Lying Comes Naturally

7 comments December 26th, 2006at 01:26pm Posted by Eli

If it occurs in nature, it’s okay, right?

If you happen across a pond full of croaking green frogs, listen carefully. Some of them may be lying.

A croak is how male green frogs tell other frogs how big they are. The bigger the male, the deeper the croak. The sound of a big male is enough to scare off other males from challenging him for his territory.

While most croaks are honest, some are not. Some small males lower their voices to make themselves sound bigger. Their big-bodied croaks intimidate frogs that would beat them in a fair fight.


…[B]iologists have long puzzled over deception. Dishonesty should undermine trust between animals. Why, for example, do green frogs keep believing that a big croak means a big male? New research is offering some answers: Natural selection can favor a mix of truth and lies, particularly when an animal has a big audience. From one listener to the next, honesty may not be the best policy.


By the mid-1900s, scientists had documented deception in cases where one species fooled another. Some nonpoisonous butterflies, for example, evolved the same wing patterns that poisonous species used to warn off birds. Within a species, however, honesty usually prevailed. Animals gave each other alarm calls to warn of predators; males signaled their prowess in fighting; babies let their parents know they were hungry. Honesty benefited both the sender and the receiver.

“The point of signaling was to get information across,” Dr. Nowicki said. “Deception was almost not an issue.”

There was just one hole in this happy arrangement: it presented a great opportunity for liars. Shrikes, for example, regularly use alarm calls to warn one another of predators. But sometimes the birds will use false alarm calls to scare other shrikes away from food.

Imagine that a shrike fools other shrikes with a false alarm. It eats more, and therefore may hatch more babies. Meanwhile, the gullible, less-nourished shrikes hatch fewer babies. If false alarms become common, natural selection should favor shrikes that are not fooled by them.

When scientists created mathematical models of this theory, they found that dishonesty could undermine many vital kinds of communication. The challenge, then, was to find out how honesty countered the advantage of deception. “The liars ought to be able to take advantage of the system, so that you’d have selection on the listeners to ignore the signals,” said Jonathan Rowell, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tennessee.

I found this last point particularly interesting: Does natural selection weed out gullibility, or just breed better and better liars? And does intraspecies deception take a toll on the entire species (i.e., favoring the less fit, undermining the integrity and trustworthiness of vital signals)?

Of course, it’s very tempting to extrapolate to the human world, where deception is practically a way of life. There is certainly ample evidence that deception has severely damaged the well-being of the United States, but I’m not sure there’s as much evidence that gullibility is being selected out. Yes, the Republicans got spanked in November, but only after the mess their lies created had grown to such epic proportions that it could no longer be concealed or spun. Unfortunately, I think we still have a long ways to go, and probably not a lot of time to get there.

In conclusion, I leave you with this tasty little morsel:

Dr. Ellner’s rough translation of their call: “I’m looking for female frogs, and if you come on my lily pad, I’ll show you a good time.”

Oh baby.

Entry Filed under: Science


  • 1. op99  |  December 26th, 2006 at 5:20 pm

    Have you been lying to us all along, Eli? I trusted you.

  • 2. Eli  |  December 26th, 2006 at 5:36 pm

    You’ve never been to my lily pad…

  • 3. Rob  |  December 26th, 2006 at 5:43 pm

    Human beings give clues to when they are lying — microexpressions, direction of glances, etc. Yet we ignore this information. Cops are actually the worst at reading people.

    To maintain a society, we may need to accept a certain level of lying from our fellow beings — and this appears to be true in the frog realm as well. I suspect that, at some point, too many liars results in overall problems for the group. Think of monarch and viceroy butterflies — too many viceroys and birds start eating everyone again because only the monarchs contain cardioglycosides.

  • 4. Eli  |  December 26th, 2006 at 6:06 pm

    Yet we ignore this information.

    Sounds like we have a lot more evolving to do – assuming that gullibility really is maladaptive, of course.

    I suspect that, at some point, too many liars results in overall problems for the group. Think of monarch and viceroy butterflies — too many viceroys and birds start eating everyone again because only the monarchs contain cardioglycosides.

    Bad information driving out good is generally unlikely to have positive outcomes. Not only is there the immediate harm caused by the misinformation, but it reduces the credibility of *all* information, unless, of course, the information consumers become much more discerning.

  • 5. Charles  |  December 26th, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    The answer may be that liars are the most gullible of all.

    I mean, I don’t know about frogs and shrikes, but look at the Christian right and tell me this couldn’t explain a lot.

  • 6. Eli  |  December 26th, 2006 at 8:21 pm

    I’m not a big Plato fan, but his Republic explains a lot. The people at the top of the hierarchy know the reality, and then they present the people below them with an altered version of reality, and the people below them alter it still further for *their* subordinates, and so far.

    I guess maybe the lesson is that dishonest people are willing to believe anything that comes from *their own* chain of command.

  • 7. Crederity Labs - How hone&hellip  |  June 12th, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    […] say that lying comes naturally to humans; so it’s of no surprise that résumés will lie as well! It has almost become an […]

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