Consciousness and how it got to be that way

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Is underperformance in the presence of superiors a deceit strategy?

Humans often perform worse on tasks under pressure when in the presence of superiors. This is interesting because evolutionary psychology arguments can be made for the opposite effect (performing better in the presence of superiors). This effect is apparently not a voluntarily controllable one.

A study at John Moores University shows that other primates underperform on problem solving tasks in the presence of superiors - but interestingly, this experiment was designed to evince deception.

This study aimed to correlate monkey species' ability to deceive with the strictness of their social structures, and they did so (positively). One of the researchers argues that the less deceptive primates are more like humans, because their social groups are fluid - but that's only been true for a few millennia. Hunter-gatherers fifty thousand years ago would have found it much more difficult to decide to join a new foraging band because they didn't like the scene they were in. So, social group plasticity have been much lower for most of the history of our species, making the ability to deceive more important than these researchers might otherwise argue.

Furthermore, the smarter a species - that is, the better a problem-solver it is - the more important are its interactions with conspecifics, and the less important are its interactions directly with the environment. Who cares if you can forage for tubers - you're an entertainment lawyer! So not only the potential to, but the usefulness of, deception becomes greater in proportion to the intelligence of the animal.

This is not proof that underperformance in presence of superiors in humans is definitely an unconscious deceit strategy, but the existence of the behavior in other primates, along with its probable greater importance in humans, is reason for further investigation.

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