Does Self-Deceit Increase Happiness in Old Age?

Bookmark and Share

Do old people have a “positivity bias” so that they self-deceptively ignore negative information?  Yes, says evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers in his provocative book, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Trivers tells us that preliminary experiments show older adults preferring positive faces, ignoring negative stimuli and generally focusing on emotionally positive stimuli.

Why? Not because the old have achieved serene wisdom or know at last that the universe is ultimately benign. No, the positivity responses are basically caused by innate evolutionary programs. As Trivers explains, “Greater positive affect is associated with stronger immune responses, and you may be selected to trade a grasp of reality for a boost in dealing with your main problem, that of internal enemies, including cancer.” The primary enemies in old age are the lethal germs, parasites, diseases, and degenerative processes within that threaten survival.  By contrast, younger people have to vigilantly attend to external negative stimuli to achieve reproductive fitness.

Evolutionary biology for Trivers is the predominant factor underlying and determining all of life; the drive to survive, to reproduce, and increase your genes is the ultimate goal and primary value of existence. The immune system is so important in the process of survival that Trivers can propose an “immunological theory of happiness.” An effectively functioning immune system produces feelings of happiness, and happiness increases the activity of the immune system.

In support of this immune-centered approach to positive affect in old age survival he cites findings from happiness research that correlate health, resilience, and survival with subjective well-being and life satisfaction. Old people do not report themselves to be less satisfied with life than the young.  Trivers thinks he knows why.

While positive mood and stronger immune responses are producing the “unfazed” responses of the old that their grandchildren admire, in actuality the behavior is a result of innate programmed self-deceptive bias: “Gramps and Grandma are living in positivity land and don’t know it.” For Trivers this is one of the cases where self-deception pays off.

More generally, Trivers thinks that self-deception is highly dangerous and destructive. Self-deception produces overconfidence, unconsciousness, selfishness, and self-aggrandizement. It depletes energy and distorts information flow. Trivers’s accounts of self-deception associated with aviation disasters, false historical narratives, and unjustifiable wars are painful to read.

But despite its high costs self-deception has remained selected by evolution, Trivers thinks, because it helps to deceive others in a competitive, conflict filled world. In human interactions fooling yourself into thinking that your selfish motives are really altruistic helps you fool others. Reproductive advantages can be achieved by self-deception, along with immune system strength and survival in old age.

Such a narrowly reductive evolutionary analysis of human life and aging is a far cry from humanistic, religious, and social psychological approaches.  Trivers is a champion of biology and evolution and scorns those who don’t agree with him. Cultural anthropology is particularly targeted for its reliance on the power of language to create meaning.  Philosophy and humanistic studies are discounted as a path to knowledge when compared to science and biology.

By contrast a broader deeper approach to understanding human nature can be found in the work of my hero, William James, a preeminent psychologist and philosopher trained in medicine. James gives biological and unconscious constraints their due, while asserting that unimpaired adults can voluntarily direct their attention and so exercise free will. Persevering in attention and endorsing values can produce self-directed action. When the “I” acts, the physical material, social, and rational dimensions making up myself can be engaged. In other words, while ignorance and self-deception are powerful and prevalent, positive human change is possible throughout life. If you take as your goal, “to be among the least deceived” there are conscious strategies available.

Trivers, to his credit, addresses ways to overcome our built in programming for dangerous self-deception. As part of his zeal for truth he recommends the admirable “anti-self-deception devices of science.”

Science recognizes that overcoming the power of self-deception requires adopting stringent and vigilant methods of control. Consciously explicit definitions, careful experimental observations, repeated tests, and concentrated rational analyses have produced the successes of science. Informally in private life, individuals can also employ cautionary reasoning and get friends and outside observers to curb human self-deceptive tendencies. Trivers even throws in a final page or two recommending the strategies of prayer and meditation. This comes as a surprise given the previous chapters’ relentless display of biological materialism.

Still, those who join Trivers in his advocacy of truth and evolutionary science will welcome his work on the power of self-deception. But Trivers could use some advice from all those Gramps and Grandmas who have studied the vast literature on self-deception in other quests for wisdom. Happiness in old age is a far more complicated story than bolstering your immune system through positive self-deceptive bias. Far better for the old to follow the advice of Henry James (that other genius in the James family): “Strive to be someone upon whom nothing is lost.” Here the “nothing lost” includes spiritual, physical, artistic, cultural, and moral truths.

Another inviting picture of a good old age can be found in Psalm 92 : “The just will flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a Lebanon cedar . . . still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green…”  Yes.  Ripeness is all.

Sidney Callahan, 79, is a writer, psychologist, and former professor. She is the author most recently of Called to Happiness: Where Faith and Psychology Meet.

9 Responses to “Does Self-Deceit Increase Happiness in Old Age?”

  1. stuart greenbaum

    hmmm, could not some “self-deception” be considered optimism or positive thinking. Like snow skiing, you have to look in the direction you want to head.

  2. Joanne Lynn

    I like that comment! In caring for people facing disability in old age, it is so much more productive to say something like, “You have a lot of strengths with which to deal with this challenge. Let’s see. You have a home on one floor – what an advantage! And you have friends who live in the same building – that’s terrific. It will pose some challenges to have small savings now, but we’ll have to work together to stretch those assets and use the help we can identify from the community.” That is so much more helpful than this, “Well, you are up against it now. You’ll find it really hard to live with that new disability and stay out of a nursing home, and you have no children to help out.” Both may be true of the same person, but we might as well build on the strengths, even while acknowledging the challenges.

    • Sidney Callahan

      Yes I too think that emphasizing the positive in any situation is not really a matter of self-deceit. It is a conscious or semi-conscious habit ot directing attention at a possible outcome. The world is pretty open and unpredictable so my emphasizing the positive posibility may help that option become a reality. If nothing else I can usually take up an attitude to what is, as Viktor Frankl says.

  3. Jane gross

    Even a glass-half-empty person like myself – not hard-wired for happiness but with intelligence and survival instincts – adjusts to the inevitable diminshments of aging. One has less physical energy, less money, fewer career prospects — rail tho one might against it. Reality has a way of creeping up on you. Is that happiness? Or a grander state, joy? I think not. But it is a gradual comfort level with things as they are. And if that evolving comfort level — an appreciation of small pleasures and a sense of gratitude that things are not worse, boosts the immune system, dandy! I believe in young and old alike, we have an astonishing capacity to get used to what is; to deal with some measure of grace with circumstances that in the abstract we think would be beyond us. I hate being told to be happy, to feel what I do not feel and thus be labeled as a grouchy, negative person. Honor my disposition as something that doesn’t require fixing and I play the cards I’m dealt wisely and well. Isn’t that good enough?

    • Sidney Callahan

      Jane, playing your cards wisely is always a good thing. I also think happiness comes in many forms and manifestations. Joy and ecstasy is at one pole and contented peaceful at another–as with the ocean. Temperaments differ for sure.

  4. Jim Sabin

    Sidney’s post and Joanne and Jane’s comments will be very useful to me this spring in the required course on “Medical Ethics and Professionalism” at Harvard Medical School. We have a session on “truth telling,” in which the distinction between “self deception” and the ways of “framing” Joanne and Jane describe will be very useful to discuss. I love the examples Joanne gives and Jane’s advice that honoring her “disposition as something that doesn’t require fixing and I play the cards I’m dealt wisely and well.” In my psychiatric practice I tried to learn from the Brits who have a rich, non-medicalizing vocabulary for human variation – “odd duck” was one of my favorites.

  5. Sally

    As a retired chaplain, now volunteering at a Continuing Care Retirement Community I see both half-empty and half-full residents learning to cope with the realities they must face. I haven’t read Travers. What I can say is that resiliency in the face of diminishment and disease is a personal blend of: care by family, friends and professionals, cherished memories, “positive thinking”, faith, and a sense of humor. I hope if I live that long that I’ll be viewed as my Yankee grandparents might have respectfully phrased it, a “tough old bird”.

  6. Sidney Callahan

    I am biased toward playfulness and a sense of humor as a strategy for living. And while a tough old bird has its attractions I think i choose “a peppery old lady.”

  7. eileen beal

    Re the title of the article…not sure if self-deceit increases “happiness” but I’m pretty sure it increases contentment … and is responsible for the ability to parse/screen (figure out) what is and isn’t important.