Homo Consumericus

The nature and nurture of consumption

Self-Deception on American Idol… Is It Adaptive?

The Darwinian roots of self-deception on American Idol.

American Idol is now in its eight season. In my opinion, the show is only interesting in the early parts of a given season wherein horrifyingly bad auditioners take to the front stage. Two common outcomes typically follow a poor performance: (1) a humorous and at times slightly nasty comment from Simon Cowell, the sharp-tongued British panel judge; (2) the utter surprise that such auditioners display once they receive the judges' feedback regarding their dreadful singing skills.

What can explain the extraordinary miscalibration between the auditioners' perceived talents and the objective reality? I venture three possibilities: (1) their families and friends never provide them with accurate feedback. Rather, they are constantly bombarded with "yes you can" messages (Mr. Obama's feel-good mantra). Hence, they end up being exposed strictly to positive feedback thus yielding their erroneous sense of self; (2) overconfidence is an endemic self-perceptual bias that has been documented in countless settings and domains. Ask 100 professors whether their scientific work is below average, average, or above average (as compared to relevant colleagues), and you'll find that 90% will place their work in the above average category! The ubiquity of the overconfidence bias suggests that it might serve as a catalyst for undertaking challenging endeavors. One might never get out of bed were it not for the "overconfidence wind" that serves to push the sails of ones' life forward! (3) the brilliant evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has argued that self-deception is rooted in an adaptive mechanism. Specifically, humans have always had to navigate through a maze of complex social interactions. Part of the driving force behind the evolution of the human brain is the need to be Machiavellian in how one handles others. This creates the classic evolutionary arms race between the evolution of Machiavellian strategies when interacting with others, and the counter force of detecting such strategies in others when they are interacting with us. Trivers argued that self-deception is in part an adaptation to the latter counter force. In other words, self-deception minimizes the likelihood that others will be able to detect one's duplicitous intent, as it removes any outwardly cues of inner conflict.

As I quote in chapter 5 of my book (The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption) wherein I tackle countless products of popular culture using an evolutionary lens (e.g., soap opera themes, movie storylines, song lyrics, music videos, self help books, religious narratives, art), George Costanza, the deceitful friend of Jerry Seinfeld explains the ways by which one can become a great liar: "Jerry, just remember, it's not a lie if you believe it." There you have it folks. Seinfeld meets Darwin yet again!

Bottom line: the extraordinary self-deceptions (if not delusions) exhibited by many of the American Idol contestants are likely rooted in several adaptive processes.

Source for Image:
http://www.tvblanket.com/image/american_idol_tv_show.JPG

Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing at Concordia University and author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.

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