Pinocchio by Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910)

Why do we lie? What purpose does lying serve, if it serves a purpose at all? These are questions that scientists have been investigating for some time. Observation gives us a rather obvious answer: Humans are social animals.

Everyday, we are forced into a variety of new social situations. Lying helps us to negotiate the expectations of these various groups (as we can’t possibly live up to the standards of each). For example, we may alter a story depending on whether we are telling it to our boss, spouse, grandparents, spiritual leader, or friends. Probably, we will alter the story a little for each group.

In this respect, lying is an integral part of human society.

But it seems that lying is more than just a phenomenon of modern human social interactions. Studies indicate that lying may actually be built into our system– an unconscious part of who we are, how we present ourselves, and how we communicate. Scientists from Trinity College Dublin recently announced findings that suggest that our ability to lie is a part of our evolutionary history, a part which allowed us to better form coalitions, get food, and mate.

Researchers used a simple game-theoretic model to show that the evolution of cooperation can create selection pressures favoring the evolution of tactical deception. The results suggest that the evolution of conditional strategies may select astute cheating and the associated psychological abilities.

Obviously, just because lying may be a part of our biology, it does not mean that we should lie whenever we want or that there are no negative ramifications to lying. However, (for the most part) we are trained to think that lying is bad, unnatural, and always wrong. Yet, science may be telling us something a little different.

In this respect, science raises some interesting questions–questions that are not generally seen as being rooted in science. Such as, is it really “wrong” to lie? Would discussions about when we should and should not lie be more productive than simply labeling lying as “bad” or “immoral”? Could we be biased in our perception of lying? If the data we acquire is not going to change our understanding of the world, what purpose do these studies serve?

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