“Folly of Fools”, deceit, and self-deception

Oct 12, 2014

I recently finished reading “The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life” by American evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist Robert Trivers.

This is part of my reading series on the intermingling topics of security, psychology, and behavioral economics. The last book I read in the series was “Liars and Outliers” by Bruce Schneier.

I read these things because in the modern world, it is increasingly difficult to answer simple questions: What is real? What is important? Why and how do we make decisions? There are many companies who enormously profit from distorting your view of these questions. This has, of course, always been true with advertising and such, but increasingly so in the tech world.

This book is useful to reason about these topics. You’ll note mixed reviews on Amazon, and some of the one-star ones are from scientists who don’t see this book as scholarly. They’re right. It is based on science, but it is not a scientific/academic book.

It begins with an examination of evolutionary biology where the author’s background lies. While deception is “bad” as a human moral concept—thou shalt be honest and not deceive others, right—deception and the tools to counter it have been crucial in evolution and continue to be so in the modern human world.

Family and sexual topics are examined, and then onwards to many practical applications and anecdotes. I was delighted to see my own field of usability and human factors also covered, which was done in the form of discussing hierarchy and relations in airplane crews, and how obedience and self-deceptions have caused several airplane crashes.

War, history and religion are covered. In the part about false historical narratives, the discussion is around US, Palestine and Israel—probably among the most loaded topics there can be, but deconstructing the narratives from self-deception perspective can help bring rationality to the table. Modern Russia was not mentioned, but would fit into the series very well.