Freud endorsed an erroneous, Non-Darwinian version of evolution theory (involving Lamarckian inheritance and the biogenetic law) that doomed many of his psychoanalytic hypothesis from the outset. (Frank J. Sulloway) Defense mechanisms are based on the following, obsolete model of human nature:

Freud's World

Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, described ten different defense mechanisms used by the ego. “Denial” is probably one of the best known defense mechanisms, used often to describe situations in which people seem unable to face reality or admit an obvious truth (i.e. “He’s in denial.”). To critical thinkers, “denial” is just a relabeling of “situations in which people seem unable to face reality.” To critical thinkers, “denial” has no explanatory value.

“Denial” is now an obsolete term. An index search of my evolutionary psychology library (24 volumes) finds no reference to the term “denial” (see my library list on the end). However, “Freudian Defense Mechanisms” were mentioned in Pinker’s HOW THE MIND WORKS.

Pinker explains that the modern scientific explanation is “completely different” than Freud’s. The modern answer is that people are lying when they offer technical arguments against climate change. Climate change (both sides) is all about politics

[pp. 421-423, HOW THE MIND WORKS, Steven Pinker, 1997]


The playwright Jerome K. Jerome once said, “It is always the best policy to tell the truth, unless, of course, you are an exceptionally good liar.” It’s hard to be a good liar, even when it comes to your own intentions, which only you can verify. Intentions come from emotions, and emotions have evolved displays on the face and body. Unless you are a master of the Stanislavsky method, you will have trouble faking them; in fact, they probably evolved because they were hard to fake. Worse, lying is stressful, and anxiety has its own telltale markers. They are the rationale for polygraphs, the so-called lie detectors, and humans evolved to be lie detectors, too. Then there is the annoying fact that some propositions logically entail others. Since some of the things you say will be true, you are always in danger of exposing your own lies. As the Yiddish saying goes, a liar must have a good memory.

Trivers, pursuing his theory of the emotions to its logical conclusion, notes that in a world of walking lie detectors the best strategy is to believe your own lies. You can’t leak your hidden intentions if you don’t think that they are your intentions. According to his theory of self-deception, the conscious mind sometimes hides the truth from itself the better to hide it from others. But the truth is useful, so it should be registered somewhere in the mind, walled off from the parts that interact with other people. There is an obvious similarity to Freud’s theory of the unconscious and the defense mechanisms of the ego (such as repression, projection, denial, and rationalization), though the explanation is completely different. George Orwell stated it in 1984: “The secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with a power to learn from past mistakes.”

The neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has shown that the brain blithely weaves false explanations about its motives. Split-brain patients have had their cerebral hemispheres surgically disconnected as a treatment for epilepsy. Language circuitry is in the left hemisphere, and the left half of the visual field is registered in the isolated right hemisphere, so the part of the split-brain person that can talk is unaware of the left half of his world. The right hemisphere is still active, though, and can carry out simple commands presented in the left visual field, like “Walk” or “Laugh.” When the patient (actually, the patient’s left hemisphere) is asked why he walked out (which we know was a response to the command presented to the right hemisphere), he ingenuously replies, “To get a Coke.” When asked why he is laughing, he says, “You guys come up and test us every month. What a way to make a living!”

Our confabulations, not coincidentally, present us in the best light. Literally hundreds of experiments in social psychology say so. The humorist Garrison Keillor describes the fictitious community of Lake Wobegon, “where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Indeed, most people claim they are above average in any positive trait you name: leadership, sophistication, athletic prowess, managerial ability, even driving skill. They rationalize the boast by searching for an aspect of the trait that they might in fact be good at. The slow drivers say they are above average in safety, the fast ones that they are above average in reflexes.

More generally, we delude ourselves about how benevolent and how effective we are, a combination that social psychologists call beneffectance. When subjects play games that are rigged by the experimenter, they attribute their successes to their own skill and their failures to the luck of the draw. When they are fooled in a fake experiment into thinking they have delivered shocks to another subject, they derogate the victim, implying that he deserved the punishment. Everyone has heard of “reducing cognitive dissonance,” in which people invent a new opinion to resolve a contradiction in their minds. For example, a person will recall enjoying a boring task if he had agreed to recommend it to others for paltry pay. (If the person had been enticed to recommend the task for generous pay, he accurately recalls that the task was boring.) As originally conceived of by the psychologist Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance is an unsettled feeling that arises from an inconsistency in one’s beliefs.

But that’s not right: there is no contradiction between the proposition “The task is boring” and the proposition “I was pressured into lying that the task was fun.” Another social psychologist, Eliot Aronson, nailed it down: people doctor their beliefs only to eliminate a contradiction with the proposition “I am nice and in control.” Cognitive dissonance is always triggered by blatant evidence that you are not as beneficent and effective as you would like people to think. The urge to reduce it is the urge to get your self-serving story straight.

Evolutionary Psychology
Name Author Date
Bounded Rationality Gerd Gigerenzer 2002
Cognitive Illusions Rudiger F. Pohl 2004
Darwin Dominance & Democracy Albert Somit, Steven A. Peterson 1997
Evolution and Social Psychology Mark Schaller, et al. 2006
Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience Steven M. Platek, et al. 2007
Evolutionary Psychology Lance Workman, Will Reader 2008
Evolutionary Psychology Steven J. C. Gaulin, Donald H. McBurney 2004
Evolutionary Psychology David M. Buss 1999
Evolutionary Psychology David M. Buss 2008
Evolutionary Psychology David M. Buss 2004
Evolutionary Thought in Psychology Henry Plotkin 2004
Genes in Conflict Austin Burt, Robert Trivers 2006
Genetic Influences on Neural and Behavioral Functions Donald W. Pfaff et al 2000
Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology Charles Crawford, Dennis L. Krebs 1998
How the Mind Works Steven Pinker 1997
Human Evolutionary Psychology Louise Barrett, et al. 2002
Human Nature Laura Betzig 1997
Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter M. Todd 1999
The Biology of Religious Behavior Jay R. Feierman 2009
The Blank Slate Steven Pinker 2002
The Evolution of Mind Denise Dellarosa Cummins 1998
The Evolution of Mind Steven Gangestad, Jeffery A. Simpson 2007
The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology David M. Buss 2005
The Most Dangerous Animal David Livingston Smits 2007