Robert Trivers and Noam Chomsky: a discussion

A discussion between linguist Noam Chomsky and biologist and former Black Panther member, Robert Trivers.

Submitted by Choccy on July 28, 2011

In the 1970s, a Harvard class taught by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers ignited a controversy that would escalate into the "sociobiology wars." His papers provided a Darwinian basis for understanding complex human activities and relationships. Across town at MIT, revolutionary linguist Noam Chomsky had earned a reputation as a leading opponent of the Vietnam War. Throughout those pivotal years, and in the following decades, the two explored similar ideas from different perspectives. Long aware of each other's work, they had never met until a couple of months ago, when they sat down to compare notes on some common interests: deceit and self-deception. (Source: Salon Seed, September 6, 2006)

Noam Chomsky: One of the most important comments on deceit, I think, was made by Adam Smith. He pointed out that a major goal of business is to deceive and oppress the public.

And one of the striking features of the modern period is the institutionalization of that process, so that we now have huge industries deceiving the public—and they're very conscious about it, the public relations industry. Interestingly, this developed in the freest countries—in Britain and the US—roughly around time of WWI, when it was recognized that enough freedom had been won that people could no longer be controlled by force. So modes of deception and manipulation had to be developed in order to keep them under control.

And by now these are huge industries. They not only dominate marketing of commodities, but they also control the political system. As anyone who watches a US election knows, it's marketing. It's the same techniques that are used to market toothpaste.

And, of course, there are power systems in place to facilitate this. Throughout history it's been mostly the property holders or the educated classes who've tended to support power systems. And that's a large part of what I think education is—it's a form of indoctrination. You have to reconstruct a picture of the world in order to be conducive to the interests and concerns of the educated classes, and this involves a lot of self-deceit.

Robert Trivers: So you're talking about self-deception in at least two contexts. One is intellectuals who, in a sense, go through a process of education which results in a self-deceived organism who is really working to serve the interests of the privileged few without necessarily being conscious of it at all. The other thing is these massive industries of persuasion and deception, which, one can conceptualize, are also inducing a form of either ignorance or self-deception in listeners, where they come to believe that they know the truth when in fact they're just being manipulated.

So let me ask you, when you think about the leaders—let's say the present set of organisms that launched this dreadful Iraq misadventure—how important is their level of self-deception? We know they launched the whole thing in a swarm of lies, the evidence for which is too overwhelming to even need to be referred to now. My view is that their deception leads to self-deception very easily.

NC: I agree, though I'm not sure they launched it with lies, and it's perfectly possible they believed it.

RT: Yes.

NC: I mean, they had a goal—we don't have a detailed record, but from the record we have, it's as if they sort of cherry-picked and coerced intelligence to yield evidence that would contribute to that goal.

RT: Yes.

NC: And anything that conflicted with it was just tossed out. In fact people were tossed out—like the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

RT: Right, indeed.

NC: I mean, I think we all know from personal life, if there's something you want to do, it's really easy to convince yourself it's right and just. You put away evidence that shows that's not true.

So it's self-deception but it's automatic, and it requires significant effort and energy to try to see yourself from a distance. It's hard to do.

RT: Oh, it is. I think in everyday life we're aware of the fact that when we're watching something on stage, so to speak, we have a better view than the actors on the stage have. If you can see events laterally, you can say, my god, they're doing this and they're doing that. But if you're embedded in that network it's much harder.

NC: In fact, you can see it very clearly by just comparing historical events that are similar They're never identical, but similar.

Take the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and the US invasion of Iraq—just take those three. From the point of view of the people who perpetrated these acts, they were each a noble effort and done for the benefit of everyone—in fact the self-justifications are kind of similar. It almost translates. But we can't see it in ourselves; we can only see it in them, you know. Nobody doubts that the Russians committed aggression, that Saddam Hussein committed aggression, but with regard to ourselves it's impossible.

I've reviewed a lot of the literature on this, and it's close to universal. We just cannot adopt toward ourselves the same attitudes that we adopt easily and in fact, reflexively, when others commit crimes. No matter how strong the evidence.

RT: Not the overall crime.

NC: In fact, here's another case like Afghanistan and Kuwait. Dick Cheney was recently somewhere in Central Asia—Kazakhstan, I believe. He was getting them to make sure to direct their pipelines to the West, so the US can control them. And he said, control over pipelines is a means—these are tools for intimidation and blackmail. He was talking about if somebody else controlled them. Like if China controlled the pipelines, it's a tool of intimidation and blackmail. But if the US controls the pipelines, it's just benevolent and free and wonderful.

RT: Yes.

NC: And I was interested to see if anybody is going to comment on that. I mean, as long as he's talking about somebody else's control, then it's intimidation and blackmail. The very moment he's trying to get them to give us control, that's liberation and freedom. To be able to live with those contradictions in your mind, really does take a good education. And it's true in case after case.

RT: It's the psychology of deceit and self-deception. When you start talking about groups, there are some very interesting analogies. Psychologists have shown that people make these verbal switches when they're in a we/they situation, in a your-group-versus-another situation.

NC: Groups that are simply set up for the experiment, you mean?

RT: It can be. You can also do it experimentally, or you can be talking about them and their group versus someone that's not a member of their group.

But you have the following kinds of verbal things that people do, apparently quite unconsciously. If you're a member of my group and you do something good, I make a general statement: "Noam Chomsky is an excellent person." Now if you do something bad, I give a particular statement, "Noam Chomsky stepped on my toe."

But it's exactly reversed if you're not a member of my group. If you're not a member of my group and you do something good I say, "Noam Chomsky gave me directions to MIT." But if he steps on my toe I say, "He's a lousy organism," or "He's an inconsiderate person."

So we generalize positively to ourselves, particularize negative and reverse it when we're talking about other people.

NC: Sounds like normal propaganda. Islamic people are all fascists. The Irish are all crooks.

RT: Yes, exactly. Generalize a negative characteristic in the other. Another thing that comes to mind with respect to the Iraq case: There's evidence suggesting that when you're contemplating something—whether or marry Suzy, for instance—you're in a deliberative stage. And you are considering options more or less rationally.

Now, once you decide to go with Suzy, you're in the instrumental phase; you don't want to hear about the negative side. Your mood goes up, and you delete all the negative stuff and you're just, "Suzy's the one."

One thing that's very striking about this Iraq disaster is there was no deliberative stage, unless you—

NC: —go back a few years.

RT: Yes, unless you refer to the 90s, when there were a couple of position papers by these same groups that said, "Let's not go to war."

But once 9/11 occurred, we know that within days, within hours, they were settling on Iraq and they went into the instrumental phase in a very major way. They didn't want to hear anything of the downside.

NC: That was dismissed.

RT: It was dismissed entirely. And these firewalls were set up so there was no communication. And if someone came into Rumsfeld's office and said, "Well, gee..." Well, [General] Shinseki got an early retirement plan.

And Wolfowitz comes in the very next day and says, "Hard to imagine that we'd need more troops to occupy than to knock over." But that was established military doctrine; we'd known that for more than 50 years.

NC: Just didn't want to hear it.

RT: Didn't want to hear it. So, I'm trying to understand these phenomena at the individual level and also put them together in groups, since at times institutions act like individuals in the way they practice internal self-deception.

This was Feynman's famous analysis of NASA and the Challenger disaster. I don't know if you ever read the analysis—it was beautiful. He said that, when we decided to go to the moon in the 60s, there was no disagreement in the society, for better or worse. Everybody said, "Let's beat the Soviets to the moon." And the thing was built rationally from the ground up, and by god, before the decade was out we were on the moon and back safely.

Now, they had a $5 billion bureaucracy with nothing to do. So they had to come up with rationales for what they did. So they decided on manned flight because it's more expensive, and they decided on the reusable shuttle, which turned out to be more expensive than if you just used a new shuttle every time. But they always had to sell this thing as making sense.

So, Feynman argued that the NASA higher-ups were busy selling this pile of you-know-what to the general public. They didn't want to hear anything negative from the people down below. This was his analysis for how they came up with this O-ring nonsense.

They had a safety unit that was supposed to be involved in safety, but ended up being subverted in function, to rationalize non-safety. And the classic example is, there were 24 flights, I think it was 24, prior to the disaster. And of those, seven suffered O-ring damage—

NC: —detected.

RT: Detected, yes. In one of them the O-ring had been burned through—a third of the way through. Now, how did they handle this? It was statistically significant. They said, "17 flights had no damage, so they're irrelevant"—and they excluded them. Seven had damage, sometimes at high temperature, therefore temperature was irrelvant.

Then they came up with real absurdities. They said we built in a three-fold safety factor. That's to say, it only burned a third of the way through. But that, as you know, is a perversion of language. By law you are required to build elevators with an 11-fold safety factor, which means you pack it full of people, run it up and down, there is no damage to your equipment. Now you make it 11 times as strong.

NC: And all of this data was available.

RT: All of it was available.
"Maintaining credibility"

RT: There's an analogy here to individual self-deception. Information is often somewhere in the organism; it's just well-hidden. It's well down in the unconscious. And it's often inaccessible because you build up firewalls against it.

NC: Are there any animal analogs to this?

RT: Well, I don't know. I believe that self-deception has evolved in two situations at least in other creatures, and that it can be studied. I've suggested a way to do it, but so far nobody's done it.

For example, when you make an evaluation of another animal in a combat situation—let's say male/male conflict—the other organism's sense of self-confidence is a relevant factor in your evaluation.

NC: And that's shown by its behavior.

RT: Exactly—through its suppressing signs of fear and not giving anything away, and so forth. So you can imagine selection for overconfidence—

NC: —for showing overconfidence, even if it's not real.

RT: Yes. Likewise in situations of courtship, where females are evaluating males. Again, the organism's sense of self is relevant. We all know that low self-esteem is a sexual romantic turn-off.

So again, you can have selection—without language it seems to me—for biased kinds of information flow within the organism in order to keep up a false front.

NC: And it may be that the animal that's putting up a false front knows it's a false front.

RT: Yes, but it may benefit from not knowing—

NC: —because it's easier.

RT: Easier to do it and perhaps more convincing because you're not giving away evidence.

NC: Secondary signs.

RT: Exactly.

NC: Is there any evidence about that, or is it just speculation?

RT: What you heard is rank speculation.

NC: Can it be investigated?

RT: I do not know of anybody who is doing it on self-deception. There is excellent work being done on deception in other creatures.

To give you just one line of work that's of some interest: We find repeatedly now—in wasps, in birds and in monkeys—that when organisms realize they're being deceived, they get pissed off. And they often attack the deceiver. Especially if the deceiver is over-representing him or herself. If you're under-representing and showing yourself as having less dominance than you really have, you're not attacked. And the ones that do attack you are precisely those whose dominance status you are attempting to expropriate or mimic.

It's very interesting and it suggests some of the dynamic in which fear of being detected while deceiving can be a secondary signal, precisely because if you are detected, you may get your butt kicked or get chased out.

NC: There's a name for that in the international affairs literature; its called maintaining credibility. You have to carry out violent acts to maintain credibility, even if the issue is insignificant.

RT: Right.

NC: It's kind of like the Mafia.

RT: Yes, I know, I've heard that rationale used for odious stuff—we're maintaining credibility, maintaining street cred.

NC: That's a common theme. It's usually masked in some sense, so it's the credibility of the West, or the Free World, or something or other.

NC: Are there ways of studying self-deception?

RT: Yes, there was a brilliant study by [Ruben] Gur and [Harold] Sackeim, about 20 years ago—which was a very difficult one to do then, you could do it much more easily now—based on the fact that we respond to hearing our own voice with greater arousal than we do to hearing another human's voice. In both cases we show physiological arousal—galvanic skin response is one such measure. There's twice as big a jump if you hear your own voice.

Now, what you can do is have people matched for age and sex, read the same boring paragraph from Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolution," chop it up into two, four, six and 12 second segments, and create a master tape where some of the time they're hearing their own voice, but a lot of the time they're not.

Then they've got to press a button indicating if they think it's their own and a second button to indicate how sure they are. But meanwhile they have the galvanic skin response.

Now they discovered two interesting things. First of all, some people denied their own voice some of the time but the skin always had it right. Some projected their own voice some of the time, the skin always had it right.

The deniers denied the denial, but half the time, the projectors were willing to admit afterwards that they thought they'd made the mistake of projection.

NC: What do you think the reason for that is?

RT: The difference between the projectors and the deniers? Well, I don't have a good way of putting it, Noam, but to me when you want to deny reality, you've got to act quickly and get it out of sight. The deniers also showed the highest levels of galvanic skin response to all stimuli. It's like they were primed to do it. And inventing reality is a little bit more of a relaxed enterprise I suppose.

NC: It's not as threatening.

RT: Yes, something like that. The final thing Gur and Sackeim showed was that they could manipulate it. Psychologists have lots of devices for making you feel bad about yourself, and one of them is just to give you an exam. They did this with university students. Then they told half of them, you did lousy, and half of them, you did well.

And what they found was that those who were made to feel badly about themselves started to deny their own voice more, while those who were feeling good started hearing themselves talking when they weren't. Now since we didn't evolve to hear our voice on a tape recorder, we have to interpret here. But it's like self-presentation is contracting on your failure and expanding on your success.

But back to your question, among animals, birds in particular have been shown to have the same physiological arousal that humans do—arousal to their own species song, and more arousal to their particular voice.

NC: So higher for their species and still higher for themselves?

RT: Exactly.

NC: Is there any kin effect?

RT: That's a good question, and I don't know the answer. In general, kin relations in birds are poorly developed—they often don't even nest next to their relatives. But in principle I thought you could run a Gur and Sackeim experiment on birds, where pecking could substitute for pushing the button on the computer. You would train them in a reward system to peck when they recognize their own song.

NC: So how do you get to self-deceit from this?

RT: Well, you would manipulate them once again by, for example, subjecting some birds to negative experiences like losing fights, which you could rig by matching them with animals that are somewhat larger than them. And similarly, others would get to win fights. And then you could see if there's a tendency to deny self.

NC: You might be interested in a book that's coming out by a very smart guy, James Peck, a Sinologist, who has a book coming out called Washington's China, in which he does a very in-depth analysis of the National Security culture. It's about the imagery of China that was constructed in Washington.

He went through the National Security Council literature, background literature and so on, and he does both an analysis of content and a psychological analysis. I was reminded of it the whole time you were talking.

What he says is that there are elaborate techniques of self-deception to try to build a framework in which we can justify things like, say, invading or overthrowing the government of Guatemala, on the basis of some new objective. And it's done by making everything simple. You have to make it clearer than the truth.

RT: Right.

NC: And as this picture gets created internally and built up by each group of National Security staffers, it becomes like a real fundamentalist religion, showing extraordinary self-deceit. And then you end up with the Cheneys and the Rumsfelds.

RT: I've been appalled lately when I pass a newsstand and there's some article, "China, the Next Threat," saying, "Now we've got to mobilize all our energy against China"—and they're talking military.

NC: That's interesting, because the threat of China is not military.

RT: Exactly.

NC: The threat of China is they can't be intimidated—in fact it's very similar to what you've described. Europe you can intimidate. When the US tries to get people to stop investing in Iran, European companies pull out, China disregards it.

RT: Right.

NC: You look at history and understand why—China's been around for 4,000 years and just doesn't give a damn. So the West screams, and they just go ahead and take over a big piece of Saudi or Iranian oil. You can't intimidate them—it's driving people in Washington berserk.

But, you know, of all the major powers, they've been the least aggressive militarily.

RT: No, the obvious threat—I mean, the obvious "threat"—is economic.

NC: And I think they plan it carefully. Like when President Hu Jintao was in Washington. When he left, he was going on a world trip. The next stop was Saudi Arabia. And that's a slap in the face to the US. It's just saying, "We don't care what you say."

RT: Right.

NC: I'm sure it was planned. That's the kind of thing that intimidates. It's a little bit like a gorilla pounding at its chest.

RT: Yeah, exactly. More power to them.