The Science of Lying
Small, white lies. Secrets. Misinformation. Pathological Liars. Nationwide Propaganda. Lying is everywhere, and everyone has ample experience being both the perpetrator and victim of such deception. In fact, lying is so prevalent that some consider it part of human nature – and to some extent, it indeed is. Proving the innate ability to lie within humans is only part of the mystery; perhaps the biggest question is why we even lie at all.
Consciousness exists to some degree in all living beings and is often considered a defining attribute in the very idea of life itself. However, one subcategory of consciousness is uniquely present in humans: the inherent, trademark concept of ethics. Other species of animals simply do not have the complicated social network necessary to form such concepts, as it simply isn’t necessary for their evolutionary survival. However, in humans, certain parts of the brain such as the frontal lobe have evolved into natural masters of social interaction, capable of analyzing human-human contact and creating advantageous positions in the social network of our peers. However, does this advanced cognitive adaptation necessarily account for the specific innate understanding of lying? To start solving our scientific mystery, we’ll need to investigate the most innocent, instinctual beings on the planet: babies.
One of the most fascinating and revolutionary studies into innate human behavior was conducted by researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center, who aimed to provide more definitive proof on the inherent sense of morality in infants. The experiment was relegated to observing the emergence of the very simple idea of right and wrong within a child’s development, while trying to develop a deeper understanding of the social and ethical framework all humans are born with. While the experiment used several proposed methods to define ‘innate morality’ in its many forms, one of the largest takeaways from the scientific paper shows that two key concepts are developed exceptionally early in infants: punishment and reward.
A possible explanation of this surprising development is the importance of social interaction in humans. All the experiments performed by researchers involved humanoid figures such as stuffed animals, in which toddlers were tasked to judge a social situation. The natural ability of the brain to efficiently analyze a social situation is also likely to be a result of the evolution of human social action; the punishment-reward system also applies to social behavior. The brain, while understanding concepts such as ethics and moral character, is ironically also able to act deceptively or maliciously in the convoluted long-term interest of the individual. In certain situations, (whether consciously or subconsciously) lying is calculated to be the ideal action to take. Such examples can exist anywhere from friendly, social interactions, such as altruistic lies to comfort a peer, to meticulously planned attacks to damage an individual’s reputation.
Many may consider the inherently biased framework of human cognition to be an unfortunate reality in modern society – behavior such as greed, hostility, and deception are often seen as vestigial remains of the homo sapiens that equipped such tactics in early history. We are more interconnected as a species now than at any time in history, and with countless social scenarios such as online interactions, we lie more often than ever simply because the benefit to our convenience often outweighs the marginal likelihood that we will be punished for lying. Thus, the human brain is stimulated to a point where lying hardly triggers the limbic system at all, which is responsible for the anxiety and forewarning of punishment that keeps us out of trouble. Lying is a downward slope: the more one lies, the better they are at lying, and the greater the chance that they will lie again.
As the modern word progresses, an unintentional side effect can be observed wherein truthful information becomes harder and harder to determine and obtain while misinformation becomes more convincing and often even promoted. Several features present in the innate behavior of humans come to clash against the rapid development in social culture; lying is a prevalent example of evolved, ‘biologically useful’ behavior that runs rampant as natural human adaptation inevitably lags against the unstoppable progress of, ironically, humanity itself.
- Smith, David Livingstone. “Lying”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 29 Aug. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/topic/lying. Accessed 31 July 2021.
- Adler, J., 1997. ‘Lying, deceiving, or falsely implicating’, Journal of Philosophy, 94: 435–452
- Fried, C., 1978. Right and Wrong, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.