Is lying innate?

Is lying innate to the human species? Is it something that we are genetically programmed to do, to receive rewards or avoid punishment?

Your thoughts, please.

Speech is not just a method of transferring information, it’s a means of socialization. Humans, being a social animal, are constantly trying to survive, and to enhance their place in the heirarchy; lies are a useful tool to those ends. In fact, I’d consider telling the truth to be an artificial concept, a late addition to human culture deriving from more abstract utalitarian constructs such as "reliability"and the “greater good.”

Study of the development of the ability to lie falls under Theory of Mind research, a branch of cognitive studies. Very young children, as well as adults with certain developmental disabilities, are incapable of lying. This doesn’t mean that everything they say is actually true. However, they can’t engage in intentional, deliberate deception.

See, in order to really lie to someone you have to first understand two rather sophisticated concepts:

  1. Reality may differ from our perception of reality. (It is possible to believe things that aren’t true.)
  2. Different people have different perceptions. (It is possible for someone else to believe things that I know aren’t true.)

Human beings are not born with the ability to understand these things, although acquiring that understanding is a part of normal human development.

But seeing that lying might enhance survival chances, and indeed breeding prospects - after all, who wants a “retard” for a mate? - might not lying be selected for from an evolutionary perspective?

Except lies would have been pointless if nobody believed them, which would have been the case if people told the truth, presumably, only when it was to their advantage.

True. Then let’s say there are three stages of human developement, both historical and personal:

  1. People tell the truth because they can’t think of any other option;

  2. People lie to bring themselves advantages;

  3. People tell the truth out of principle.

I disagree that people tell the truth because they can’t think of any other option. In early develpment, telling the truth (my stomach hurts, I’ll tell my mom, and she will fix it so it doesn’t hurt anymore) is advantageous and a survival characteristic. Not just that it’s impossible to ‘know’ how to lie, but that it’s counter-productive to do so…

The points 2 and 3 I agree with, though…

Well, yeah, sometimes telling the truth is advantageous. Even liars know that. With No.1, I meant people who never think of lying even when, theoretically, it would be a good idea.

Do you have any more information about this research? What kind of methods are used to determine if a very young child is capable of lying? And how young is “very young”?

As a parent I remember episodes which I interpret as attempts to deceive from one-year-olds. Ie. child is about to do something he knows isn’t allowed, he notices that mom or dad can see him, and immediately pretends to be very interested in something else, body language virtually shouting: “No, I wasn’t making a beeline for Forbidden Fruit over there, I’m actually very busy examining - um, this part of the floor right here. Very interesting floor.” I freely admit that it’s easy to misinterpret what someone who only speaks in one-word-sentences or not at all is trying to say, so I might be mistaken here :slight_smile:

That doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what I posted. Certain advanced cognitive abilities have been selected for in our species, although they take time to fully develop, require interaction with other people during the developmental period, and do not necessarily manifest themselves in all individuals. The primary benefit of these abilities is not that they make it possible for us to lie, though. It’s that they allow us to both better understand the world around us and communicate with other people.

Communication makes lying possible, but as marky33 has already pointed out, the effectiveness of lying relies upon its rarity. If dishonesty were selected for at the genetic level and thus steadily increasing over the generations, it would eventually destroy its own foundation. No one would be able to trust anything anyone else said. This would render lying useless, and worse still it would have the same effect on communication in general. There’d be no point saying anything to others at all if they wouldn’t believe you anyway.

Luckily, I don’t think lying is something that could be selected for at the genetic level. The cognitive abilities that make lying possible, sure. The willingness to do anything to get what you want, perhaps. But the specific act of telling a person something that you know to be untrue in an attemt to deceive them? That’s a pretty darn complicated behavior to be controlled by genetics, even if our genes could tell the difference between truth and lies.

This isn’t really my field, but I believe the most famous theory of mind experiment is one that uses two dolls, a box, a basket, and a marble. The first doll puts the marble in the basket, then leaves. The second doll moves the marble to the box. The first doll returns, and the child is asked where she will look for the marble.

Children under about age 4 typically respond that the doll will look in the box. They don’t understand that the first doll has no way of knowing the marble isn’t still in the basket where she left it. A child at this stage of development wouldn’t intentionally try to trick someone by moving their toy or lying about where the toy is, because they wouldn’t realize that such a ploy might actually work. A variation on this is a task where children are asked what they think is inside a candy box. After the child answers, the box is opened to reveal something unexpected, like pencils. The child is then asked what their friends will say when asked what is in the box. Again, children under about 4 generally think that everyone will know the same things that they know, and say their friends will think there are pencils in the candy box.

I remember seeing another experiment (I think it was featured in an episode of Nova) involving stickers and a “bad puppet”. The child and puppet were both allowed to pick one sticker, but the puppet got to choose first. The child was warned that the puppet would try to take the one that the child wanted, just to be mean. Kids 4 and up could lie about which sticker they wanted in order to trick the puppet, but younger children would answer honestly again and again and lose the preferred sticker every time.

In all experiments it seems that there’s a sudden leap forward in children’s theory of mind at around the age of 4. (Barring other problems – delayed theory of mind development is often associated with autism.) But theory of mind isn’t an on/off switch. There appear to be several stages in its development. I’ve heard of studies showing that even younger children are capable of simple kinds of deception, like masking their true emotions. So maybe your floor-watching babies really were trying to trick you in a very basic way. And you may have observed that kids figure out how to tell lies before they figure out how to tell them convincingly. The latter requires a more advanced theory of mind. It’s more difficult to figure out what another person is likely to believe than it is to realize that they don’t possess all the same information that you do.

Lying is innate in that is part of our sin nature we inherited from Adam during the fall. Nobody has to teach a child to lie. Foolishness is bound up in their hearts from the moment they are born. It is not so much “genetic programming” as it is being born with a sin nature.

Somehow, I don’t think this is the discussion you were looking for.

My daughter has been using misdirection and deception since about 6 months IIRC. She used it to attract attention in one direction while trying to sneakily access something we would normally let her have. She certainly seemed able to do something sneakily. She faked out my husband while playing a copy cat game with my husband at 8 months.

And I guess Adam and Eve’s sin also affected chimpanzees. In any case I saw a Nature (I’m pretty sure) episode that showed them stealing food from others and then dissembling. We also had a dog that lied. When young she got her leg hurt and we made a big fuss over her because of it. The leg healed perfectly, or at least the injury was not noticeable. From then on whenever she was scolded she would limp off in great agony.

I’m not sure if this is exactly the study I’ve read about, but I know it has been shown that chimps can try to manipulate what other chimps think by acting in certain ways contrary to how they would on their own specifically to gain more access to food for themselves.

It’s unlcear if that would be labeled a conditioned response or is actually an act of lying.

Maybe human lying is a response that is contitioned by being punished if you tell the truth. Maybe I’ll ask the President at the show-and-tell at Case-Western Reserve.

I don’t think I’d call it “lying” even if the dog were knowingly attempting to trick people. I know the term “lie” can be used quite broadly, but I think it’s commonly taken to refer to knowingly making false statements with the intent to deceive. If the OP means for us to include all forms of deception, misdirection, and fakery, including non-verbal ones, then that’s a rather different question.

It would also be helpful if roger thornhill would clarify what he means by “innate”. He appears to be using the word to mean “genetic” and I responded with that assumption in mind, but it was an assumption. It would be nice to have things spelled out.

Only for employees of Fox News. :wink: :smiley: :stuck_out_tongue:

Interesting theory…
Can I ask what you make of the above noted studies that say children are not, in fact, born with the ability to lie? How does this new infomation effect you’re sin nature hypothosis?

Speaking as a parent with a four-year-old who has just started to discover the art of lying, I’d venture to say that lying is a social survival skill. It’s learned when someone realizes that saying one statement will have negative consequences, while saying another statement will have positive (or non-negative) consequences, and makes the latter even when it is incorrect. It may not be “innate” in the sense that language skills or motor skills are innate, but it is something that gets learned after a certain point of mental development.

And lying, in and of itself, is neither a virtue or a sin, IMO. As with a lot of other things in life, it all depends on context and circumstance; sometimes lying is the best thing you can do.