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 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.

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