely prevalent in human beings. We believe what we want to believe and ignore facts to the contrary. This strategy seems to enhance our sense of self or ameliorates fears.

(This might be a controversial thought but I suspect that often this is the basis of our religious beliefs. When the carrot of eternal life is dangled in front of us we can adopt belief sets that have little basis in fact or evidence but give us the consolation that death might not be the end of us!)

There have been many examples of police extracting false confessions. Usually it is done by isolating the victim from others, sleep deprivation, coercive interrogation in which denial and refutation are not permitted and when false facts are asserted. In the face of such provocation many who are subjected to such cruel behaviour confess just to have the ordeal over. Then, surprisingly many of the unfortunates who have been thus manipulated begin to construct memories which corroborate their confessions. I suppose this in some way eases the internal dissonance that results when their statements and their recollections are at odds. For some it became easier to modify their recollections than to modify their statements!

Another fertile ground for self deception was developed some thirty years ago. At this time our society was assailed with emerging evidence that the sexual abuse of women and children was under-reported and that such activity accounted for much mental dysfunction and anguish in those so abused. Whilst that is often true, some psychologists, either through ignorance or for personal benefit began to interrogate clients presenting to them for a myriad of conditions in a way that suggested that their condition might be caused by such abuse, the memory of which they had suppressed. An aberrant and destructive movement was launched which was called “recovered memory therapy”. Women went to psychologists for whatever reason and came away believing that their problems were caused by sexual abuse that they had forgotten. The psychologist did their best to construct a past that they convinced the woman she had forgotten and many of them came away believing it was true.

There were also very sad stories of children who by this device had come to accuse their fathers of inappropriate dealings with their children resulting in tragic consequences.

As a result of this suspect therapy and the irresponsible urgings of some psychologists, some people were imprisoned for imaginary abuse and some innocent parents had to endure the public shame of others believing that they had practiced paedophilia on their own children.

Another common example of self-deception is the placebo effect. The “placebo” refers to the fact that a chemically inert or innocuous substance administered as if it were a medicine often produces beneficial – even medicinal – benefits. The effect is so strong that when testing new drugs on humans researchers need to test the drug against a placebo to ensure that the drug is statistically more effective than a placebo.

One of the leading researchers in this area is Fabrizio Benedetti from the University of Turin Medical School. He and his colleagues have shown that the placebo effect is stronger:
• The larger the pill
• The more expensive it is claimed to be
• When given in capsule form rather than as a pill
• The more invasive the procedure (injection is better than a pill)
• The more active the patient is in the process (eg rubbing in the “medicine”)
• The more side effects it has
• The more the “doctor” looks like a real one

Depression seems to be very susceptible to the placebo effect. A meta-analysis of effect of placebos on depression (Fourier et al 2010) demonstrated the placebos work as well as anti-depressants for mild depression. However for severe depression placebos have little effect.

Let me return to the thoughts of Robert Trivers. He asks “Is self-deception the psyche’s immune system?”

He continues, “Healthy people are happy and optimistic, feel a greater sense of control over their lives and so on. Since self-deception can sometimes create these effects, it is directly selected to do so. We cook the facts, we bias the logic, we overlook the alternatives – in short we lie to ourselves.”

Let me finish now with the greatest example of self-deception. One of the most contentious topics explored by philosophers and neuroscientist is the notion of “free will”. Most of us believe that we make conscious decisions and choose consciously from the various alternatives with which life presents us. Benjamin Libet was a pioneer in the study of consciousness. In the early eighties he published a paper with some colleagues which showed that the conscious mind had far lesser impact on human decision making than had been previously believed. (If you want the details of the research procedure and subsequent analysis search for Libet, B.; Wright, E. W.; Gleason, C. A.. “Readiness potentials preceding unrestricted spontaneous pre-planned voluntary acts”, 1983, Electroencephalographic and Clinical Neurophysiology 54: 322–325.)
Libet showed that when we believe we have made a decision to do something (kick a football, drink a glass of water, get out of bed…..etc.) the decision has normally been made unconsciously some six tenths of a second before the conscious mind is aware but then credits itself as the originator of the stimulus to act. In this way we grossly overestimate the impact of free will in guiding our lives. Our behaviours are largely determined by embedded sub-routines built off our genetic platform and our experiences of socialisation.

[You shouldn’t be surprised to know that the good Dr Phil in his doctoral thesis argued strongly that our much vaunted free will is grossly overstated and the scope of its influence in our day to day lives is largely exaggerated.]

So there you are. Deception is widely practiced in the natural world. For the bulk of nature (plants and non-human animals) deception is an aid to survival and as discussed might also be a trigger to stimulate learning. In humans deception is far more complex and is often driven by psychological motives as well as the desire for material reward. But humans not only strive to deceive others, in their insecurity about their sense of self, they are at least just as likely to indulge in self-deception.

Those of you with a critical bent might want to explore this essay for evidence of where I have tried to mislead you and even more importantly how I have managed to deceive myself!

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  1. 8 Comment(s)

  2.   By Ken on Jul 1, 2012 | Reply

    Ted, I would like to search for evidence of self deception as you suggest above but I won’t on the basis that if I did in fact manage to self deceive myself that I could deceive you into believing that you had indeed self deceived yourself, then I would indeed have to self deceive myself that you had in actuality accepted my argument of your self deception.

    Father Robin, help me out here, I think I just confused myself.

    All is well.

    Thank you as always for sharing your insights.


  3.   By tedscott on Jul 2, 2012 | Reply

    You’ve obviously been working for the Government too long Ken. It does that to you!

  4.   By Michael McDowell on Jul 2, 2012 | Reply

    Thanks again Ted. I wonder if the vocabulary is a limitation?

    The term deception seems to encompass a broad range of awareness and intention, along with a moral judgment shadow.

    If deception has arisen and survived in the arena of natural selection, as a means whereby animal or human may be able to improve their individual situation, how can it be fundamentally wrong?

    More interesting perhaps is the question regarding in which situations may deception be adaptive and beneficial, and in which situations does it lead to harm or hurt to self and others. Then perhaps we may develop a more useful vocabulary for the concept, become more mindfully aware and better able to choose.

  5.   By The Venerable Father Robin on Jul 2, 2012 | Reply


    Confusion is the natural state of mind.

    Anyone who thinks that confusion is natural is correct.

    But anybody who thinks that confusion cannot be risen above will always remain confused.

  6.   By The Venerable Father Robin on Jul 2, 2012 | Reply

    I think.

  7.   By tedscott on Jul 2, 2012 | Reply

    An excellent point Michael.

    The good Dr Phil would say that we nominate behaviour as “bad” because of the implied intent behind it. No one accuses me of “bad” behaviour if I injure you accidently.

    However most all of our behaviour results from our genetics and socialisation and in that sense has no intent behind it at all. As I stated in the essay our much-vaunted “free-will” has far less impact on our lives than we would like to believe. And on this basis I would agree with you that deception is not in it’s own way blameworthy. As you rightly point out it is a natural mechanism in support of physical and psychic survival.

    But the cynic in me finds it difficult to reconcile, for example, the awful outcomes of “repressed memory therapy” as anything more than a contrived device for the benefit of aberrant psychologists to the detriment of many guiltless folk in our society. And more than likely even they (the aberrant psychologists) had no ill-intent.

  8.   By tedscott on Jul 2, 2012 | Reply

    That’s good Father Robin because according to the erroneous contemplations of Descartes you have thus confirmed your existence!

  9.   By The Venerable Father Robin on Jul 2, 2012 | Reply

    Descartes may have been French but he still had some traces of logic in him.

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