We say it’s wrong. We use euphemistic terms like “white lie” or “fibbing” to ease our guilt. We superstitiously cross our fingers behind our backs, as if to somehow suspend the rules and judge ourselves on the right side of communicative fair play.
And, oh, the tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive. Like that line? I made it up myself. Just now. Honest.
If lying creates such headaches, then why do we do it? Because, let’s face it, we just can’t seem to help ourselves. It turns out that where lying is concerned, the cards are stacked against us, both by behavioral conditioning as well as by cognitive evolutionary biology.
Behavior first. Who among us doesn’t love the thrill of a crap shoot? Especially when the stakes are high. Win or lose, all or nothing. We roll the dice and reap our reward – sometimes. If we win, more often than not, we roll again. And if we lose – you guessed it – we roll again anyway most of the time.
That’s because a crap game keeps us almost irresistibly hooked by its very nature – and by ours. Payoffs are unpredictable, delivered on what is known as a variable schedule of reward. Precisely the kind of schedule that most strongly maintains any learned behavior.
Lying works the same way.
We never know whether any given lie is going to pay off. It’s like Forrest Gump’s mama always says about boxes of chocolates: “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Not only that, but lying has another form of variability built into it as well – a variable magnitude of reinforcement – because when we lie, the stakes we are playing for vary as well. And widely so.
Lying can bail us out of awkward situations. Spare the feelings of others. Preserve or strengthen alliances. Enhance social standing. Keep us out of trouble. Even save our lives.
Which brings us to the evolutionary biology of cognition because lying is, in fact, a valuable tool in the survival kit of any social species. Just ask Koko, the sign language-speaking gorilla, who once tore a kitchen sink out of a wall.
Oops. Landlord’s gonna hate that.
To get out from under, Koko metaphorically threw her pet kitten under the bus, slyly signing to questioning trainers the explanation, “Cat did it.”
Koko’s trainers didn’t buy it. Go figure.
And that, of course, is one of the problems with lying. Getting good at it takes practice. Lucky for us, we get an early start.
Studies have shown that human children begin practicing deception as early as six months of age through such attention-getting gambits as fake crying or laughter. But we tend to only get really good at lying – that is, at lying convincingly – after another four years of studious practice.
Lots goes on in those four years.
Outrageous, unbelievable lies gradually go by the wayside as children learn what kinds of lies work and when. Observation and practice are required. So too, it turns out, is a normally functioning prefrontal brain lobe, as studies of deception-challenged Parkinson’s patients have shown in recent years.
Interestingly, primate species aren’t alone when it comes to braininess sufficient for mastering the art of the bluff. Killdeer, a medium-sized shorebird that nests in shallow depressions on the ground, are masters of deception.
To protect eggs from predators, adult killdeer fake injuries by dropping one wing to the ground and dragging it convincingly along in order to lure hungry foxes and the like away from a threatened nest. When the fox is far enough from the eggs, the killdeer springs into the air unharmed – giving new meaning to the term lunch on the fly.
Unlike Koko, some non-human liars even manage to give us bipedal folk a real run for our money, as I learned while training dolphins for the U.S. Navy.
Military dolphins are trained to detect submerged mines as well as enemy divers. Either task requires the animals to patrol beneath the surface well away from the prying eyes of their trainers, and then report back. Threat absent or threat present. And guess what? Sometimes, the dolphins lie.
By the time military dolphins are fleet-active and ready to be of assistance in combat operations, their lying days are generally well behind them, thanks to careful positive reinforcement training by their human handlers.
But early in the course of a dolphin’s detection training, the animal often develops a bias toward reporting the presence, rather than absence, of a target. Only natural since those responses earn heavy fish rewards while the dolphin is still learning that finding targets is worth its while.
At first, every correct positive response – target present – is heavily reinforced. A fixed schedule of reward, the most effective schedule to promote the learning of a new behavior.
Once the dolphin has learned its task, trainers turn the dolphin’s efforts into a crap shoot by switching from a fixed schedule of reward to a variable one.
Sometimes, correctly reporting the absence of a target earns just as much reward as correctly reporting a target’s presence. Sometimes not. Sometimes a flood of fish snacks is involved when payoff time comes around, at other times only a trickle.
Like Forrest’s mama always says, “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
And so from deception comes reliability – at least in dolphins. Most of us humans, though, bear out the veracity of Mark Twain’s statement that people are never more truthful than when acknowledging ourselves as liars.
Copyright © Seth Slater, 2013