The Sweetest Words in Any Language

The evolutionary roots of self-deception

Edward Robson, PhD
Oct 9, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels

oor Man. Poor genus Homo.

When survival tools and tricks were being handed out to la familia mammalia, “Hom” must have been last in line. Tusks, teeth, armor, claws, hi-res senses, blinding speed, size and strength and even camo coloration — all those bins were empty by the time he got his turn.

And the ones who got those nifty options all were out there waiting for him, bibs tied, ketchup out.

The Accessorizer had but two things left to offer, and unfortunately, neither one was plug-and-play.

One was thumbs. Opposable. Handy for such tasks as making tools, though it would take old Hom about a million years of practice, trial-and-error, before he started making anything more hi-tech than a stone axe or a sharpened stick.

The other tool was neocortex, an extra layer over the cerebrum, which enabled Hom to learn and hence adapt to novel situations. Other mammals had it, too, but nowhere near as much of it as Hom.

That souped-up brain capacity, his main advantage in the struggle for survival in a world where nearly everything was faster, stronger, tougher, and/or fiercer, somehow kept him in the game while he evolved from early stages up through H. erectus, H. habilis, into Homo sapiens, whose tools and weapons really could make up for other weaknesses.

But if Hom’s cleverness up to that point had not yielded true game-changing technology, how was it helping him? What, precisely, is the value of a better brain?

The Brain

very body needs a brain. The brain runs all our systems: heartbeat, respiration, endocrine secretions, sleep-wake cycles, hunger, and a lot of other things that have to happen for you just to stay alive. The term for all of that is internal homeostasis.

The brain also lets us interact with the environment. It takes in sensory data, interprets it, and uses it to plan and execute responsive actions: move toward this and away from that, eat these, hide from those, mate with her, fight with him.

In most animals, the system of perception and response is all controlled by instinct, meaning hardwired, stored in the genetic code. Its lack of flexibility is a feature, not a bug, because it works. A creature that reacts instantly and automatically to threats or opportunities is more likely to survive and reproduce than one that needs to think about its options.

Smarter isn’t always better. Birds and sharks are stupid by our standards. What we call intelligence would only interfere with their all-pro survival strategies. Likewise reptiles. T. Rex and his cousins ruled the earth for 177 million years. Hom’s current iteration, H. sapiens sapiens, if he doesn’t solve his climate problem, will become extinct before he’s been around for even one percent of that.

Strategy

you can’t outrun them or outfight them, then you must outthink them. More specifically, you must think ahead of them, figure out where they’re going to be and what they’re going to do.

If you can suss out where the slow and tasty animals are going to graze, you have a better chance of having dinner. And if you can guess where all the nasty predators are going to hunt, you have a better chance of not becoming dinner.

The common thread in all of this is anticipation. The secret to success (a.k.a. survival) is to figure out — or guess — what’s going to happen. That, it turns out, is Hom’s superpower.

That 2–4 millimeter rind of neocortex topping our cerebrum has a knack for imagining possible events, and for guessing which of those events are likely. And not just a knack, but a compulsion. Inquiring minds (like ours) will always want to know.

And so we guess, and lay our money down, and watch to see if we were right. And if we were, we cheer. Nothing is as satisfying to the human brain as finding out that it has guessed correctly what was going to happen.

The Sweetest Words

he sweetest words in any human language are, “I knew it!” That’s not our egotism, it’s our hard-wired instinct. It’s the echo of Homo erectus when the beasts appeared where he was waiting for them and he knew his tribe would eat tonight.

It’s been an epoch, maybe two, since humans in most parts of the world knew their survival hinged on being right about such matters as the movements of wild animals. Anticipation still affects our quality of life, but unless we’re soldiers, a single incorrect prediction isn’t likely to be fatal.

But our brains don’t know that. Our neocortex still works as it worked for us in paleolithic times, dodging sabre-tooths and chasing mammoths. It still strives constantly to figure out what’s going to happen, feels a surge of pleasure when it sees it has anticipated correctly, and gets very nervous when its guesses don’t pan out.

What This Means About Us Now

1: We hate surprises.

There are, of course, exceptions —old friends calling, a check in the mail, or a great self-published book — but those are familiar surprises. Most real-life surprises are more like coming home to find your furniture’s been rearranged, or your go-to luncheon option’s been deleted from the menu at the fast-food joint, or they’ve changed the home page of your web-based writing platform.

Such changes should not matter — we know we’ll adjust, no damage done. But they bother us, especially when we didn’t see them coming. Even those “good” surprises sometimes bother us, like when we “know” self-published books are always bad, or when the old friend’s call comes just as we were sitting down to watch a ball game. We think we know what we’re about to experience, and we discover we were wrong, and something in our brain reacts unhappily to the discrepancy.

We can train ourselves to be intrepid and adventurous, but our brains — being tasked with keeping us alive — are naturally conservative. Surprises bother us, because we’re citizens of Kingdom Animalia. And in that kingdom, your surprise is someone else’s dinner bell.

2: We love familiar things.

Yes, we also enjoy novelty, but the restaurant industry alone proves how much we will pay to have the same experience we’ve had before. We favor our favorites, not necessarily because they’re better than the other options, but because our brains believe familiarity is safety. Familiar foods and faces can be trusted. Venture too far from your home cave into unfamiliar territory, you don’t know what you might run into.

The power of these first two principles is evident in all species of mammals, but the effect gets stronger with increasing intelligence. Every creature with a memory seems to prefer familiar over unfamiliar situations.

As a general survival strategy, we can see why this is smart. But in our individual human lives, it often holds us back. We stay in abusive relationships, dead-end jobs, and depressing neighborhoods rather than venture out into the unknown. “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t know.” The familiar is our comfort zone, and comfort zones are traps.

We also get stuck in familiar ways of doing things, even when we know those habits aren’t healthy and don’t make us happy, just because we can’t imagine deviating from the way we’re used to doing things. Counselors and therapists all know the frustration of pointing out in vain how easily our clients could relieve their pain and reduce their stress by making simple changes in the way they live, but change just isn’t something they can do.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” — (source unknown, attributed to Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Anthony Robbins, and others)

3: We need to be right, even when we aren’t.

Here’s the dilemma. We can’t stop trying to anticipate, but the world is just too complicated for anyone to predict events correctly all the time. No matter how much we restrict ourselves to the familiar settings, people, and activities, things are going to happen now and then that aren’t what we expected.

But our brains are hard-wired (instinct) to experience the unexpected as a sign of danger. We get anxious when the world does not conform to our predictions.

Anxiety is (almost by definition) unpleasantly arousing. It’s not a feeling we can easily ignore or learn to love, any more than we can just get used to fire alarms or klaxon horns blaring unpredictably behind us. We can — and must, if we are to live in the adult world — learn to tolerate at least mild levels of anxiety, but sustained high levels cause our hormones to get out of whack and lead to organ systems breaking down.

Healthy adults learn to live with a certain degree of tension. We override our instinctive fear of bad news, because we know we need the information we can get from those surprises. We pay attention to the signs that we guessed wrong, so that maybe next time we will be more accurate. We learn, in other words, from our mistakes.

But few of us are brave enough to face down all of our anxiety, and some of us refuse to tolerate any of it. So instead of looking for the lessons in our errors, we pretend those errors didn’t happen.

We use our skill with words to spin the story into one in which what happened was exactly what we knew was going to happen. We employ selective perception and selective memory to edit out the parts that would embarrass us if we admitted them. We surround ourselves with friends who can be trusted to agree with us and shout down anyone who tries to point out just how foolish we have been.

In short, we lie. To others frequently, to ourselves almost constantly. Because we need to think we know what’s going on.

Is this smart? Well, yes and no.

No, because such self-deception shields us from the real-world information that would let us make better choices and devise more effective strategies for getting what we want.

But yes, because our self-deceptions let us stay inside our comfort zones, far away from our anxieties. And since the sabre-tooths are long since gone, and being actually incorrect no longer tends to get us eaten, anxiety is the main thing our neocortex has to watch out for anymore.

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Edward Robson, PhD

Written by

Retired psychologist, wordsmith, teacher, MFA candidate. Buy me coffee: ko-fi.com/edrobson. ecrobson@gmail.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

Edward Robson, PhD

Written by

Retired psychologist, wordsmith, teacher, MFA candidate. Buy me coffee: ko-fi.com/edrobson. ecrobson@gmail.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

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