Sneakiness and brain size highly correlated across primate species

A NY Times article by Natalie Angier describes a study of primate behavior out of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland that found a direct relationship between an animal’s capacity for deceiving others and its brain size.
Not only that, but we may appear to have evolved in such a way as to facilitate our own gullibility: In over one hundred studies, subjects asked to decide whether someone on a videotape was lying guessed correctly only 54 percent of the time.

Much evidence suggests that we humans, with our densely corrugated neocortex, lie to one another chronically and with aplomb. Investigating what they called “lying in day-to-day life,” Bella DePaulo, now a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her colleagues asked 77 college students and 70 people from the community to keep anonymous diaries for a week and to note the hows and whys of every lie they told.
Tallying the results, the researchers found that the college students told an average of two lies a day, community members one a day, and that most of the lies fell into the minor fib category. “I told him I missed him and thought about him every day when I really don’t think about him at all,” wrote one participant. “Said I sent the check this morning,” wrote another.
In a follow-up study, the researchers asked participants to describe the worst lies they’d ever told, and then out came confessions of adultery, of defrauding an employer, of lying on a witness stand to protect an employer. When asked how they felt about their lies, many described being haunted with guilt, but others confessed that once they realized they’d gotten away with a whopper, why, they did it again, and again.

I don’t think anyone should be surprised by these results. Organisms with well-developed frontal cortexes would logically be the only ones capable of the cognitive machinations required to formulate in advance the kind of thinking and behavior required to intentionally hoodwink a fellow member or members of the tribe, and only so-called higher organisms would be able to perceive the potential gain in doing so; with possible and rare exceptions in the human world, no primate bothers with random or purposeless lying, which obviously entails a far greater likelihood of retribution than of gain.

The larger the average volume of a primate species’ neocortex — the newest, “highest” region of the brain — the greater the chance that the monkey or ape would pull a stunt like this one described in The New Scientist: a young baboon being chased by an enraged mother intent on punishment suddenly stopped in midpursuit, stood up and began scanning the horizon intently, an act that conveniently distracted the entire baboon troop into preparing for nonexistent intruders.

This may not be an apt analogy, but I am somehow reminded of the archetypal tableau of someone farting silently in a room full of people and passing along blame for the stench–credibly or otherwise–to the dog slumbering nearby.

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  1. #1 by Bill from Dover on December 23, 2008 - 2:43 pm


    blame for the stench–credibly or otherwise–to the dog slumbering nearby.

    Or the invisible elephant behind the potted plant in the corner. It all depends on the intellect or age of the foolees.

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