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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.

Their method is to create a social network in which each individual can have an opinion about a particular topic that varies between total disagreement and total agreement.  This opinion is influenced in two ways: by interactions with neighbors and also by the “average” opinion of the network as a whole.

Links between individuals can be broken when their opinions differ sharply and strengthened when their opinions coincide.

But here’s the clever part of this model. When exchanging information about opinions, individuals can hide their true opinion by lying about it to their neighbors. So their public opinion differs from their private one.

Iñiguez consider this act of lying to be antisocial when it tends to increase the difference in opinion between two individuals and so weakens their ties. But the team considers this act to be prosocial, a white lie, when it tends to reduce the difference in opinion between two individuals and so strengthens their ties.

In this way, they can capture the effect of both white lies and antisocial lies on the broader society.

The results provide a fascinating insight into the way that lying can glue society together. When everybody is an antisocial liar, society simply fragments because links between individuals are constantly broken. Nobody can trust anybody else.

But the other extreme is equally strange. When everybody is honest, society becomes a uniform mass with no major difference of opinion.

The greatest diversity occurs when there is a certain amount of deception. In that case, white lies strengthen ties while black lies weaken them and this tension allows diversity to flourish. “The results of our study suggest that not all lies are bad or necessarily socially destructive; in fact, it seems that some lies may even enhance the cohesion of the society as a whole and help to create links with other people,” say Iñiguez and co.

That’s an interesting result. It suggests that far from destroying society, lies actually help it to function properly and the balance between pro- and anti-social lies looks to be crucial. “In effect, some kinds of lies might actually be essential to the smooth running of society,” say Iñiguez and co.

That raises a number of interesting puzzles. Prosocial lying is only possible in socially complex species but an interesting question is whether it is an exclusively human characteristic. Iñiguez and co point to various cases of deception in the animal kingdom which might qualify.

They say the most plausible examples are animals that give false predator alarms when another individual moves too far away from the group, the behavior that has been observed in vervet monkeys.

Beyond that is the question of how prosocial lying evolved. Is it an evolutionary precursor to selfish, antisocial deception or a behavior that emerges once deception has become entrenched in the group, ask say Iñiguez and co.

These guys have carefully steered away from this question in this study, pointing out that until now it hasn’t even been clear whether prosocial lying is beneficial at all. Now they have established the benefit in this work, the way is open for them to study the way it might have evolved in the first place.

That ought to be work worth keeping an eye out for.

Ref: http://arxiv.org/abs/1406.0673  Effects of Deception in Social Network

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