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When Honesty Isn't the Best Policy

kenglander's picture
    George Washington’s renowned quote, “I cannot tell a lie,” sets him in a league of his own. Either that or he, like the rest of us, was a liar (and lying about lying). Whether tactical or innate, a wide variety of species, from plants to humans, are notorious for their deceptive qualities and actions. One might question why we have not developed a heightened awareness for detecting dishonesty. The truth is that we like to be deceived and we engage in acts of deception frequently (1). Lying—be it the telling of little white lies or whoppers of fish tales—can be advantageous to an individual and thus has become a practice that has flourished across cultures and species. Under these circumstances, one might heed the adage that “looks can be deceiving” over “honestly is the best policy.”
Particular individuals might imagine that they are the greatest deceivers of all time—after all, magicians, con artists, lawyers, and a host of other professions make a living off of lying, deceiving, or “spinning the truth.” While the lies and deception that these “professionals” engage in may grow increasingly elaborate and technologically involved, these people seem to be unaware of all the mimics, cheaters, and deceivers that populate the natural world. As it turns out, other species have relied on deceiving others—both within and between species. For example, peppered moths, sargassum fish, horned lizards, chameleons, and octopi all use camouflage as a way to escape predators (2, 3). Mimicry is another form of deception in which one species (the mimic) resembles another species (the model). The model is a species that is unpalatable to a particular predator (the operator) such that the operator avoids eating the model. Since the mimic resembles the model, the operator also avoids eating the mimic, thus the mimic benefits by evolving towards the model, which is known as advergence. The mimicry tactic is also utilized by a variety of species including butterflies, fireflies, and certain plant species (2).  These forms of automatic deception tend to benefit the organisms by allowing them to act as imposters—as either part of the environment or similar to another organism. This increases the likelihood that predators using camouflage or mimicry can catch prey unawares while prey that use mimicry or camouflage are more likely to avoid being caught by predators.
Of course, there are also tactical, or intentional, forms of deceit that are employed by humans and other primates (2). These incidents tend to be anecdotal (1, 2), but that does not invalidate their legitimacy. Rather, they might provide specific instances of when animals needed to rely on more than their appearances to increase evolutionary fitness. Intentional deception can be learned in an operant fashion (4) such that the organism performs a particular act of deception because the action elicits some sort of desired contingent response or because the organism has had some positive or negative interaction with the stimulus and either seeks to recreate or avoid it based on the appetitive or aversive nature of the stimulus. Planned lying is another form of intentional deceit in which the organism deliberately misleads another. This may serve as a way to mask hidden resources (i.e. a chimp who acts as if buried food is not present while around other chimps, but will dig it up and eat it when alone (2, 4)), provide self-protection (i.e. lying while on the witness stand at a jury to protect oneself from jail time), or elicit particular behaviors from another organism (i.e. a baboon elicits a false attack call to ward off other baboons and eats any food dropped by those baboons (2)). In addition, some species seem to engage in alloparental care—when non-relatives of an organism will compete to care for offspring—which could be grounded in deceiving the cared-for organism to help the caretaker in the future based on perceived (but incorrect) ties of kinship (5). This theory suggests that species outside of the human race are capable of long-term deception that will yield future rewards at the cost of present resources and time. In other words, different species engage in reciprocal altruism—the act of helping one organism by expending particular resources under the common understanding that the organism that was helped will reciprocate in the future by engaging in some costly act to help the first organism.  
Given the evidence, it is surprising that various species have not developed keener awareness of when they are being duped. Humans are certainly not walking lie detectors, and this may affect why we seem to deceive so frequently—especially through planned deception. The average college student tells two lies per day while an average community member told one lie a day (1). These lies, while mostly fibs, often go undetected and may help us escape from mentally or physically dangerous situations. We as humans seem to have entered into a situation in which we deceive under a set of social conditions (6). The motto: “grin and bear it,” for example, seems to be supported by our society. As the economic crisis in America continues, many business people are being laid off from work, but continue to dress the part. This keeping up of appearances seems to act as a defense mechanism by protecting the individual’s pride and thus providing some sort of reason for perseverance (7). By putting up a false front, one is capable of managing other’s perceptions and impressions of oneself. This can have a “top-down effect” on the individual’s mood thus providing a sort of emotional survival tactic. It seems, therefore, that telling lies is, in this sense, similar to reciprocal altruism, which is why we allow it to continue in society. If we believe that everyone lies at some point, we might let someone else lie now (especially if there are minimal consequences for the lie) under the expectation that they will believe a lie that we tell in the future. With all the personal benefits that can be reaped from deceiving, one might wonder why we ever tell the truth. While slightly counterintuitive, we rely on the idea that people do tell the truth and do so frequently—a balance between truth and lies must be established to fit the social constructs such that the lies match the recipient’s current observations as well (6). Furthermore, repercussions for being caught in a lie can be severe and not worth the risk, which may inhibit an individual from deceiving others more habitually.
Based on the perceived effectiveness and convenience of deceiving—specifically intentional deception—one must consider how we lie; that is, whether we learn to lie based on societal standards or if our brains are programmed to accommodate lying. Recently, studies involving functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) have attempted to understand neural pathways that underlie planned deception in humans. Researchers have found that the “neural signatures” of lying and truth-telling are quite different (8, 9) and that the type of lie—spontaneous or well-rehearsed (9). The anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortex are implicated in both studies while other regions of the brain (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (8), parahippocampal gyrus, right precuneus, and left cerebellum (9)) are specifically activated in their respective studies. Both research teams hypothesize that the structures are responsible for heightened awareness and monitoring of responses to ensure that responses are cohesive and consistent thus reducing the likelihood of being detected by others (8). Well-rehearsed memories also show greater activation of brain regions implicated in memory activation. This makes sense given that a well-rehearsed lie must be able to fit with the rest of the memory.
Conscious and intentional deceit is likely to involve the I-function as it requires an awareness of one’s surroundings and an analysis of the possible costs and benefits of deceiving another. In the case of a well-rehearsed lie, an individual must be capable of reworking memories to suit the deception (or at least verbally capable of creating these false memories). Given the range of brain structures implicated in the fMRI studies as well, we see that deception involves a number of coordinated calculations and processes to occur simultaneously. If we are capable of manipulating our memories, what implications does deception hold for the I-function and our notions of objectivity? In other words, if we are capable of consciously overwriting our memories and verbally creating a novel scenario is it possible that any of observations are truly unbiased? If we are aware that we have told a lie, how do two competing pathways (the lie and the truth) affect one another, if at all? Can fMRI or other brain imaging techniques aid us in solving these questions?  While neural imaging is helpful in understanding the communication between brain regions and provides a visual image of the symphonies created by the brain, its actual utility in this particular scenario is limited. As we continue to struggle for objectivity and eliminate confounding variables, we must remember that deception defies these parameters and relies specifically on the I-function and its ability to manipulate our and others’ interpretations of input. Thus, rather than asking, “what is the truth?” one must ask, “how can we expect to seek out truth when, in fact, our perceptions of reality and nature might be one big lie?”

Works Cited
1.    Angier, N. (2008, December 23). A Highly Evolved Propensity for Deceit. The New York Times. Retrieved from
2.    Bond Jr., C. F. & Robinson, M. (1988). The Evolution of Deception. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 12(4), 295-307.
3.    Zimmer, C. (2006, December 26). Devious Butterflies, Full-Throated Frogs and Other Liars. The New York Times. Retrieved from
4.    Heilmann, M. F. Social evolution and social influence: selfishness, deception, self-deception. Retrieved from
5.    Connor, R. C. & Curry, R. L. (1995). Helping non-relatives: a role for deceit?. Animal Behaviour, 49, 389-393.
6.    Covacio, S. (2003). Misinformation: Understanding the Evolution of Deception. Informing Science, 663-670.
7.    Carey, B. (2009, April 7). When All You Have Left is Your Pride. The New York Times. Retrieced from
8.    Kozel, F. A., Johnson, K. A., Mu, Q., Grenesko, E. L., Laken, S. J. & George, M. S. (2005). Detecting Deception Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Biological Psychology, 58, 605-613.
9.    Ganis, G., Kosslyn, S. M., Stose, S., Thompson, W. I. & Yurgelun-Todd, D. A. (2003). Neural Correlates of Different Types of Deception: An fMRI Investigation. Cerebral Cortex, 13, 830-836.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Deception and lying

That deception can occur without intentionality is an important point to emphasize.  So too is the idea that "our perceptions of reality and nature might be one big lie"  Given the two together what do we actually mean by "lying" and what kinds of brain imaging studies might help us better understand it?