September 11, 2006
At Seed Magazine, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers and Noam Chomsky in conversation about deceit and self deception:
RT: It's the psychology of deceit and self-deception. When you start talking about groups, there are some very interesting analogies. Psychologists have shown that people make these verbal switches when they're in a we/they situation, in a your-group-versus-another situation.Also some interesting stuff about the selective pressure for self-deception deriving from the benefits of over-confidence in conflict and courtship, although Robert Trivers does admit that much of it is "rank speculation". Personally I tend to see the self-deception of leaders that Noam Chomsky talks about as more institutional in nature than biological, the result of hierarchical structures that reward "decisiveness" and penalise admissions of doubt or error, part and parcel to the dominant and very strange ideas about what leadership is and what ruling structures are for.
NC: Groups that are simply set up for the experiment, you mean?
RT: It can be. You can also do it experimentally, or you can be talking about them and their group versus someone that's not a member of their group.
But you have the following kinds of verbal things that people do, apparently quite unconsciously. If you're a member of my group and you do something good, I make a general statement: "Noam Chomsky is an excellent person." Now if you do something bad, I give a particular statement, "Noam Chomsky stepped on my toe."
But it's exactly reversed if you're not a member of my group. If you're not a member of my group and you do something good I say, "Noam Chomsky gave me directions to MIT." But if he steps on my toe I say, "He's a lousy organism," or "He's an inconsiderate person."
So we generalize positively to ourselves, particularize negative and reverse it when we're talking about other people.
NC: Sounds like normal propaganda. Islamic people are all fascists. The Irish are all crooks.
RT: Yes, exactly. Generalize a negative characteristic in the other. Another thing that comes to mind with respect to the Iraq case: There's evidence suggesting that when you're contemplating something—whether or marry Suzy, for instance—you're in a deliberative stage. And you are considering options more or less rationally.
Now, once you decide to go with Suzy, you're in the instrumental phase; you don't want to hear about the negative side. Your mood goes up, and you delete all the negative stuff and you're just, "Suzy's the one."
Via the nonist.