Trivers on Self-Deception

By Peter Durand, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 12 years 18 weeks ago.

IT Conversations has a great recording from Pop!Tech 2005 of Robert Trivers, who's work focuses on social theory based on natural selection. He has plenty to say about mass self-deception, war and "shit mimics" (animals who imitate the feces of their predators).

Show description:

The capacity of humans to deceive each other is well documented by history and personal experience. Less well known, however, is the capacity of most living things to deceive each other - species deceiving other species, members of their own species and themselves. We are, it seems, not that different from parasites, insects and bacteria in this regard.

Dr. Robert Trivers talks about the evolutionary basis of deception in this address from Pop!Tech 2005. The first half of this talk focusses on the biological examples of deception in the natural world, with explanations for the evolutionary advantages of deception and self-deception.

Later in the talk, Dr. Trivers supplies easily recognizable examples of common human self-deception. He then delves into an overtly political criticism of human deception and self-deception, with an emphasis on current events.


Robert Trivers is Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. His work has transformed our understanding of the genetic basis of human behavior. His scientific work has concentrated on two areas, social theory based on natural selection (of which a theory of self-deception is one part) and the biology of selfish genetic elements (which leads to certain kinds of internal genetic conflicts). His early work - offering unifying theories on reciprocal altruism, parental investment, sexual selection, parent-offspring conflict, the sex ratio, and deceit and self-deception - has now been cited more than 7000 times in the scientific literature. His work on selfish genetic elements has appeared in several articles. Robert is also the author of Social Evolution, Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers.

He was cited in a special Time issue as one of the 100 greatest thinkers and scientists of the 20th Century.