Deception: As Human as Sex Itself
guy talking on phone.
Credit: dreamstime.com

Life is full of deception.

Everyone deceives others in myriad small ways that are intended to help, not harm. We falsely tell a friend the kids are screaming as a nice way to end an interminable phone call, or claim we already have a date to stave off politely unwanted attention.

And we constantly deceive ourselves in harmless ways; I look great, I'm a nice person, I always do the right thing.

In fact, deception is so much part of human behavior that it's really no surprise that some people are masters at fooling themselves, and others, and that some people take deception way too far.

Just ask the ex-Governor of The Great State of New York.

Why do some people lie, cheat and deceive with such abandon?

Evolutionary biologists claim that humans are adept at deception because those who deceive may do better in terms of reproductive success than those who are always honest.

The scenario would go something like this: [a] man deceives his mate and has sex with other women, upping his chances of conceiving with many females and passing on more genes than if he had remained faithful. And during said deception, if the man is both an adept liar and also manages to keep all parties happy so that they care for his offspring and bring them to sexual maturity, he wins even more in the game of reproductive success.

Lying and having a secret life, then, can pay off in terms of passing on genes.

Deception might also be evolutionarily favored if it helps maintain a high position in the social hierarchy. For example, lying to the group about adhering to mutually agreed-upon rules of society might help keep the liar in a high position which garners more resources that also help pass on genes.

Instances of deception in chimpanzees and other animals also [[take out "also]]support the idea that it might be a good evolutionary strategy. Chimps will lead troop mates away from a favored food source and circle back and eat it all alone. They will also hide a facial expression from each other in an attempt to deceive.

But there are problems with an evolutionary justification for bad behavior. Passing on genes needs to be implicated. If not, evolution has nothing to do with it, and pundits have to look elsewhere for an explanation, or excuse, for deception.

Deceit as a possible successful evolutionary strategy is also undermined by the fact that it simply doesn't work all that well, or for that long. Eventually everyone gets caught because people are also designed by evolution to notice liars and deceivers, and to punish them.

As social animals, we see the falsehood on their faces and in their finances, and we don't like it.

Humans are social animals which depend on each other for survival. The social glue that holds us together is trust, and once a citizen breaks that trust, they lose more than the chance to pass on genes. They lose their place in the group.

Just ask the ex-Governor about that, too.

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).