survival of the deceptors

Are we born to be deceivers? If humans evolved this way, it might have been good for cavemen, but doesn’t work so well now. So, how can we inoculate ourselves against something we’ve inherited in our genetics?

There are some things we are pre-wired for. From birth, we know how to eat and have a fear of falling — nobody has to teach us. Our brain structure is set up in such a way that emotions can easily take command of our reaction to something before we’re even consciously aware of it. Even smiling is thought to be evolutionary because it seems there is no culture or society, no matter how isolated, that does not understand what a smile means. These shared traits were established within our neural circuitry before groups of Homo sapiens struck out on their own (which was relatively recently) to discover new lands, eventually forming new races and developing unique cultures.

Unfortunately, it seems we also share a less constructive human condition. We have a tendency to form assumptions based on almost no information and to try to escape responsibility for things that go wrong. It seems more important to have a complete explanation than for the story to actually be true. So, when faced with a lot of unknowns, we just fill in the blanks ourselves. Likewise, impulsively at least, figuring out whether a mistake was made isn’t as important as avoiding responsibility for it. This is witnessed frequently, daily.

Consider for example, an everyday scene for driving commuters in which a truck driver switches lanes and cuts off the car behind him. The car driver reacts with anger to the danger. Immediately, assumptions are made about the truck driver’s intelligence, disrespect, lack of compassion, etc. — perhaps muttered or shouted with hand gestures. There could be an endless list of reasons that would explain the truck driver’s actions, but instead, a story is created questioning his morality or cognitive capacity. And without considering any possibility that he could have prevented the situation himself, (are his headlights on? was his travel speed consistent?) blame is assigned to the other driver thereby rejecting any responsibility.

There are also endless examples of this kind of behaviour in public decision making. When confused by a public official’s decision, many people decide they are victims of selfish power fiends with vested interests, compromised morals, and questionable intellectual potential. In my experience, just a few pieces of new information and a moment of rational thought is usually all that is required to disprove this cynical knee-jerk response.

In reacting this way, a person is lying both themselves and the people around them; it is deception and self-deception.

It seems curious to think that we could all have a default setting to lie. It might be that the feeling of unknowingness (fear of the unknown) is worse than any dissatisfaction from a bad-case scenario. And maybe the toxic emotion of anger is easier to throw at someone else than to accept the self-inflicted guilt or disappointment that would come with accepting responsibility for a mistake. It could have been that those mired in endless analysis, self-doubt, or depression simply were not as successful at survival in the primeval world.

So then, how can we trust each another enough to make better decisions as a community now?

We need to look beyond our righteous liar-witch hunts. There’s really no point to proving that anyone is or isn’t a liar. We need to accept that some degree of deception is inherently human, as explained in the previous post, we’re all liars. Instead, we need to focus on integrity. A lie is not necessarily abhorrent simply because it exists, but a lie without integrity certainly is.

This might not have been nearly as important when our ancestors were living short lives in very small groups in a hostile eat-or-be-eaten world. While a tendency for self-deception might have made it easier for some Homo sapiens to face each new the day and stay motivated to survive in primeval times, it now threatens not only our modern civil society but the health of the planet. To live in peace and make good decisions as a community — despite our primal deceptive tendencies — we must each act with integrity.

Integrity demands that our instincts or ignorance not be used as an excuse for harming other people; that we think about the impact of our choices and take responsibility for them. To ensure the survival of the integritous, we each must make a conscious effort to recognize and overcome our deceptive instincts. No one is exempted in a modern civil society.

One Response to “survival of the deceptors”

  1. ld Says:

    Visit ld

    I lied – I just couldn’t resist one more post to drive you insane, also, the project has been pushed back until next fall so I can if I want to.

    one of my fav Canadian websites on government ethics:

    Plato rocks!
    Plato teaches us in The Republic that the ideal leader is someone who commits himself and is trained for a life of service and devotion to fellow citizens[1] . The power and authority should be directed to the good of others. When directed primarily to self-interest, Plato also teaches, such power and authority corrupt and are dangerous to the good of all. In other words leadership requires competence and the direction of that competence toward human good.

    another worthy read: Robert Fulgham, All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten:
    ISBN – 10:034546639X
    ISBN – 13:9780345466396

    From the Publisher
    Fifteen years ago, Robert Fulghum published a simple credo—a credo that became the phenomenal #1 New York Times bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Now, seven million copies later, Fulghum returns to the book that was embraced around the world. He has written a new preface and twenty-five essays, which add even more potency to a common, though no less relevant, piece of wisdom: that the most basic aspects of life bear its most important opportunities.
    Here Fulghum engages us with musings on life, death, love, pain, joy, sorrow, and the best chicken-fried steak in the continental U.S.A. The little seed in the Styrofoam cup offers a reminder about our own mortality and the delicate nature of life . . . a spider who catches (and loses) a full-grown woman in its web one fine morning teaches us about surviving catastrophe . . . the love story of Jean-Francois Pilatre and his hot air balloon reminds us to be brave and unafraid to “fly” . . . life lessons hidden in the laundry pile . . . magical qualities found in a box of crayons . . . hide-and-seek vs. sardines—and how these games relate to the nature of God. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is brimming with the very stuff of life and the significance found in the smallest details.

    always a fan of learning from the UN:
    building trust in government in the 21st century- from the 7th Global Forum on Reinventing Government, Building Trust in Government ,26-29 June 2007, Vienna, Austria

    forgive the action sure why not, “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.” Thomas Szasz

    trust barometer current reading is horizontal left at the zero position.

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