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The evolution of deceit

Fibs and self-deception are central to our evolutionary strategy.

The following excerpt is from an interview with Robert Trivers, author of The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life:

You do have some really fascinating information about the power of the placebo effect in medicine. What does the placebo effect tell us about the power of self-deception?

Like hypnosis, there needs to be a third party involved. It’s very hard to talk yourself into a placebo effect. You’ve got to have someone with a stethoscope and a white coat and acting like a doctor to get the placebo effect going. There’s something very important that’s not emphasized in the literature on placebo effect — there’s a lot of variability. About a third of us don’t show placebo effect, a third of us show a really strong one, and a third of us are kind of intermediate. The same thing is true of hypnosis.

I recently saw a guy in Jamaica to whom I gave some pills to calm him down because he’d just gone through a minor breakdown. I gave him a particular pill by the recommendation of a psychiatrist. They were pink pills — and they had a positive effect. When I came back to give him his refill, I had my own version of the pill that was identical, but was a white pill. I called him two days later and he openly sounded depressed. He says, “The other pill works better.” He was so happy when I showed up with a bunch of pink pills and took back the five remaining white ones.

Read the entire interview

The The Folly of Fools covers pretty much anything you’d want to know about the mechanics and meaning of deception. This book will utterly change the way you think about lying. Commenting on the book, Richard Dawkins said “This is a remarkable book, by a uniquely brilliant scientist.”

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