When I first read Bob Triver's preface to The Selfish Gene, I was bowled over. It had never occurred to me that self-deception might be useful. Dick Alexander was pursuing similar ideas, and soon I found myself in long conversations at Michigan trying to connect these ideas with psychodynamics. At lunch an Animal Behavior Society meeting I mentioned that I was a psychiatrist, and the researcher I was talking to said, "Oh, so you know that we deceive ourselves so as to better deceive others.' What?! . At the banquet dinner that night, someone again asked what I did, and I again explained that I am a psychiatrist. And again I heard, "So, you already know all about how we have an unconscious to better deceive people." It was clearly time to take these ideas seriously.
It had long been clear to me that psychoanalysis is a theory of self-deception, but I was not going to go along easily with the cynical view that it was mainly to slyly deceive others in ways that resulted in increased reproductive success. After working on the problem for two years, and publishing the two papers, I concluded that capacities for repression and the ego defenses sometimes do facilitate deception, but I argued that such self-deception was as important to preserving delicate relationships as it is for manipulating others. I became convinced that the capacity for a psychodynamic unconscious and the ego defenses is not just an epiphenomenon, but an evolved adaptation. This can be viewed as a challenge to the core psychotherapeutic mission of bringing the unconscious into consciousness. But it is also clear that being able to recognize one's own distortions and defenses is hugely useful. Much more work needed to understand the evolutionary origins and functions of the dynamic unconscious and the ego defenses. This offers an opportunity to provide a solid biological foundation for studying psychodynamic phenomena .
Nesse RM, Lloyd, AT: The Evolution of Psychodynamic Mechanisms, in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Edited by Barkow J, Cosmides L and Tooby J. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, pp. 601-626, 1992.
Nesse RM: The evolutionary function of repression and the ego defenses. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis 18:260-286, 1990.