False Courage: Why We Pretend We’re Stronger Than We Are

How the art of bluffing helps us stand tall.

Posted May 31, 2017

Seasoned gamblers advise that when the stakes are high and the poker chips are pushed in tall stacks to the center of the table, watch your opponent’s eyes for tell-tale signs of a bluff. 

Those who bluff successfully are masters—at least for the moment—of psychological manipulation, projecting a cool confidence when, in fact, only vulnerability lies beneath a thin veneer of apparent strength. 

Bluffing is a behavioral crapshoot because one never knows whether any given gambit is going to pay off, nor how richly.  In psychological parlance, the magnitude of reinforcement that results from a bluff is highly variable.  And, just as in a game of craps, so too are the stakes we are playing for. 

Successful deception can bail us out of awkward situations.  Spare the feelings of others.  Preserve or strengthen alliances.  Enhance social standing.  Keep us out of trouble.  Even save our lives.   

In fact, the evolutionary biology of cognition has honed deception into a valuable tool in the survival kit of nearly every species.  If in doubt, just click on a few YouTube links to see rats chasing cats with steely-eyed determination, or cats chasing dogs with a degree of bravado capable of reducing canines to a state of whimpering helplessness. 

A good bluff can turn the tides of fortune and upend expected outcomes. 

Some time ago, in a moment of desperation while walking my dog late at night, I was confronted by a wild-eyed man clearly under the influence of... well, something that just wasn’t right.  My options were limited.  There was no one else on the street and my back was against a literal wall.  I knew my dog, who greeted all comers with welcoming exuberance, would make a less-than-stellar protector.  So...

I took a deep breath, locked eyes with the wild man threateningly approaching me, and ran full tilt directly at him while bellowing incoherencies of my own at full volume. 

And guess what?

My wild-eyed companion stopped dead in his tracks, momentarily sobered by what appeared to be an imminent threat to his own well-being.  He shook his head in disbelief, declared me a “crazy [expletive]”, then turned on his heels and retreated into the night. 

Still trembling with the false courage of adrenaline, I turned to my companionable dog, shrugged my shoulders, and said, “Thanks for the assist.”

Bluffing, at its most sophisticated levels, takes practice.  Lucky for us humans, we get an early start. 

Studies have shown that human children begin practicing deception as early as six months of age through such attention-getting gambits as fake crying or laughter.  But we tend to only get really good at deception after another four years of studious practice. 

Lots goes on in those four years.  Outrageous, unbelievable deception goes gradually by the wayside as children learn what kinds of deception works, and when.  Observation and practice are required.  So too, it turns out, is a normally functioning prefrontal brain lobe, as studies of deception-challenged Parkinson’s patients have shown in recent years. 

We humans are hardly alone when it comes to braininess sufficient for mastering the art of the bluff.  Killdeer, a medium-sized shorebird that nests in shallow depressions on the ground, are masters of deception.

To protect eggs from predators, adult killdeer fake injuries by dropping one wing to the ground and dragging it convincingly along in order to lure hungry foxes and the like away from a threatened nest.  When the fox is far enough from the eggs, the killdeer springs into the air unharmed – giving new meaning to the term lunch on the fly.

In the underwater realm, life sometimes imitates the art of film when sharks and dolphins find themselves in close contact.  Despite the hulking size and fearsome toothiness of large shark species in comparison to dolphins, our mammalian cousins occasionally emerge victorious when the two animals square off in combat.

As intelligent social animals, however, dolphins often manage to avoid a fight through clever use of the bluff.  Dolphins have been known to use formidable speed to rush headlong at sharks, and then rely on superior agility to dart off to safety just out of reach of a shark’s deadly bite.  Sharks typically find the display unnerving, and often surrender the field entirely—leaving dolphins to carry the day with a bluff and a characteristic movie star grin.  Pretending we’re stronger than we really are leaves us all standing—or swimming—tall. 

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2017