Consciousness Blog 16 June 2013

Research into deception among primates suggests that undetected tactical deceptive behaviour will evolve alongside the development of cooperative behaviour. Researchers Luke McNally from Trinity College Dublin and Andrew Jackson from the University of Edinburgh first constructed a theoretical model of cooperative behaviour which showed that while 'honest' deception would occur, it would be supplanted over time by covert deception.

"When reciprocal co-operators interact with honest cheaters, they spot their cheating and stop co-operating with them," says McNally. "However, as deceivers are better at hiding their cheating, reciprocal co-operators find it harder to spot their cheating. This means that the deceivers are able to gain co-operation without having to co-operate themselves, allowing deception to evolve."

They then tested their hypothesis against a collection of field studies involving 24 species which had previously been the subject of meta-studies covering coalition formation, food sharing and alloparenting behaviours.

"Both our theoretical model and the results of our comparative analysis provide strong support for the hypothesis that the presence of conditional mechanisms to enforce cooperation provides a major selective benefit to tactical deception," say the researchers. Their results have been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Although deception certainly exists among many forms of life much less developed than primates, calculated deception, whether conscious or otherwise probably requires at least an elementary form of 'theory of mind', or intentionality, that is, the ability to perceive a conspecific as having a mind like one's own. And along with deception comes self-deception, making the deception more convincing; but this behaviour is probably limited to humans.

Read more in Chapter Eight of Agent Human by Michael Bell, The Con Of Consciousness; The Illusion of Individuality.


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