Trivers on Self-Deception

People usually have good guesses about the origins of their behavior. If they eat, we believe them when they say it was because they were hungry; if they go to a concert, we believe them when they say they like the music, or want to go out with their friends. We usually assume people’s self-reports of their motives are accurate.

Discussions of signaling usually make the opposite assumption: that our stated (and mentally accessible) reasons for actions are false. For example, a person who believes they are donating to charity to “do the right thing” might really be doing it to impress others; a person who buys an expensive watch because “you can really tell the difference in quality” might really want to conspicuously consume wealth.

Signaling theories share the behaviorist perspective that actions do not derive from thoughts, but rather that actions and thoughts are both selected behavior. In this paradigm, predicted reward might lead one to signal, but reinforcement of positive-affect producing thoughts might create the thought “I did that because I’m a nice person”.

Robert Trivers is one of the founders of evolutionary psychology, responsible for ideas like reciprocal altruism and parent-offspring conflict. He also developed a theory of consciousness which provides a plausible explanation for the distinction between selected actions and selected thoughts.


Trivers starts from the same place a lot of evolutionary psychologists start from: small bands of early humans grown successful enough that food and safety were less important determinants of reproduction than social status.

The Invention of Lying may have been a very silly movie, but the core idea—that a good liar has a major advantage in a world of people unaccustomed to lies—is sound. The evolutionary invention of lying led to an “arms race” between better and better liars and more and more sophisticated mental lie detectors.

There’s some controversy over exactly how good our mental lie detectors are or can be. There are certainly cases in which it is possible to catch lies reliably: my mother can identify my lies so accurately that I can’t even play minor pranks on her anymore. But there’s also some evidence that there are certain people who can reliably detect lies from any source at least 80% of the time without any previous training: microexpressions expert Paul Ekman calls them (sigh...I can’t believe I have to write this) Truth Wizards, and identifies them at about one in four hundred people.

The psychic unity of mankind should preclude the existence of a miraculous genetic ability like this in only one in four hundred people: if it’s possible, it should have achieved fixation. Ekman believes that everyone can be trained to this level of success (and has created the relevant training materials himself) but that his “wizards” achieve it naturally; perhaps because they’ve had a lot of practice. One can speculate that in an ancestral environment with a limited number of people, more face-to-face interaction and more opportunities for lying, this sort of skill might be more common; for what it’s worth, a disproportionate number of the “truth wizards” found in the study were Native Americans, though I can’t find any information about how traditional their origins were or why that should matter.

If our ancestors were good at lie detection—either “truth wizard” good or just the good that comes from interacting with the same group of under two hundred people for one’s entire life—then anyone who could beat the lie detectors would get the advantages that accrue from being the only person able to lie plausibly.

Trivers’ theory is that the conscious/​unconscious distinction is partly based around allowing people to craft narratives that paint them in a favorable light. The conscious mind gets some sanitized access to the output of the unconscious, and uses it along with its own self-serving bias to come up with a socially admirable story about its desires, emotions, and plans. The unconscious then goes and does whatever has the highest expected reward—which may be socially admirable, since social status is a reinforcer—but may not be.


It’s almost a truism by now that some of the people who most strongly oppose homosexuality may be gay themselves. The truism is supported by research: the Journal of Abnormal Psychology published a study measuring penile erection in 64 homophobic and nonhomophobic heterosexual men upon watching different types of pornography, and found significantly greater erection upon watching gay pornography in the homophobes. Although somehow this study has gone fifteen years without replication, it provides some support for the folk theory.

Since in many communities openly declaring one’s self homosexual is low status or even dangerous, these men have an incentive to lie about their sexuality. Because their facade may not be perfect, they also have an incentive to take extra efforts to signal heterosexuality by for example attacking gay people (something which, in theory, a gay person would never do).

Although a few now-outed gays admit to having done this consciously, Trivers’ theory offers a model in which this could also occur subconsciously. Homosexual urges never make it into the sanitized version of thought presented to consciousness, but the unconscious is able to deal with them. It objects to homosexuality (motivated by internal reinforcement—reduction of worry about personal orientation), and the conscious mind toes party line by believing that there’s something morally wrong with gay people and only I have the courage and moral clarity to speak out against it.

This provides a possible evolutionary mechanism for what Freud described as reaction formation, the tendency to hide an impulse by exaggerating its opposite. A person wants to signal to others (and possibly to themselves) that they lack an unacceptable impulse, and so exaggerates the opposite as “proof”.


Trivers’ theory has been summed up by calling consciousness “the public relations agency of the brain”. It consists of a group of thoughts selected because they paint the thinker in a positive light, and of speech motivated in harmony with those thoughts. This ties together signaling, the many self-promotion biases that have thus far been discovered, and the increasing awareness that consciousness is more of a side office in the mind’s organizational structure than it is a decision-maker.