Note: If you are familiar with Moldbug, who now calls himself Curtis Yarvin, I did a review of and comment upon his work behind the green door. Here is the SubscribeStar link and here is the Substack link.
At first blush, logic says that deception should have been bred out of humans long before humans settled down. Deceiving the tribe would be bad for the deceiver, resulting in exile or even death. That would significantly lower the reproductive success of the deceiver. On the other hand, tribes with deceivers would be less cooperative which would lower their overall success. Given enough time, it seems like deception should have disappeared from humanity.
Clearly that is not the case. We have lots of liars. That means deception has some useful role in human society. At the minimum, deception is not so negative that it would significantly lower the reproductive success of the deceiver. In fact, deception has probably always been an asset on the mating market. Even in the narrow world of the tribe, sweettalking Pebbles into a roll in the cave has obvious benefits. Perhaps lying for sex is enough to make deception a feature of man.
On the other hand, every society has prohibitions against deception. In European cultures, reputation is tied to honesty and trustworthiness. Someone who gains a reputation for deception loses status. In more clannish societies, deceiving outsiders is not so bad, especially if it helps the in-group, but lying to people in the clan can have severe consequences. Someone who deceives his own people can be exiled from the group or possibly worse.
This apparent contradiction has been known for a long time. It is not just humans who display the willingness to deceive others in the group. In many animal societies, like bees and ants, cooperation is rewarded and deception is punished. As with humans, deception should have been selected out a long time ago, but that is clearly not the case which suggest deception has some value. The deceiver gets enough benefit over time to make deception useful in some way.
A new study suggests that cooperation is what makes deception possible, as cooperation involved complex rules. An individual can exploit those rules to gain benefit without having to contribute. The more cooperative a society, the more opportunities there are for free riders to game those rules through deception in order to prosper from the cooperation of others in the group. The less cooperative a society, the fewer opportunities to exploit the rules through deception.
Given that we live in an age of universal deceit, at least by those in positions of authority, the evolution of lying suddenly matters a great deal. Part of it is that we are better able to see the lying of the people in charge. Before the mass media age, it was hard for people to get information on official lies. Of course, it was also much harder to promote official lies. Mass media results in a sense of mass cooperation, which means the communications revolution has revolutionized mass lying.
Even adjusting for our natural recency bias, institutional lying has exploded over the last thirty years in America. Every day someone from the government stands in front of cameras and blatantly lies about things. They know they are lying. The people in the press room know they are lying. Everyone in the room knows that the people watching it know everyone involved is lying. There is the sense that the people in these positions look at lying as a game where the biggest liar wins the day.
This is not a new thing. For twenty years the drug companies have said that serotonin levels are responsible for depression. It turns out to be wrong and the studies they relied upon were obviously wrong. In other words, they should have known their claims were false, but they had a billion reasons to lie, so they lied. This sort of deception has become the norm. Here is a story about a prominent cancer research facility caught faking their research.
Of course, we are still living through one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on human society, which is the Covid pandemic. The virus is real, but the claims around it have been nonsense since the start. Mask wearing and social distancing never had any basis in science or reason. Important people not only insisted it was science but forced people to play along. Now we are learning that the vaccines are not what was claimed and may have made things worse.
Many people have noticed the scale and degree of lying from official quarters, but the assumption is always that the cause is degeneracy. That is the people slithering into positions of authority are responsible for the rise in deception. The solution is to round them up, put them on boats and send them out to sea. Put honest people back into positions of authority and we return to the normal levels of deception. That may be just as wrong as the things coming from our leaders.
It may be that we have reached a point where the people in the ruling class of society, this includes the managerial and administrative classes, no longer feel any connection to the rest of us. They lie and willingly repeat lies, because it causes no harm to them and solves immediate concerns. Like people in clannish societies, deceiving outsiders brings no penalty as outsiders simply do not count. The ruling class is now an alien clan that is indifferent to the rest of us.
Alternatively, this evolving class awareness may bring with it a sense that the people over whom they rule are a constant threat. Like the Alawites in Syria, the new class at the top of the social hierarchy now sees their position dependent on keeping the masses confused and disorganized. Israel has always done this with her Arab neighbors, preventing them from uniting against her. Perhaps the explosion of lying is due to fear and hostility by the ruling class.
Another possibility, suggested by that British study linked above, is that deception tracks with cooperation. The more cooperative a society, or at least the more it appears to cooperate, the more deception in the society. This seems counter intuitive as cooperation is about trust and deception undermines trust. On the other hand, the more people experience deception, the more they are willing to cooperate with those who display trustworthiness. Trust and deception rise and fall together.
An underappreciated aspect of the communications revolution is how unity has become the standard of politics. Fifty years ago, people understood that politics was the art of the possible, which meant compromise. You give a little to get a little, but often there was no deal to be had and you just accepted it. Today, politics is all about uniting everyone behind a narrow cause. Every day our rulers demand we put aside our interest for something. Mass cooperation is the norm.
These demands for mass cooperation track with the growth of mass media and they track with the rise in anathematizing of dissent. As communications have increased, the demand for cooperation have increased. As cooperation increases, the deception increases with it. Some of the lying is in an effort to trick people into putting their interest aside for the good of the cause. Much of the lying is just opportunism. The greater cooperation has led to an explosion in deception.
The prisoner’s dilemma game is a classic example of how even simple human interactions can become quite complex. Rational self-interest can lead someone into a trap depending upon the rules in which they are forced to operate. This may be what we are seeing with the explosion of lying. The communications revolution has altered the ancient rules of human cooperation within large scale society. The ability to enhance mass cooperation has resulted in mass deception.
Like that prisoner’s dilemma game, the people doing the lying think they are acting in their self-interest but they are actually undermining their collective interests. The more they lie in defense of “our democracy” the less valuable the system that makes it possible for them to be a ruling class. Their efforts to enhance the value of their position in society is undermining their position. Taken to its logical conclusion, the collapse in trust will bring about a collapse in the ruling class.
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