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

reviewed by Ben Winegard & David C. Geary - June 21, 2012

coverTitle: The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life
Author(s): Robert Trivers
Publisher: Basic Books, New York
ISBN: 0465027555, Pages: 416, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

In January 49 B.C., Julius Caesar famously uttered, “Let the dice fly high” (Iacta alea est) before crossing the Rubicon and making quick work of his archrival, Pompey. Five short years later, Caesar equally famously uttered, “You too, child?” (Kai su, teknon?) as a group of conspirators stabbed him to death (Holland, 2003). It is hard to reconcile Caesar’s preternatural charisma and brilliance with the political clumsiness and arrogance that led to his assassination. Robert Trivers’s book The Folly of Fools forwards the case that the concept of self-deception can deftly explain the contradictory life of men such as Caesar. Indeed, Trivers believes that self-deception can help explain everything from positive illusions to aviation disasters and the glacial progress of the social sciences. According to Trivers, self-deception refers to the conscious mind being “kept in the dark” about specific information that is held in the unconscious mind (p. 9). For example, a gambler’s brain may possess the true probability of winning a particular game, but her conscious brain either spins, or is completely ignorant of, this information. Hence, the gambler can blissfully fritter away her funds, convinced that the next card turn will remunerate all debts. In the case of Julius Caesar, his sententious attitude and puffed up ego allowed him to perform extraordinary feats on the field of battle, but they also blinded him to his growing tyrannical behavior and the resulting dangers he faced from political opponents.

At first blush, self-deception seems likely to meet an evolutionary fate equivalent to the market fate of the Edsel. This is because organisms that behave based on true information should be favored over organisms that do not. Although sometimes true, Trivers reminds us that deceit is ubiquitous in nature. For example, brood parasites, such as cuckoos and cowbirds, dupe birds of a different species into raising their young, and imitator poison dart frogs avoid being eaten by “convincing” predators of their toxicity. Deception carries a heavy cost to the deceived and thus sets in motion an evolutionary arms race, with deceivers and deceived evolving new ways to deceive and detect deceit, respectively. Self-deception, according to Trivers, is a natural outgrowth of this arms race: “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others. To fool others, we may be tempted to reorganize information internally in all sorts of improbable ways and to do so largely unconsciously” (p. 3). According to Trivers, there are at least nine categories of self-deception, including self-inflation, the derogation of others, biases of control and power, and false narratives (pp. 15–28). Together, these categories of deception allow us to manipulate others and to sometimes achieve great things, but, as The Folly of Fools copiously documents, they can also lead to tragedy (e.g., aviation disasters based on pilots who ignored issues of safety) and needless suffering (e.g., wars started based on false historical narratives).

We think that self-deception theory is potentially important and should be of interest to psychologists, other scientists, and the general public. However, we also think that it can and should be developed in the context of natural and sexual selection to generate explicit, testable hypotheses. Trivers points out that because of differential costs and benefits arising from initial differences in obligate parental investment, men are more likely than women to benefit from overconfidence (pp. 157–160). He also makes the point that self-deception is predicted to occur more often in social domains than in domains that don’t involve, at least directly, a social dynamic in which the cost-benefit trade-offs of the dynamic differ among the players. There is evidence, for example, that individuals are fairly accurate at assessing their objective knowledge in technical disciplines such as chemistry and physics, whereas individuals are not nearly as accurate at assessing themselves on social domains (Ackerman, Beier, & Bowen, 2002; Kurzban, 2010). We predict that self-deception will be most pronounced in social domains that involve competition for mates and mate choice, and generally in dynamics that involve a struggle for control of culturally valued resources (often used in mating competition; Geary, 2010). Self-deception will also be most pronounced in contexts in which objective criteria are lacking or vague, and/or the truth is difficult to verify. For example, women generally underestimate their lifetime number of sexual partners (concomitantly, men overestimate them) and also derogate other women for promiscuous behavior (Schmitt & Buss, 1996; Wiederman, 1997). This, of course, is a “spin” of social information that is designed to place the derogator at an advantage, in terms of her mate value, relative to the derogated (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). She may well know her actual number of sexual partners and that of the other woman, but as Trivers points out, in such situations, there is very often selective forgetting or distortion of memories (e.g., “my relationship with John wasn’t really sex, because. . .”), such that the person comes to believe the spin and thus is better able to foist the spinned version of reality onto others.

After discussing everything from immune systems to the perils of false historical narratives such as mainstream Zionism, Trivers’s penultimate chapter —our favorite chapter—takes a deliciously irreverent, though serious, look at how self-deception retards progress in the social sciences. As a general principle, Trivers states, “It seems manifest that the greater the social content of a discipline, especially human, the greater will be the biases due to self-deception and the greater the retardation of the field compared with less social disciplines” (pp. 303–304). We agree and would add that the closer a discipline is to topics dealing with the distribution of scarce resources in society, the more likely it is to be impinged by self-deception. Trivers, for example, discusses the issues that hinder economics, such as ignoring evolutionary theory and placing an undue emphasis on mathematical elegance as a means of obtaining status among peers rather than focusing on understanding the phenomenon under study (thus leading to self-deception concerning the reality of such abstruse mathematical models; pp. 310–313). However, it is notable that economics is explicitly concerned with the production and distribution of valuable goods. Thus, it is not surprising that many in the discipline have found justifications (“markets know best”) for the ever-increasing levels of inequality in the United States (Picketty & Saez, 2003). On the other end, the false moral righteousness that reigns in many sociology departments leads to theories that blame everything on capitalism or the power elite while chastising scholars who have the temerity to suggest that humans might be neither infinitely malleable nor perfectible (Lopreato & Crippen, 1999). Ideally, the study of humans would take place in the same manner as the study of dart frogs: with healthy detachment and a fervent desire to uncover reality that would temper any proclivity to justify the status quo or further an activist cause. In reality, as Trivers makes clear, this is unlikely to happen any time soon. There may be an accretion of actual useful scientific knowledge in the social sciences, but ideological spin on what this knowledge “means” retards any such progress.

In summary, The Folly of Fools is an important and timely book. Stylistically, Trivers keeps the book light and infuses it with levity as he constantly injects humorous examples of his own self-deception. The book, like Trivers himself, is brilliant, idiosyncratic, and argumentative. Although this is mostly positive, it does mean that the book lacks a systematic pedagogical structure and often floats from subject to subject breathlessly. We are not sure if pilot miscalculation involves self-deception in the way that some of the more socially based examples do. In many cases of pilot error, it seems to us that the pilot was making a reality-based cost-benefit calculation and simply got unlucky—humans are notoriously inept at utilizing base rates. Whatever the case, Trivers is certainly correct to emphasize that the theory of self-deception is relatively new and needs to be scrutinized and tested rigorously. Perhaps we are deceiving ourselves, but we believe this book, and others like it (see Kurzban, 2010), will have a salubrious effect on psychology and the social sciences more generally.


Ackerman, P. L., Beier, M. E., & Bowen, K. R. (2002). What we really know about our abilities and about our knowledge. Personality and Individual Differences, 33, 587–605.

Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204–232.

Geary, D. C. (2010). Male, female: The evolution of human sex differences (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Holland, T. (2003). Rubicon: The last years of the Roman Republic. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Kurzban, R. (2010). Why everyone else is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lopreato, J., & Crippen, T. (1999). Crises in sociology: The need for Darwin. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Picketty, T., & Saez, E. (2003). Income inequality in the United States: 1913–1998. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118, 1–39.

Schmitt, D. P., & Buss, D. M. (1996). Strategic self-promotion and competitor derogation: Sex and context effects on the perceived effectiveness of mate attraction tactics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1185–1204.

Wiederman, M. W. (1997). The truth must be in here somewhere: Examining the gender discrepancy in self-reported lifetime number of sex partners. Journal of Sex Research, 34, 375–386.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 21, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16802, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:04:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Ben Winegard
    University of Missouri
    E-mail Author
    BEN WINEGARD is a graduate student studying evolutionary psychology at the University of Missouri. He is interested in mate choice, social networks, political psychology, and the intersection between history, psychology, and social institutions. Ben is also a compulsive cinephile and an avid table tennis player.
  • David Geary
    University of Missouri
    E-mail Author
    DAVID C. GEARY is a Curators’ Professor at the University of Missouri and has published more than 225 articles, commentaries, and chapters across a wide range of topics, including three books—Children’s Mathematical Development; Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences (now in second edition, 2010); and The Origin of Mind: Evolution of Brain, Cognition, and General Intelligence—and one coauthored book, Sex Differences: Summarizing More Than a Century of Scientific Research. He served as a member of the President’s National (U.S.) Mathematics Advisory Panel and chaired the Learning Processes subcommittee, is a recipient of a MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health, and was appointed by President G. W. Bush to the National Board of Directors for the Institute for Education Sciences.
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