What's With All the Lying?

Looking at lying across species helps explain what we are seeing in humans.

Posted Aug 31, 2020

We hear a lot about lying these days.  Politicians saying whatever they need to get elected.  Business people saying whatever to make a profit.  Criminals insisting they did not commit the crimes they were caught doing.  Even actors and community leaders lie to keep their positive public image.

It seems that lying is more pervasive these days than it ever has.  But whether that is the case or not is up for debate.  There just may be more reasons to hear about lying or to find out if someone is lying.  When you have social media and multitudes of news networks around there are many more opportunities to catch people in mistruths.  There may just be more ways that we find out if humans are “lying” or “not being fully honest” (which are not the same things) then there used to be.

One way to consider the prevalence of lying is to consider if it exists for all animal species.  Reasons for humans to lie (for example, getting out of trouble or keeping a positive image) have been around for as long as humans have existed in social groups.  But other animals have been in social groups for much longer than humans.  Has lying been an issue with those animals as well?  If so, then how long has lying been around?

When you review studies on animals you find that lying (or being “deceitful”) has been around for as long as any animal species have been in social groups.  This has been known for some time.  What has been found relatively recently is that animals will be deceitful to members of their own species.  Previous research emphasized that animals would use deceit (what we refer to as “lying”) to protect themselves from predators.  What it was used for, or what we thought it was primarily used for, was to protect members of one species from members of another species.

More recent animal research shows that animals will use lying about their intentions to trick members of their own species.  This might be used to get a better partner, to get more food, or to otherwise obtain a higher spot in a group’s hierarchy.  It is used as a way of benefiting one member of a species even if it means deceiving another member of the species.  This is a somewhat different way of thinking about “lying” in the animal kingdom.  Tricking one member of an animal’s group to benefit that member, even if it means putting another member at a disadvantage, is more in line with what we think of when it comes to “lying”.  It just had not been the way nonhuman animals were thought to behave.

Considering lying, along with other behaviors we might consider to be immoral, is an interesting topic covered in recent research and academic works.  This includes the book chapter “Immoral-like Behavior in Animals” written by David Steinberg and included in a book on morality and ethics published this year (see below reference).  Reading this chapter is a reminder that nonhuman animals face issues with many of the same behaviors that cause difficulties in human social groups.  It is useful to keep this in mind when recognizing that human and nonhuman animals are equally complex and multi-layered in how they treat members of their own species.

But when we consider the term “lying”, and how it exists in the animal and the non-animal world, it is also useful to note that it actually does not occur that often.  Being deceitful about intentions or behaviors might be something animals do on occasion to put them in a better spot for survival.  But doing this takes a lot of energy and effort that it is often not worth the cost.  It is similar to how we humans will say that lying is “not worth it” because “then you have to remember what lie you told and tell another lie to explain the first lie”.  Similarly, an animal who might deceive other members of its group about where it found food so that it can have food for its own survival, then has to remember where it actually found the food while deceiving others.

Humans use the term “lying” for a lot of situations that might not actually be total deception.  “Lying” is a term for telling something that is completely false to obtain a desired outcome.  It does not include disagreement about interpretations or lack of context.  Telling a lie also does not fully cover situations where shared material supports a point but material not supporting the point is left out.  Lies are totally, or almost totally, false and typically have a specific purpose of deceiving another individual (as opposed to getting them to change their point of view or at least consider another person’s point of view).

Psychologists run into this all the time.  Parents will insist their child is “lying” when they say that they are “mean” to them.  But that child might make very clear, when interviewed separately from their parents, that their parents are actually “mean” towards them sometimes.  Now, it may be that the child has acted in a way that they warrant a negative (or “mean”) statement from the parent.  But that is a difference of interpretation and/or context, not a definite lie. 

This sort of difficulty can cause family conflicts that last for decades or even a whole life, where a child insists that their parent did not show love and the parent insists that this is a “lie” and that they were, in fact, “loving”.  This can go on for many years even when outside observers, including therapists working with the family members, recognize that the disagreement is what each of them mean by the term “showing love”.  It is a difference of terminology and not either person telling a “lie”.

When considering why there seems to be pervasive “lying” these days, it might be useful to consider how much of it is actually “lying”.  How much of it is completely making information up to present a narrative that benefits the person?  Is it actually that, or is it a difference of opinion?  Or is the person seeing things in a different context?  Or is it possible that they just came to a different conclusion about what a certain set of facts mean?  Could it also be that the person is telling the truth about part of a situation but just conveniently leaving out the other parts? 

“Lying” is a serious term that tends to bring discussions to a halt.  If you can accuse someone of “lying” then you have essentially taken away all validity to their argument.  But if the person is using a different context, or has come to a different conclusion than you, then that means that you will have to work harder to reach some sort of agreement.  And that can be tougher than just invalidating the other person’s perspective.  In this way, using the term “lying” can just seem easier than trying to have an actual conversation with another person to understand their point of view.

Animals “lie” and have done so since there has been any sort of social groups.  And they do it usually for survival.  But they do not do it that often.  Humans, also, probably lie a lot less often than they are accused of.  Using the term “lying” might be more often used for convenience rather than accuracy.

References

Steinberg, D. (2020). Immoral-like Behavior in Animals. In The Multidisciplinary Nature of Morality and Applied Ethics (pp. 37-44). Springer, Cham.Steinberg, D. (2020). Immoral-like Behavior in Animals. In The Multidisciplinary Nature of Morality and Applied Ethics (pp. 37-44). Springer, Cham.