Column: Lying to survive

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In this column Lying to Survive, I describe the evolutionary benefits of lying and discuss whether or not we could live in a society without lying.

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Humans have been lying for as long as we have been writing – probably longer. Deception is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, with many stories about Dolos (the spirit of trickery and guile) and Apate (the goddess of fraud and deceit). The most famous example may be the trickery and deception involved in invading Troy, when the Greeks pretended to give up on war, leaving a large wooden horse behind on shore that was presented as a peace offering. When the Trojans were fast asleep, the Greek men that were hidden in the Trojan horse snuck out and conquered Troy.

Lying is not just something of the past; people still lie. Although we like to think of ourselves as honest people, and although we usually judge lying negatively, experimental research has demonstrated that the majority of people lie on a daily basis. For example, in two one-week diary studies by DePaulo et al (1996), people lied on average once or twice a day during their everyday interactions. In total, participants lied to approximately a third of the people that they interacted with over the course of the week. Although we tend to lie more in conversations with people that we’ll see again in the future (Tyler & Feldman, 2004), we also lie when interacting with strangers that we most likely will not encounter again. In a 10-minute long conversation with a complete stranger, people tended to tell about two lies on average (Tyler et al., 2006). These studies demonstrate that deception is a standard component of people’s everyday interactions, and has been for as long as we are aware.

But solely demonstrating that people lie frequently does not prove that lying is a necessity: people constantly do things that aren’t per se necessary for their survival. In 1943, Maslow developed a hierarchy that describes how certain basic needs need to be fulfilled before one can attend to other needs higher up in the pyramid. The basic layer is made up of physical needs to ensure our survival, such as eating, breathing and sleeping, followed by layers covering activities that ensure feelings of safety, love and belonging, esteem and ultimately self-actualisation.

People can only attend to the needs in higher layers when the needs in the lower layers are fulfilled, so activities higher up in the pyramid will be less necessary than activities in the lower levels. One could argue that deception can occur in activities and interactions on all five levels. When living in extreme poverty, lying and stealing may become a way to ensure your family has enough to eat. Deception can occur to enhance feelings of security, for example when installing CCTV cameras that are not actually connected. Governments might deliberately decide not to disclose sensitive information about current security threats to prevent chaos and protect society. Deception also occurs in friendships and romantic relationships (Cole, 2001), ranging from social lies such as a husband who realises that there is no right answer to the question “do these trousers make me look fat?”, to the more selfish lies such as a partner who decides to conceal an affair.

Deception may be particularly prevalent within the esteem layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as enhanced self-presentation is an important motive for people to lie. Feldman et al. (2002) demonstrated that merely instructing people to appear likeable or competent in a conversation with a stranger, caused people to lie more than twice as much compared to people who did not receive such an instruction. The top layer of the pyramid comprises self-actualisation in areas such as creativity, morality and problem solving. A type of deception that is relevant in this personal development context is self-deception (Von Hippel & Trivers, 2011), or ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’. Our perceptions and beliefs have a strong effect on behaviour and performance. In other words, people’s beliefs can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy: convincing yourself or others that you are good at something, might actually help increase your performance.

Arguably, deception on all five layers can help survival and procreation. From deception to gain access to the basic needs for survival, to self-deception to increase success and the chance of starting relationships, and to deception as social glue to maintain those relationships: being a good liar might have evolutionary benefits. This hypothesis is supported by the occurrence of deception by animals and even plants. For example, a wide range of animals will behave as if to appear dead as a defense strategy. Both the use of camouflage (e.g. chameleon) and ‘playing dead’ can help animals to survive and increase the chances of procreation. The connection between survival and deception may explain why lying has occurred so persistently between species and over time.

It is hard to judge if lying is a real necessity in today’s society, but there definitely is evidence that deception has played a role in establishing what the world looks like today. The fact is that we live in a society where most people lie on a daily basis; from complete fabrications to ‘just’ concealments, told for social or for selfish reasons. If we would cold-turkey transfer from our current society to a society where no-one lies, chaos would occur and most relationships would probably not survive, because lying also serves a social function. Although lying is not necessarily a bad thing, in some scenarios lying is less acceptable and can cause danger to individuals or even to society at large. Therefore, context matters when judging the acceptability and necessity of lying. But who is to judge when lying is the right thing to do?

Reference list

Cole, T. (2001). Lying to the one you love. The use of deception in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18, 107-129.

DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkensol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 979-995.

Feldman, R. S., Forrest, J. A., & Happ, B. R. (2002). Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 24, 163-170.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-96.

Tyler, J. M. & Feldman, R. S. (2004). Truth, Lies, and Self-Presentation: How Gender and Anticipated Future Interaction Relate to Deceptive Behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 2602-2615.

Tyler, J. M., Feldman, R. S., & Reichert, A. (2006). The price of deceptive behavior: Disliking and lying to people who lie to us. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 69-77.

Von Hippel, W., & Trivers, R. (2011). The evolution and psychology of self-deception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34, 1-16.