Tag: Deceit

The evolutionary logic of overconfidence

People in general are overconfident, excessively optimistic and think of themselves as superior to others.

How can I say such a thing?

Ask anyone with a license to rate their driving abilities, and most people will tell you that they are above average. However, this is not just an isolated case of cocky drivers. The same effect is found when asking people to assess their own intelligence, evaluate their attractiveness, or reflect on how kind they are.

survey of American school students, which received over 1 million responses, found that no less than 70% rated themselves as above average leaders. Conversely, only 2% of these students humbly stated that they are actually below average.

This all begs the question; why do we think more highly of ourselves than who we really are?

To explain the prevalence of overconfidence, psychologists have historically pointed to the mental health benefits of positive illusions— such as maintaining self-esteem, or helping reduce anxiety about an uncertain future. In other words, that these biases protect us from threatening information.

However, a more intriguing explanation has been proposed by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers.

Robert Trivers is widely known as the ‘bad ass’ of evolutionary biology, for his antics both in and outside of academia. However, this reputation has not diminished his scientific contributions. Steven Pinker has described Trivers as “one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought”, and Time magazine has named him one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century.

In his book The Folly of Fools, Trivers argues that a glowing view of  the self makes others see us in the same light— leading to more cooperative and romantic opportunities in life. This is because self-deception requires no conscious input, which therefore eliminates any tell tale signs of lying– ultimately making one more convincing when trying to persuade others. In other words, these positive illusions evolved not to protect us from threatening information per se, but rather to help us persuade others of our superiority.

The logic of the theory is as follows: deception is a fundamental aspect of communication. Those of our ancestors who were better at detecting deception were at an advantage, causing an evolutionary arms race in deception and detection. As a result, self-deception evolved to better mask deception, “hiding the truth from yourself to hide it more deeply from others”.

Trivers argues that we fool ourselves in all realms of life— when overestimating our looks or abilities, when justifying our beliefs, or when convincing ourselves that a lie we’ve told is actually true. Apparently, it’s all part of advancing our own agendas.

Although Trivers formulated his theory back in 1970s, only recently has it begun receiving empirical support. Fundamentally, as we don’t have access to people’s private beliefs, we can’t say with certainty whether someone is actually lying or deceiving themselves (from the best of my knowledge, we’re yet to develop a mind-reading machine). This makes testing such a hypothesis particularly tricky.

But it isn’t impossible. Answering a call to arms, economists Peter Schwardmann and Joël van der Weele have recently published a paper in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, which successfully tackled this challenge.

Put your money where your mouth is

So, how do you measure people’s beliefs about their own abilities if you’re unable to read their minds? Peter and Joël’s simple yet ingenious idea was this: get people to bet on their own performance.

To elaborate, Peter and Joël conducted experiments where contestants essentially bet on their performance on an intelligence test. This meant that people had money at stake for accurate assessments of their intellectual performance.

However, there was a twist.

To see if introducing opportunities for social gain induced self-deception, some of the participants were invited to a speed-dating style interview with a panel of ’employers’. Here, the contestants were awarded more money if they could convince the employers that they were actually a top performer (whilst still not knowing their results on the intelligence test, which were provided to them at the end of the experiment).

Of course, there’s two sides of the coin— are people actually fooled by overconfidence?

As with the contestants completing their initial assessments, the employers were asked to essentially bet on who the top performers on the intelligence test were. This meant that the employers also had money at stake when deciding who actually performed well (in other words, their bullshit detectors were well calibrated).

The research team had another trick up their sleeves.

Before the interviews, each contestant received cryptic feedback on their performance on the intelligence test, and were then asked to reevaluate their performance in light of this feedback. This allowed the researchers to see if contestant’s overconfidence influenced the employer’s judgements of them— as their feedback had a direct and measurable impact on the contestant’s confidence levels.

Once the interviews came to a close, employers were given a few seconds where they could scrutinise contestants’ body language and facial expressions. Employers were asked to write down what each contestant said, and how well they think each performed on the intelligence test. The employers were also asked to evaluate how honest, likeable, attractive and confident they thought each contestant was.

In total, 688 German students participated in these series of experiments (410 women and 278 men).

Fooling yourself the better to fool others 

So, what did they find?

Peter and Joël found that overconfident contestants received higher evaluations from the employers. In other words, those who privately bet that their performance was relatively high were seen as higher performers on the intelligence test.

The researchers were able to isolate the impact of contestants receiving a noisy yet positive signal before their interviews (that is, cryptic feedback suggesting superior performance). Contestants who received a positive signal subsequently received higher evaluations from employers– even when controlling for their actual test scores. What this means is that overconfidence caused contestants to receive higher ratings from the employers— independent of their actual performance on the intelligence test.

Finally, the contestants invited to the speed-dating style interviews were noticeably more confident than those who didn’t participate. That is, people became overconfident when they were given the opportunity to profit from persuading others.

In summary, Peter and Joël found that overconfidence pays. The contestants who were more confident received higher ratings from the employers, and therefore won more money. Likewise, they showed that opportunities to profit from persuasion induced overconfidence, and that it was overconfidence which led contestants to receive higher ratings— above and beyond their actual performance.

Overall, these results provide compelling evidence in favour of Robert Triver’s theory of self-deception.

Implications

As is always the case, there are aspects of this paper that can be critiqued.

Although overconfidence is a well established finding from the field of psychology, there is evidence suggesting some cultural differences in how overconfidence manifests.

These experiments were conducted with German university students. However, we know that these people are really WEIRD. That is, they are Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic, and therefore may not paint a complete picture of humanity overall… Although we can have confidence in these research findings, we don’t want to become overconfident. 

To add more weight to the study, other recently published papers and preprints point in the same direction. However, it remains the case that these experiments would benefit from more diverse samples.

These points aside, this paper arguably has far reaching implications for business.

What this strand of research suggests is that positive illusions are far more pervasive than is usually portrayed by psychologists.

Evidently, positive illusions offer individuals a wealth of benefits. Those of us who are the most optimistic and overconfident reap many benefits in life, including more career success. As noted by Daniel Kahnmenan in Thinking Fast and Slow, entrepreneurs and business leaders are the most optimistic and overconfident among us.

Positive illusions encourage us to take gambles— gambles which can come with big pay offs. But of course, risky bets can also end in bankruptcy. Overconfidence and excessive optimism can lead financial traders to lose money, CEOs to initiate value-destroying mergers, and lenders to invest in businesses that are built on sand.

The key takeaway for me is this: if positive illusions are not so much a means of protecting us from threatening information, but rather a form of self-deception to help us persuade others, then the problem has been misdiagnosed by psychologists and practitioners alike. Initiatives such as teaching people debiasing techniques as a means of overcoming overconfidence are simply not going to work.

These findings also have obvious implications for recruitment and selection. Indeed, the experiment is inadvertently a parody of the interview process itself.

In light of these findings, it’s not too surprising that interviews are a weak predictor of job performance. These series of experiments mark yet another red cross against job interviews as a recruitment method, and lend credence to the practice of blind assessments.

By coincidence, Peter and Joël concluded their paper by discussing the business implications of their research (emphasis added):

One implication of our findings is that overconfidence is likely to be more prevalent in settings in which its strategic value is highest, that is, in cases in which measures of true ability are noisy, competition is fierce and persuasion is an important part of success. It may arise in employer–employee relationships because of its strategic benefits in job interviews and wage negotiations. Arguably, confidence may be even more valuable among the self-employed, whose economic survival often depends more immediately on persuading investors and customers. We would also expect overconfidence to be rife amongst high-level professionals in finance, law and politics.

Peter and Joël’s reflections are likely to resonate with people working in politics or finance. For those of us working in such fields, vigilance is required. For example, when evaluating candidates for leadership positions, it’s important to gauge whether candidates are overconfident. If they appear to be raising the stakes by promising the world, you have to ask yourself: are you really going to win this bet?


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

A Wild Life: An overview of Robert Trivers’ autobiography

Whilst on holiday I decided to read a book telling the life story of one of the world’s most influential evolutionary theorists. Despite it not being about the application of evolutionary psychology to the workplace, I thought this post would be of value regardless.

The scientist in question is Robert Trivers.

Robert Trivers is an American evolutionary biologist, who has managed to revolutionise both the natural and social sciences.

Steven Pinker described Trivers as “one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought”, and Time magazine has named him one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. In 2007, Trivers was awarded the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for “his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict and cooperation”, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for evolutionary theory.

Robert Trivers’ key contributions to science are papers he published in the 1970s whilst at Harvard, formulating theories such as Reciprocal Altruism (1971), Parental Investment Theory (1972), and Parent-Offspring Conflict (1974).

Reciprocal Altruism helped explain how cooperation can evolve outside of kinship through mutually beneficial exchanges, whilst Parental Investment Theory predicted that the sex which makes the largest investment in reproduction will be more discriminating in mating, with the sex investing less being forced to compete for mating opportunities. Parental-Offspring Conflict illustrated that families are not harmonious entities, and that offspring compete for greater investment from their parents.

One cannot understate the influence Trivers’ theories have had on the direction of scientific inquiry. Popular science books such as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene drew heavily on Robert Trivers’ papers. Arguably, Trivers’ theories are the pillars of evolutionary psychology.

Most recently, Trivers has created a theory self-deception as an adaptive evolutionary strategy. Trivers argues that deceit and self-deception are two sides of the same coin- we fool ourselves the better to fool others. I will be reviewing his book The Folly of Fools, exploring its application to business in due course.

Of course, scientific accomplishments do not necessarily make for a riveting autobiography. Academia frequently entails a sedentary, solitary and intensely internal life, one that Trivers states “never appealed to me”. What is so remarkable about Robert Trivers is the rollercoaster life he’s lived instead.

A Wild life is a mixture of recollections of Trivers’ interactions and collaborations with great minds, near-death experiences, and the minds and behaviours of animals.

Welcome to Jamrock

A Wild Life is largely dedicated to Trivers’ time in Jamaica. As a Harvard graduate student Trivers moved to Jamaica to study lizards, becoming known locally as the ‘Lizard Man’. Trivers has spent over 18 years of his life living in the Caribbean.

Unbeknownst to me, lizards are detested by Jamaicans- the equivalent of rats in the West, but also surrounded with superstition. Trivers tells hilarious stories of how he used his lizard powers to scare locals to his advantage.

Trivers documents a cocktail of near-death experiences. As a taster, Trivers has fallen from great heights, has been held at gunpoint during a Kingston nightclub robbery, and has had to defend himself from machete and knife yielding burglars.

Running themes of A Wild Life are Trivers penchant for smoking marijuana, and his fondness of Jamaican women. Infused with Trivers’ use of Jamaican slang, one at times may think they’re not actually reading a scientist’s autobiography, but that of dancehall star. 

Under Arrest

Trivers is not foreign to fighting either.

For example, Trivers documents getting in a fight with a local Jamaican bully called Jasper, upon witnessing Jasper verbally abuse his (yet to be) mother in law. Unfortunately for Jasper, Trivers taught himself boxing at a young age, and ended up giving him quite a beating.

“As it turned out, though, the boxing match was only the beginning of my fight with Jasper.” Trivers ended up getting arrested for the incident, accompanied by a prolonged court case, where Trivers was found not guilty of the assailant’s counter-charges.

How many times has Trivers been arrested? For strictly criminal offenses, 5 times if I can count correctly.

One of the most comical accounts is Trivers being held in jail for 10 days over a trivial matter of refusing to pay an increased hotel fee for foreigners (with Trivers insisting that he was a Jamaican citizen). Trivers was subsequently charged with credit card fraud. “Jamaica is probably the only country in which you using debit cards permits you to be convicted of ‘credit card’ fraud.”

Civil Rights Activism

As a white American Harvard academic, you may be surprised to learn that Robert Trivers was a member of the Black Panther Party. Trivers worked closely with the controversial figure Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panthers. More recently, Trivers has become a gay rights activist. Appalled by the treatment of gays in Jamaica, Trivers joined the Homosexual Defense League, with the initiative being based on Black Panther credos.

Trivers states:

I’m willing to put my life on the line when those calls come. We will roll in to protect life and if we are late we will gather evidence. We will not just “stand around and look.”

Trivers notes that despite common misconceptions, homosexuality is rife in the natural world and not confined to humans. For example, homosexual behaviour is prevalent in mammals spanning lions, dolphins and various primates. Arguments that homosexuality is unnatural are unfounded.

Regrettably, some perceive evolutionary psychology as justifying racism, misogyny, homophobia and the status quo. As both the grandfather of evolutionary psychology and a civil rights activist, Robert Trivers eloquently demonstrates why this is nonsense.

Many scientists shy away from politics, believing that it compromises their objectivity or that it is not their duty to address social issues directly. Trivers is a glaring exception.

The Way Forward

An implied argument in A Wild Life is that Trivers would have been a more successful scientist had he not lived the way he has. However, I’m not so sure. He may have been a more prolific scientist in terms of output. But it seems that the richness of Trivers’ life experiences arguably increased  the scope of his scientific endeavours and the depth of his theorising, rather than serving as a distraction. Not many scientists have been exposed to the various facets of the natural world and of human nature as Trivers has. For example, how many Western scientists have been able (and had the desire) to integrate and defend themselves in a society with one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world?

A major life lesson from A Wild Life is that one must not just study life but also live it. Scientists and academics can spend their whole adult lives studying and thinking, forgoing personal enjoyment and exciting experiences. One shouldn’t let the pursuit of knowledge and scientific advancement sacrifice their personal lives.

Conversely, an internal activity which Trivers promotes is self-reflection; a means of overcoming self-deception. Trivers lists a lack of self-reflection as his biggest regret.

“You self-deceptionist,” my first wife would sneer. “You talk a lot about parent-offspring conflict, yet you neglect your own son.” Guilty as charged. Too much ambition and too little thought about my family: wife, children, and myself.

Trivers concludes A Wild Life by discussing his efforts to reflect when making big life decisions. ‘Autopilot’ used to be viewed by Trivers as a successful strategy for major decisions. “Autopilot? As a means of choosing which of three universities and cities you should live in for the next fifteen years? By definition autopilot is the opposite of careful conscious introspection and evaluation- it is what you do when the path forward is obvious and no rational reflection is needed.”

Trivers discusses how his (lack of) decisions impacted him and his family, resulting in inadequate pay and productivity. “Served me right: if you don’t think through a problem, you shouldn’t be surprised when later it looks as if no one has thought it through.”

Openly revealed in A Wild Life is Trivers’ mental health issues, specifically his suffering from bipolar disorder. As one accused of being self-deceived, Trivers demonstrates moments of piercing introspection.

Act A Fool

There was one passage in A Wild Life with greater relevance to Darwinian Business.

It was on the topic of ‘dummying up’. In contrast to self-deception and the inflation of the self, Trivers mentions a second kind of deception- deceiving down- in which the organism is selected to appear less large and less threatening, thereby gaining an advantage.

Trivers recalls a conversation with the black panther Huey Newton of all people, discussing employees dummying up to avoid being required to do more difficult tasks.

I only wish I that one of Richard Nixon’s aides had been on hand to silently activate a tape recorder so that none of this was lost to posterity. Unfortunately, I can only give a rough sketch of Huey’s answer.

If I remember correctly, he imagined a situation in which a waiter is always managing to position himself so as to avoid seeing his boss calling him and to otherwise appear to be working while not actually doing any work. His own monologue in response ran roughly as follows: “Oh, so you’re so dumb that you happen to be looking the other way when I’m trying to get your attention. And you’re so dumb that when you know I am  watching you, you decide to polish silverware that needs no polishing. And you’re so dumb that you are always walking toward the pantry without ever reaching it. Well, you’re not that dumb!”- followed perhaps by slapping the organism to the ground, verbally or otherwise. In short, Huey revealed to the actor the hidden logic of his actions, and the final ironic punch line was that, “You’re not that damned dumb” since you’ve managed to arrange all this dumb-acting behavior in such a coherent pattern, designed to deceive your employer.

You can buy a copy of A Wild Life here

References

Trivers, R. (2011). The Folly of Fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. Basic Books

Trivers, R.L. (1974). “Parent-offspring conflict”. Am. Zool. 14: 249–264

Trivers, R.L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.),Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871-1971 (pp. 136–179). Chicago, IL: Aldine

Trivers, R.L. (1971). “The evolution of reciprocal altruism”. Quarterly Review of Biology 46: 35–57