Can Animals Lie?

In numerous systems of moral values that we are familiar with, a lie is treated as a bad thing. Is there anything we can say in its defence? As a matter of fact, there is, if we consider a lie from a cognitive (rather than moral) perspective. The ability to lie comes together with very advanced cognitive capacities and constitutes a great achievement in one’s communicative capacities (however paradoxical this may sound!).

What capacities are we talking about? An important property of lying is it being intentional. This is what distinguishes lying from just making a false statement. So the ability to lie requires the ability to communicate intentionally. From the perspective of human language, this may seem very natural and obvious. But in fact, communication need not involve intention. In the animal kingdom, a lot of communication takes place by virtue of instincts: animals are genetically programmed to react to certain stimuli in certain ways, e.g. to produce particular vocalizations or facial expressions. Interpreting the others’ instinctive “utterances” may be instinctive as well. If you find this hard to believe, just think about our own use of facial expressions. While we can communicate with the help of our face intentionally, we also communicate a lot without being aware of it. The expression of one’s face reveals the emotions the person experiences, without the person doing anything on purpose. Similarly, we often interpret such expressions without even realizing how we do this. We “just know” that the addressee didn’t like what we’ve just said. Further, we know that he was skeptical, or angry, or bored. But if asked to provide a “dictionary” of facial expressions, we’ll be at a loss. We’ll be able to list some features, but their number will be much lower than what we succeed to interpret in reality. So here is an example of a communication that is largely based on instinctive behavior.

Lying also reveals that one has a theory of mind. This is an ability to attribute to other individuals mental states (like particular beliefs or desires) and to realize that one’s own mental state can be different from that of another individual. For instance, this includes the ability to understand that another individual may have a belief that differs from my own, that another individual may have a false belief, or that another individual’s desires may differ from my desires. Difficulties associated with theory of mind capabilities constitute a key feature of autism.

If an individual lies, that means that he is able to distinguish between his own beliefs and the beliefs of the addressee. Further, this means that he is able to attribute false beliefs to others, since the purpose of lying is precisely to make another individual have a false belief. This makes lying a great achievement from the cognitive perspective!

So what about animals? Are they able to lie? Unfortunately, this is still not quite clear. The default assumption is often that they aren’t. This would mean that the ability to lie is one of the properties that distinguishes us as humans! But for many properties of this kind, it has been proved that they are not uniquely human in reality. We saw this with tool use and self-recognition in a mirror. The ability to lie could turn out to belong on the same list. Here are some examples of those behaviors in the animal kingdom that could potentially be interpreted as lying.

Some birds use special vocalizations that signal the presence of a predator…in the absence of any predators. Why do they do this? This way, they cause for the other birds to rapidly fly away…and have all the food for themselves! Their behavior is definitely misleading, for rather egoistic reasons. But is this really a lie? Does this require a theory of mind? Not necessarily. Even assuming that their behavior is intentional in this cases, the logic could be more or less the following. “When I produce this vocalization, other birds fly away. So I will vocalize now, they will fly away, and I will eat all the food.” Note that this very different from: “When I produce this vocalization, other birds think that a predator is close and fly away. So I will vocalize now, they will think that they have to escape and therefore fly away, and I will eat all the food.” The latter kind of reasoning involves theory of mind and accompanies a lie, but the former doesn’t. The behavior of the birds is compatible with the former option.

Monkeys and apes constitute good candidates for having a theory of mind and maybe even the ability to lie. Chimps, for example, are able to direct others away from a food source, and this way have the food for themselves. The famous gorilla Koko, who has been taught certain aspects of a sign language, has been reported to use this means of communication in order to lie. Once she broke a faucet and then signed that this had been done by her caretaker. In another case, she is reported to have put the blame for her own behavior on a kitten. This is anecdotal evidence which is not sufficient to make conclusive scientific claims. But as anecdotal evidence it is very interesting and suggestive that, once again, we humans turn out not to be as special as we used to think.

And finally, let us not forget that the verb lie is ambiguous in English. So a search for pictures that are related to lying rendered the following picture. The picture definitely proves that animals can lie in wonderful ways!

One Response to “Can Animals Lie?”

  1. Gorsh, those little guys sure do look tasty and succulent. Most tender of the tender meats! But seriously, I could never do what they ask, I’d think that after two years with a dog, I’d move to Canada rather than give them up. diablo 3 gold

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