Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The American Scholar: The Examined Lie - James McWilliams

If the prospect of humans routinely communicating through inaccurate, if innocent, recollections sounds like a sociobiological dystopia, it shouldn’t. In his book Why We Lie, the philosopher David Livingstone Smith contends that lying is not only normal but even necessary for maintaining psychological equilibrium and social stability. He hypothesizes that “far from being a sign of emotional disturbance,” self-deception exists “at the core of our humanity.” The evolutionary impulse to deceive, Smith contends, taps an ancient disposition—“the Machiavellian unconscious”—that enables us to mislead ourselves so that we can strategically mislead others. “The task of getting on in life,” he told me, “requires self-deception because too much honesty is antisocial,” not to mention detrimental to survival. In this respect, flawed memory isn’t an indication of flawed character. Instead, as Harvard psychologist Schacter puts it, it’s the “byproduct of otherwise desirable and adaptive features of the human mind,” the kind of adaptations that enable humans to communicate through implicitly agreed upon, if often factually inaccurate, narratives. The vices of memory, Schacter writes, “can also be its virtues.”

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