Does Self-Deceit Increase Happiness in Old Age?

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.