The Nature of Deception in the Age of Coronavirus

Insights from animals can help us avoid being duped.

Posted Jul 17, 2020

This post was co-authored with B.N. Horowitz.

When white-crowned sparrows spot a Cooper’s hawk, they flee to the bushes to hide. But how long should they remain in sequestered safety? Stay too long without foraging and starve to death. Leave too soon, and be eaten. In the wild, it is impossible to eliminate all risks. Getting the balance right is the key to surviving.

As coronavirus and coronavirus panic spreads, our species faces a strikingly similar challenge. Like the sparrows, we must balance the safety benefits of sequestration (social isolation) against the risks of abandoning other crucial activities. How should we decide whether to "stay in the bushes" or resume "foraging"?

To accurately estimate risk and stay as safe as possible, humans and animals need the same invaluable resource: quality information. But across the animal kingdom, this can be hard to find. 

Many species send “all clear” calls to signal that a predator has gone. But can these be trusted? Alarm calls may accurately signal real danger. But individuals may also send out false information to deceive others, thereby benefiting themselves.

In the Kalahari desert, fork-tailed drongos, a small perching bird, gain the trust of neighboring starlings and meerkats by providing valuable alerts about nearby predators. But sometimes they exploit this trust, sending out false alarms, causing other animals to drop what they were eating and fly off. The drongo swoops in to feast on its duped neighbors’ food.

The exploitation of fear responses is a common strategy used by animals to gain an advantage over others. And our species is no exception. As numbers of coronavirus-infected humans rise, valuable "alarm calls" and dangerous "false alarm calls" can be difficult to differentiate. In the wild, an animal’s survival depends on its ability to wisely choose what information to accept and act upon and what to ignore. To stay safe, we must, too.

Here are three strategies animals use to tell the difference between high and lower quality information, which can help us do the same.

First, trust information from only from reliable sources. Research demonstrates that many species learn to ignore unreliable sources of information. Like the young shepherd boy in The Boy Who Cried Wolf, monkeys, squirrels, and some marmots with a track record of unreliable signaling are discounted by others.

The appearance of coronavirus miracle cures that have appeared on social media should be readily rejected by commonsense and baseline "buyer beware" skepticism. But even the reliability of traditionally trustable sources of information must be reexamined. When wearing masks becomes a political statement, or when scientific recommendations are influenced or watered down by political considerations, our trust is reduced. At a time when we most need reliable sources of information, this is especially damaging.

Second, trust information from sources who are vulnerable to the same dangers. In Colorado, mule deer listen to the alarm calls of very vocal yellow-bellied marmots, because they share similar predators. Many East African species respond to the alarm calls of white-bellied go-away birds—a true sentinel of the savannah—that warn other species of birds and mammals of shared approaching threats. All humans are presumably vulnerable to coronavirus infection. But because socioeconomic status influences the ability to socially distance and therefore reduce the risk level, considering the vulnerability level of the information source is crucial.

Finally, pay more attention to individuals with experience dealing with the present danger. Mature marmots and monkeys are less responsive to alarm calls from juveniles whose inexperience decreases the likelihood their information is accurate. Inexperience causes deadly overreactions and underreactions in fish, birds, and mammals. Experienced and knowledgeable individuals, such as scientists and public health officials rather than politicians, by contrast, should produce the most reliable information.

Our collective fear of the coronavirus at this moment is fueled more by what we don’t know than by what we do. Learning to ignore unsubstantiated reassurances (“all clear calls”) and inflammatory predictions (“false alarm calls”) and encouraging our politicians to base policy on the recommendations of experienced scientists and public health leaders is more than a way to manage fear and make better decisions. It is the species-spanning strategy for staying safe.

B. N. Horowitz, M.D., is a visiting professor in Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and Professor of Medicine-Cardiology at UCLA who studies the connections between human and animal health and development. She co-directs the Evolutionary Medicine program at the University of California Los Angeles, and co-authored Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health and, most recently, Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals.

References

When white-crowned sparrows spot a Cooper’s hawk they flee to the bushes to hide. 

Lima, S.L. 1990. Protective cover and the use of space: different strategies in finches. Oikos 58:151-158.

In the Kalahari desert, fork-tailed drongos, a small perching bird, gain the trust of neighboring starlings and meerkats by providing valuable alerts about nearby predators.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/5/140501-drongo-kalahari-desert-meerkat-mimicry-science/

Like the young shepherd boy in The Boy Who Cried Wolf, monkeys, squirrels and some marmots with a track record of unreliable signaling are discounted by others.

Blumstein, D.T., Verenyre, L., and J.C. Daniel. 2004. Reliability and the adaptive utility of discrimination among alarm callers. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 271:1851-1857. 

In Colorado, mule deer listen to the alarm calls of very vocal yellow-bellied marmots because they share similar predators.

Carrasco, M.F. and D.T. Blumstein. 2012. Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) respond to yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) alarm calls. Ethology 118:243-250.

Many East African species respond to the alarm calls of white-bellied go-away birds–a true sentinel of the savannah–that warns other species of birds and mammals of shared approaching threats.

Lea, A.J., Barrera, J.P., Tom, L.M., and D.T. Blumstein. 2008. Heterospecific eavesdropping in a nonsocial species. Behavioral Ecology 19:1041-1046. 

Mature marmots and monkeys are less responsive to alarm calls from juveniles whose inexperience decreases the likelihood their information is accurate.

Blumstein, D.T. 2007. The evolution, function, and meaning of marmot alarm communication. Advances in the Study of Behavior 37:371-400.