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Why You Lie Like an Ape

By Michael Mountain

Next time someone catches you telling a white lie, you can explain that it’s just part of your cooperative nature as one of the great apes.

After all, you can truthfully add, that’s the conclusion of a team of researchers who studied the development of cooperative behavior in 24 different kinds of primates, from lemurs to chimpanzees.

Image of a chimp with hand over face, laughing, and presumably having told a lie.

They concluded that the animals had developed the ability to lie and deceive in order to form coalitions, get food and find a mate:

Tactical deception, the misrepresentation of the state of the world to another individual, may allow cheaters to exploit conditional cooperation by tactically misrepresenting their past actions and/or current intentions.

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

As co-author Prof. Andrew Jackson, explains it, the more cooperation you find in a species, the more deception you’re going to find, too:

Our research shows that it pays to cooperate, it makes for a better society for people or animals to cooperate with one another.

But while everyone else is cooperating, there comes scope to deceive those who are going along with things. If everyone began to be deceitful and if there were more cheaters, it would not be a good scenario.

So, basically, a little cheating is all part of a cooperative society, but there comes a point at which it begins to destroy the social bonds that hold the society together.

We found that when we, as people, decided to co-operate, things got better, but then deceitful behavior within others came out ā€“ but ultimately society breaks down when there are too many deceitful people.

Luke McNally, the other author of the study, commented that deception is rife all across the animal world.

“It occurs in some spiders where males give worthless nuptial gifts to potential mates,” he said. “It can occur in bacteria where they over-produce signals to elicit co-operation from others. It’s even been shown to evolve in robots. Our theory suggests that cooperation probably evolves before deception, but deception will follow hot on its heels.”

The full study is here.

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