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Why Are We So Honest?

Understanding our human origins is the key to understanding our truthfulness.

My research on deception has made it clear that there are some really big liars out there. These people seem to deal primarily in untruths.

Fortunately, though, we can take solace in the fact that most people are honest most of the time. In one large meta-analysis that examined deception across numerous studies, the researchers found that people are, for the most part, honest. Despite obvious cases of pathological liars that make the headlines in politics, business, and elsewhere, people seem to largely stay on the straight and narrow, speaking the truth.

In my own studies, when I’ve asked people to anonymously report the number of lies they’ve told in the past 24 hours, the most common response is zero. This finding that people are mostly honest perplexed me at first. Why, when lying might provide people excellent opportunities to get ahead, conceal their failures, and get what they want, do people remain honest most of the time?

Naturally Honest?

Our natural proclivity toward honesty seems to be part of our fundamental human nature. Think about it. How often are you skeptical that those around you are lying? Unless you are unlucky enough to have a big liar in your life, the veracity of someone’s words, whether they be a coworker, sibling, lover, or neighbor, probably rarely comes to mind. We tend to trust. We are generally honest, and we believe that others are generally honest, too.

Vagawi/Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0
Source: Vagawi/Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0


Central to understanding the puzzle of human honesty is to view humans as a social species. We live in groups, cooperatively working toward goals, rearing offspring together, and helping each other out when in need. Our tendency to help others remains intact even when it might come at a cost to ourselves. We choose to do things that support social harmony. We call this prosociality.

But one must wonder why we would have evolved a tendency toward prosociality when Machiavellian approaches such as manipulation, exploitation, and deception would seem to be more personally profitable. Why are we cooperative rather than selfish?

Evolutionary theorists argue that altruism is part of our human nature precisely because it offers more benefits than selfishness. What this means is that, over long stretches of human history, those who were cooperative and trustworthy were much more likely to survive and produce offspring than those who schemed, lied, and manipulated. Being prosocially honest was more adaptive than being Machiavellian.

Punish the Liars

An important key to understanding the adaptive power of honesty and prosociality is understanding what happens when people don’t cooperate. Evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists have found compelling evidence that humans cannot easily survive without the help of each other.

Researchers have studied people who still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, much like all of our human ancestors did prior to the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals a bit over 10,000 years ago. By analyzing forager-hunters such as the Hadza people of Tanzania, researchers have discovered that these tribal people, much like our Paleolithic ancestors, would often be left helpless by illnesses and injuries. Only with the cooperative help of others in the tribe are these injured and ill individuals able to survive.

Additionally, when individuals in the tribe set out to hunt animals or gather food, they are not always successful. By cooperating and treating food as communal, each individual both shares their bounty when they are successful but also shares in the bounty of others when they are unsuccessful. Prosociality allows the hunter-gatherers to avoid starvation.

Bengrey/Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0
Source: Bengrey/Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Honest Reputation

A critical element of prosociality is knowing that when you cooperate with someone, they will cooperate with you. Cooperation is reciprocal, after all. We keep an eye on who is a good cooperator and who is not. We notice when someone is forthright and helpful. We also take special note when someone is a cheat and a liar. We don’t cooperate randomly. We selectively choose to cooperate only with people who are good, reliable, trustworthy partners.

We each have a reputation that we manage, too. When we are honest and trustworthy, word gets around. When people are cheats and liars, the news travels even faster. The same was true for our ancestors. Those early humans who were sincere and true to their word were selected into cooperative alliances. Those who demonstrated a tendency to be unfair and dishonest were ostracized. After all, who would want to collaborate with an untrustworthy partner whose promise to cooperate was likely just a ploy?

If a liar takes advantage of someone, their victims may exact revenge; so, too, might others in the community. The Hadza, for example, are known to inflict heavy altruistic punishment. This means that if members of the tribe witness a bad actor taking advantage of a victim, the other tribe members will heavily punish that bad actor, sometimes through violence, sometimes through social exclusion. Liars do not fare well.

Hard-Wired Honesty

The necessity of group living has shaped people into reliable cooperators. From our prosocial ancestors, we have evolved neural hardware that leads us to be mostly honest and cooperative.

Our behavior is driven by that hardware. Our brains are organized in such a way that we feel guilty when we betray someone who trusted us. We often feel squeamish when we lie to those we love. Our self-esteem suffers when we reflect on our dishonesty.

In a sense, then, we are designed to be honest cooperators. And even when the victims of our lies fail to detect our deception and punish us, our own conscience can hold us to account. We have all inherited many common traits from the long lineage of our human ancestry. One of those traits is the tendency to be honest. We can thank our forebearers for the gift of honesty.


Abeler, J., Nosenzo, D., & Raymond, C. (2019). Preferences for truth-telling. Econometrica, 87(4), 1115-1153.

Buss, D. M. (2015). The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Wiley.

Hart, C. L., Jones, J. M., Terrizzi, Jr., J. A., & Curtis, D. A. (2019). Development of the lying in everyday situations (LiES) scale. American Journal of Psychology,132(3), 343–352.

Kim B. Serota, K. B., Levine, T. R., & Boster, F. J. (2010). The prevalence of lying in America: Three studies of self‐reported lies. Human Communication Research, 36(1), 2-25

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