"Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature; essential to our humanity but disowned by its perpetrators at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It is not, as popular opinion would have it, reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Human society is a network of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty." (p 2)
David Livingstone Smith has written a stunning book with four aims in view. First, he explains deception and self-deception from an evolutionary perspective, how lying to ourselves soothes the stresses of life and in the process helps us lie efficiently to others. But in order to deceive ourselves, we had to evolve an unconscious region of the brain where truth can be effectively obscured. This ties with the second aim of the book, in which Smith attempts a controversial reconnection between cognitive psychology and the kinds of questions Freud once tried (unsuccessfully) to answer. Like it or not, the unconscious is a reality which must be addressed. Freud may have left us a legacy of crackpot pseudo-science, but some of his findings can be legitimately applied in scientific investigation. Smith gets us started on doing exactly this, and hopefully some of his ideas will be pursued at more length -- and more empirically -- by the scientific community. He uses examples from modern living in describing (the third goal of the book) adaptive functions of the unconscious mind implied by self-deception, showing (even if without the level of empirical proof demanded by scientific inquiry) that we are all natural psychologists, albeit unconscious ones, carefully monitoring one another's behavior, constantly deceiving others and ourselves. This may sound like a wild idea, but it's not. For the author demonstrates (the fourth objective) that our conscious and unconscious perceptions of others are disguised in the gossip, lies, deceptions, and veiled meanings in everyday conversations.
One emerges from this book feeling almost like a paranoid schizophrenic. If indeed we tell three lies for every ten minutes of conversation; if indeed we are constantly, and often unconsciously, aiming hidden missiles at people with coded transcripts and veiled meanings; if indeed we are natural born liars with "bodies that secrete deceit"; then the conclusion presses in the opposite direction of received wisdom. Psychiatric professionals teach us that mentally ill and depressed people are self-deceived and out of touch with reality, but evolutionary biology corrects this mythology. Depressives have a better grasp on reality than then most people, because they suffer from a deficit in self-deception. Smith wryly remarks that self-knowledge isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
Smith concludes that we know far less about ourselves, and far more about others, then we are aware of knowing. While acknowledging that we can hardly be taught not to deceive ourselves -- even if we could, it would only result in unhappiness -- we can at least work to rid ourselves of surplus self-deception. But that's easier said than done. In any case, this book is one hell of an eye-opener, and a delight to read. It should be mandatory reading for gnostic-thinkers, who will hate it.