Evolutionary biologists have long thought that lying ought to destroy societies. Now computational anthropologists have shown that nothing could be further from the truth.
Everybody learns as a child that lying is wrong. We all learn something else too—that some kinds of lies are worse than others. What’s more, certain kinds of fibs—so-called white lies– are actually quite acceptable, even necessary at times.
Consequently, humans become sophisticated liars. Indeed, various studies have shown that we lie all the time, perhaps as often as twice a day on average.
It’s easy to see how lying reduces the level of trust between individuals and so threatens the stability of societies. So how do societies survive all this lying?
That’s something of a puzzle for evolutionary biologists. The very fact that lying is so prevalent in human society suggests that it might offer some kind of evolutionary advantage. In other words, we all benefit from lying in some way. But how?
Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Gerardo Iñiguez at Aalto University in Finland and a few pals (including Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist from the University of Oxford of Dunbar’s number fame). These guys have simulated the effect that lies have on the strength of connections that exist within a social network.
But they’ve added fascinating twist. These guys have made a clear distinction between lies that benefit the person being lied to versus lies that benefit the person doing the lying. In other words, their model captures the difference between “white” lies, which are prosocial, and “black” lies, which are antisocial.