How Did Humans Learn To Lie?

The movie The Invention Of Lying depicts an alternate reality where humans never developed the ability to tell porkies. It was a bit rubbish really (especially if you hate Ricky Gervais), but the film’s premise does put forward an interesting question: just what caused the origin of our species’ ability to deceive? A new study points an accusatory finger at an opposing human trait — cooperation.

Female Pinocchio picture from Shutterstock

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Trinity College in Dublin studied the relationship between cooperation mechanisms and complex cheating strategies. Their results found a clear correlation between conditional cooperation and deception:

Using a simple theoretical model and a comparative analysis of non-human primates we show that the ability to deceive others can be selected for by the evolution of conditional cooperation (e.g. reciprocity). Our analyses suggest this Machiavellian element of human behaviour may be a direct product of one of our most beneficent traits: our tendency to seek mutual cooperative relationships.

According to the researchers, the relationship between these two traits can be traced back to cooperative individuals receiving more cooperation, less punishment and/or more rewards than cheaters, thus giving them a fitness advantage.

Prehistoric cheats subsequently learned that by misdirecting a social partner’s attention or misrepresenting their past actions or current intentions, they could circumvent enforcement mechanisms and gain a fitness benefit themselves. In other words, deception co-evolved with cooperation and would not exist without it.

The report concludes that studying the evolution of deception in the context of social interactions could provide a key window into the origins of the balance between cooperation and Machiavellian capabilities.

Our results suggest that the evolution of conditional strategies may, in addition to promoting cooperation, select for astute cheating and associated psychological abilities. Ultimately, our ability to convincingly lie to each other may have evolved as a direct result of our cooperative nature.

Cooperation creates selection for tactical deception [Royal Society of Biological Sciences]

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