Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why We Shift Blame

Why is it so easy to blame others when things go wrong in our life, when we ourselves are part of the cause? Why can others see in our motivations and behavior what we do not?

Robert Trivers, a Harvard professor and one of the founders of sociobiology, asserts that blame shifting is innate, arising from the evolutionary advantage of making it easier to fool others if we can first fool ourselves. The case is argued in his latest book, "The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-deception in Human Life." The thesis is that if we can deceive ourselves, then we can more convincingly deceive others, for they are more likely to conclude that we are firm in our convictions and assertions and thus less likely to be lying.

So where is the advantage in lying and deceiving others? It lies in the ability to more effectively hide our flaws and manipulate others. Life, in this view, is one continuous "Survivor Island" where one succeeds only to the extent that others can be fooled.

Trivers himself had plenty of years to think about blame and self-deception. Introspection became inevitable in his 68 years of trying to cope with bipolar disorder, multiple mental breakdowns requiring hospitalization, and social conflicts (including jail time).

I don't know where he got the idea to link self-deception with evolution, but no doubt it came from his early career exposure to pioneering evolutionists such as  E. O. Wilson and Ernst Mayer, who was in fact his Harvard mentor. Apparently also influential were the ideas expressed in "The Selfish Gene," by Richard Dawkins. Not only did our genes evolve to benefit the individual, but the selection pressure also favored genes controlling and protecting self image and sense of individual worth. Therefore, biologically speaking, our brains are biased to blame others rather than ourself.

Obviously, self-deception is counter-productive. It prevents us from correcting and preventing the real causes of our difficulties. This then is the conundrum. By fooling ourselves we do indeed make it easier to fool others, while at the same time paying the price of not solving our real problems.

So why is deception so prevalent? First, self-deception gives the illusion of protecting the sense of self and its hypersensitive ego. Secondly, if you are a skilled liar, fooling others probably works more often than it fails. It is still a Faustian bargain with our inner devil and a stupid way to live.


1.  Kupferschmidt, K. 2011. Sharp Insights and a Sharp Tongue. Science. 334: 589-591.

2.  Trivers, R. (2011). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceipt and Self-deception in Human Life. New York: Basic Books.

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