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Why We Lie

The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind

David Livingstone Smith

St. Martin's Griffin

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ISBN10: 0312310404
ISBN13: 9780312310400

Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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Deceit, lying, and falsehoods lie at the very heart of our cultural heritage. Even the founding myth of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of Adam and Eve, revolves around a lie. We have been talking, writing and singing about deception ever since Eve told God, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." Our seemingly insatiable appetite for stories of deception spans the extremes of culture from King Lear to Little Red Riding Hood, retaining a grip on our imaginations despite endless repetition. These tales of deception are so enthralling because they speak to something fundamental in the human condition. The ever-present possibility of deceit is a crucial dimension of all human relationships, even the most central: our relationships with our very own selves.

Philosopher and evolutionary psychologist David Livingstone Smith elucidates the essential role that deception and self-deception have played in human—and animal—evolution and shows that the very structure of our minds has been shaped from our earliest beginnings by the need to deceive. Smith shows us that by examining the stories we tell, the falsehoods we weave, and the unconscious signals we send out, we can learn much about ourselves and how our minds work.

Readers of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker will find much to intrigue them in this fascinating book, which declares that our extraordinary ability to deceive others—and even our own selves—rests at the heart of our humanity.


Praise for Why We Lie

"This book is an exemplar of interdisciplinary research-drawing on evolutionary biology, cognitive science, philosophy, and history of science."—Ronald F. White, Ph.D., Choice

"Written with snap, panache, and the sort of insights that stop you in your tracks."—Howard Bloom, author of Global Brain and The Lucifer Principle

"Self-deception is one of the most powerful ideas in psychology, indeed, in human affairs, and David Smith's Why We Lie is an excellent synthesis of this crucial topic. The biology is up-to-date and accurate, the psychological implications are clearly worked out, and the writing is inviting and accessible."—Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate and The Language Instinct

"David Smith has pulled off a beaut. Why We Lie is a wonderfully blended cluster of arguments to support the painful truth that we are a species whose skills at deceiving others is matched only by our ability to deceive ourselves."—Arthur S. Reber, author of The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology

"A leap beyond mainstream science proposes how the unconscious mind could drive our everyday mastery of the art of deceit, both of others and ourselves . . . Deliciously tantalizing, with morality as the Grandest Deceit of them all."—Kirkus Reviews

"The brain, especially the unconscious mind, is the ultimate challenge for scientists and philosophers. Following the lead of Antonio Damasio and Diane Ackerman, Smith focuses on a particularly baffling trait, our proclivity for deception, not only our habit of lying to others but also, and far more mysteriously, the way we deceive ourselves. To show that lying is as natural as breathing, Smith presents a lively survey of the many forms of deception practiced by plants, insects, and animals. He then turns to Homo sapiens and offers cogent and provocative analysis of the link between increasingly complex societies, the evolution of the brain, and the need for 'social lies' in the interest of civility. This leads to eyebrow-raising speculation regarding the source of our habitual mendacity and psyche-protecting self-deception (the extent of which is truly astonishing), a facet of the unconscious that Smith calls 'Machiavellian intelligence,' and a convincing theory as to why it functions 'beyond the reach of introspection' . . . Smith's inquiry is stimulating and unsettling."—Donna Seaman, Booklist
"According to Smith, deception lies so deeply at the heart of our existence that we often cannot distinguish truth from lies in our everyday lives. Deception, he writes, is pervasive as we manage how others perceive us, from using cosmetics to lying on a job application; it is 'more often spontaneous and unconscious than cynical and coldly analytical.'"—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


Natural-Born Liars
Lying is universal--we all do it; we all must do it.
--Mark Twain

Mel dug furiously with her bare hands to extract the large succulent corm...

About the author

David Livingstone Smith

DR. DAVID LIVINGSTONE SMITH is the author of Why We Lie as well as a professor of philosophy and co-founder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England. He and his wife live in Portland, Maine.

David Livingstone Smith

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