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Lies and Deceptions

Knowing their difference may help you to better protect yourself.

Key points

  • Lying and deceiving involve two very different biopsychological processes.
  • Lying sends a false message in communication; deceiving exploits cognitive loopholes in the victim.
  • Deceptive tricks are common in commercial advertisements.

In our everyday discourse, the terms “lie” and “deception” are casually interchanged, lacking the due consideration they truly merit. In fact, most of us tend to neglect the fine line between the two, as they both involve a degree of dishonesty. Even dictionaries find it a challenge to clearly separate these concepts.

Yet, upon closer examination, it becomes evident that lies and deceptions are distinct processes deeply rooted in biology and psychology.

Lies manifest in communication when an individual distorts the truth. Consider this scenario: receiving an invitation to a party you’d rather avoid. Instead of candidly expressing your desire to stay home, you craft a narrative about being out of town. In this instance, lying entails the falsification of the communication’s content.

Although lies are commonly associated with intention and deliberation, this is not always the case. In fact, a small minority of people, deemed “pathetic liars,” exhibit a lack of concern for the veracity of their messages, spinning false tales without much forethought. Also, some liars genuinely believe in the fabrications they construct.

Remarkably, lying is not exclusive to humans; it permeates the animal kingdom. Crows may concoct scams of predator danger through calls to scare off rivals while securing coveted food; male Formosan squirrels emit false alarms to deter sexual competition; and pandas exaggerate their size by strategically spraying urine upward to be perceived as larger than they are when their scent marks are sniffed by their rivals (see image). Even male dogs follow a similar routine, raising their hind legs so that they can exaggerate their size by putting their scent marks higher. (Please don’t forget to verify this when you take your dog for a walk next time.)

Source: Rongping Wei
A panda spraying urine higher up to lie about its size.
Source: Rongping Wei

Lying primarily occurs in communication between individuals of the same species, and cross-species lying, though not impossible, is far rarer. (Good luck convincing your pet that your dinner is intended for them.)

In contrast, deception employs strategies that exploit the loopholes—weaknesses, biases, or shortcomings—in the target’s cognitive system. Unlike lying, deception is not confined to the same species and can transpire between different ones. For instance, stick bugs mimic twigs to hide away from birds; flies emulate bees to keep away their predators; and octopuses camouflage as coral so that they can be invisible. Even in the plant kingdom, sensitive plants, for example, feign death to fool their archenemies: the grasshoppers.

Similar to lies, deception is prevalent in humans. In modern societies, it is commonly used in commercial advertisements. Consider a meat product labeled as “96% fat-free” when it contains 4% fat to create the illusion of healthiness. Likewise, a jacket might be priced at $199.99 instead of $200, or gasoline may be listed at $4.99 instead of $5.00 per gallon to convey a false sense of good deals to consumers (see image). In these cases and many other instances, advertisers exploit the loopholes in our cognitive system.

Source: brownpau / CC BY 2.0
Gas prices
Source: brownpau / CC BY 2.0

Most deceptive practices in advertisements leverage cognitive blind spots without necessarily providing false information. However, when marketers resort to outright lies, such as claiming that a pillow is made of special cotton and it can cure insomnia without the backing of evidence, it has crossed the line by both deceiving (special cotton) and lying (curing insomnia). But, despite the scrutiny such dishonest practices face, they occasionally slip through the cracks.

I encourage you to cultivate an awareness of whether individuals are lying, deceiving, or employing a combination of both as you navigate similar situations in the future. This heightened awareness will serve as a valuable tool so that you will be less likely to fall for commercial tricks and/or scams.

(This essay is based on my 2023 science nonfiction book, The Liars of Nature and the Nature of Liars.)

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