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The evolution of lying

Ultimately, our ability to convincingly lie to each other may have evolved as a direct result of our cooperative nature. Thus concludes the abstract of a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the Royal…

Is there a link between our cooperative nature and our love of lying? jinterwas

Ultimately, our ability to convincingly lie to each other may have evolved as a direct result of our cooperative nature.

Thus concludes the abstract of a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B that considers the evolution of “tactical deception” using a theoretic model and a comparative study of primates.

I’m interested to see how the news media handle this paper. Because the main conclusion - that lying is a way of exploiting others' cooperative behaviour - seems awfully obvious. But I suspect the true value of today’s paper is a bit more nuanced.

Cooperation evolves

Many species - most notably our own - have evolved quite extraordinary capacities to cooperate. We might take cooperation as an obvious facet of life, but long-term cooperative gain requires a willingness to put aside narrow self-interest in the short term. And that doesn’t evolve easily.

Cooperation makes it possible for some individuals to cheat, prospering off the cooperative efforts of others. Cooperate too readily and you might get taken for a ride. Cooperate only grudgingly and you don’t reap the benefits of working together.

Evolutionary biologists and economists find that even the simplest models of cooperation - such as the prisoner’s dilemma game, explained in the video below - can lead to complex rules about when an individual should cooperate and when it should try to cheat.

The prisoner’s dilemma.

Peer into the natural world, and the range of possible behavioural patterns that have evolved to fetter cheating and allow cooperation to flourish becomes even more complex.

In some species individuals reciprocate directly. Well-fed vampire bats regurgitate blood meals for starving bats that have helped them avoid starvation (also by regurgitating) in the past. Others reciprocate less directly.

A rat that has been helped by another rat, for example, is more likely to help a third individual to obtain food than is a rat that has not been helped before.

Captive vampire bats sharing food by regurgitation.

And in many animal societies, including bees, ants and naked mole rates, transgressions get punished and cooperative behaviour rewarded.

Humans do all these things too. They also share information - like gossip - and prefer to cooperate with those who have good reputations. This makes human cooperation almost infinitely complex.

Anthropologists go to great lengths to understand how reputations are earned and regulated. In one recent study a team embedded itself in a Dominican village for nearly two years and counted the number of prosocial acts each person engaged in, and how many people they helped.

Misleading others

The new model in the Royal Society B paper - based on the prisoner’s dilemma - suggests the evolution of cooperation led also to the evolution of lying.

To be precise, Luke McNally and Andrew L. Jackson of Trinity College in Dublin model the evolution of “tactical deception”, or “the misrepresentation of the state of the world to others”.

Rather than simply cheating - trying to gain from another’s cooperative behaviour without behaving cooperatively yourself - this model adds another way of operating. By misleading the other individual, one can trick that individual into cooperating.

In looking for an example, I keep returning to perhaps the only memorable line from Ricky Gervais' otherwise forgettable film The Invention of Lying: “The world’s gonna end unless we have sex right now!”.

The Invention of Lying - watch for the least forgettable line at 1.40, and the inevitable response.

In The Invention of Lying, Mark Bellison (Gervais' character) does so well out of his novel ability to lie precisely because the cooperative nature of the lie-free society he inhabits. Lying about the world in order to cheat works well if liars don’t get too common or too brazen. If they do, the whole cooperative edifice collapses.

NcNally and Jackson back up their modelling work with an analysis of primate species in which they show the more cooperative species also have higher rates of deception. It is the cooperation itself that permits the evolution of the liar.


This paper might seem a little obvious and more than a little simplistic. It certainly does to me. But models of this nature do a great service by putting our intuitions to the test. And they can later be developed and elaborated to illuminate more difficult questions.

I would like to see if it can help us understand the fine-scale tensions between cooperation and dishonesty in human affairs. There is a lot more to lying than simply misrepresenting the world.

The liar often deceives him or herself as well - possibly in order to put a more convincing gloss on the lie.

Neuroscientist Sam Harris recently published Lying, a short e-book arguing we can both simplify our own lives and build better societies by telling the truth in situations when we might be tempted to lie.

Harris doesn’t just mean the whoppers typical of fraudsters, philanderers and politicians. He is especially concerned with the “white” lies that many of us tell in order to spare others discomfort and the corrosive effects they have on societies.

Here’s what Ricky Gervais had to say about Sam Harris' book. Meta, dude! screenshot from

He seems to be advocating we try to build a lie-free world, such as the one in The Invention of Lying. But his suggestions go beyond a hopeful “We’d all be better off if we just told the truth. Mmmkay?”.

Harris gets bottom-up processes and the conflict between individual benefits and group functioning. His book is worth a read for his impassioned argument that each of us, as individuals, would benefit from resisting the urge to lie.

I’m not convinced. What would help right now is some theoretic and empirical evidence that showed the conditions under which Harris' prescriptions might work. And that’s the beauty of papers like today’s one from McNally and Jackson.

Irrespective, a better understanding of how lying evolves, no matter how simple, might do enormous social good.

For one thing it might help constrain the worst dishonesties in politics, public relations and propaganda.

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. ernest malley


    I have noticed deception/lying in the natural world, at least two species of birds on my land, Crested Pigeon & Magpie.
    I have seen quite sophisticated strategies to pretend to others that there is nothing edible which in fact they have hidden.
    On numerous occasions when the dominant Alpha was looming to nick something particularly delectable they would stash it (eg cheese) out of sight then peck around as if to say "nothing to eat here except this boring old seed".
    When the Alpha finds nothing worthy of their attention and moves away they maintain the pretence for extended periods until certain that it is safe then retrieve the hidden item.

    1. Nonie Jekabsons

      Tree Spotter at -

      In reply to ernest malley

      in our chicken pen there is a rooster. (sshh please don't tell the Ranger or we will be forced to "remove" him).
      Now one of the highlights of his day is to call the hens to his side and show off the tasty morsels of food he has discovered for them. He will pick up a piece and put it in front of a hen, clucking "here chook chook - look what I have for you"a couple of times, and if they are not looking he will just eat the food. It's a great performance as he takes credit for that provided by his human captors. In the wild I'm sure this would earn him a great flock, (unless rooster B was putting on a better performance) but it is both tragic and beautiful in a pen.

  2. Baron Pike

    logged in via Facebook

    I discovered a book which argues that lying has been essential to the survival and evolution of all biological forms and species.
    The Strategic Intelligence of Trust.
    Subtitle: Life, an Evolutionary Force of Nature.
    I found the introductory preview here.

  3. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    I don't believe any of this myself. I think they've made the whole thing up. People tell fibs? Really?

    Worse, we not only lie to others but we lie to ourselves! And I think there's a lot of that.

    I think I'd start out on this deceptively simple adventure with a detailed breakdown of what we actually mean by "lying" ... from the dismissive, gentle white lie - to reassure or to deflect criticism through to the sinful, deceitful, deliberate distortions of Truth and All Things Decent from…

    Read more
    1. John Doyle


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Well done, Peter!
      The link doesn't exist.

      I have been led to believe our brain evolved to it's present complexity precisely to be able to work with deceptions and truths and the like.
      After all most of our bodily workings don't need a big brain.
      Even from birth we lie to our children. We talk about Jesus, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, tooth fairies.
      Where in the spectrum does myth and legend fit?

    2. John Doyle


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Thanks, peter,
      A useful site.
      I did wonder, considering the article's brief that you might have been deliberately deceptive. Just the same, as the saying goes, "if is a toss up between a conspiracy or a stuff up, go for the stuff up every time"

  4. Amy McLennan

    DPhil student at University of Oxford

    Perhaps there is existing evidence of the interdependence of 'lying' and cooperation, or of the links between socially-acceptable deception and reciprocity? Ethnographic accounts of sharing and exchange frequently also document practices of hiding, concealing and deception. It is often difficult to find one without the other. For instance, look at Fred Myers' entertaining account of cigarette 'sharing' amongst the Pintupi, or Miriam Kahn's account of life amongst the Wamira, where many forms of what we might understand as 'white lies' were accepted elements of social life.
    With that in mind, I wonder what this sort of article -- and, as you suggest, the media response to it -- can also tell us about the moral economy of our own society?

  5. Lynne Newington


    Taking into account all of the above mentioned "species", nowhere has mental reservation been mentioned been mentioned, well I suppose rats etc can't be counted
    Wikipedia states it's a form of deception which is not an outright lie, and it warants mentioning considering as the art is well oiled today in certain religious circles used in matters of internal and often civil law cases.
    It also states it is unjustifiable without grave reason for withholding the truth and I suppose there would always be a good reason for using it, even under oath but not for us in the secular world .