The Sparrow Hypothesis

Some thoughts on why we lie

I’m dishonest. And a dishonest man, you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly. It’s the honest ones you want to watch out for; cus you can never predict when they’re going to do something incredibly…stupid!
— Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Sure, he’s an egotistical, brash, and abrasive drunkard; but could he be onto something?

Why Lie?

The evolutionary reasons for the development of deception are all around you, even today. It’s fair to assume that as the nomadic communities traveled, they were met with rival tribes and situations which threatened their lives. Deception then takes on the natural role of a survival mechanism both for self preservation and the overall safety of the tribe.

This is far from being exclusively an adult thing to do. Studies have shown that children display “learned deception”. This behavior is primarily exhibited after children develop “object permanence” (the ability to understand something exists outside their scope of vision) when they realize that they can know something their parent doesn’t because their parent wasn’t present.

Think about when you clearly know that your kid nephew knocked over the fine vase in the living room but claims not to know what happened. Or that seemingly clueless look kids get when you come in on them writing with crayon on the wall. Yep. That’s the one.

Although this doesn’t sound like much, these findings have exciting implications for Theory of Mind psychology and it’s application in social science and public policy. Furthermore, exploring deception could yield valuable information for forensic investigations and criminal justice.

Cognitively, the mechanisms employed for deception draw from various constructs including automated processes, stereotypical behaviors, memory, and self-regulation.

To say that deception has played an integral part in our evolutionary history is nothing short of an understatement. You can even see it in the animal kingdom as camouflage may be construed a form of deception. However, in primates, deception takes on a more complex form.

Anatomy of a Lie

Let’s explore it. An increased ability to deceive may have been essential to the protection of an emerging primate colony by distraction from females, young, or location of resources. It is also possible that deception may have even emerged as a cognitive bi-product of social play, as it something seen in many animal species. Engaging in play suggests several cognitive “givens.” Arguably, that both parties pose no deliberate or direct threat to one another and are rather engaging in such behavior so as to develop survival behaviors and increase social cooperation. Not only is deception exclusively feasible from our ability to infer the thoughts of others but also by the ability to read and interpret non-verbal communication in the form of semantic leakage (Talwar & Lee, 2002a).

Several child studies have yielded exciting knowledge about the ability of children to deceive both by omission and though direct misleading. The studies show correlations between age and the complexity of deception that not only corroborate several neurobiological data but also are consistent with developmental knowledge and may contribute to our increasing understanding of Theory of Mind.

When looking at children in a study by Costal & Leudar (2007), they present modern research in Developmental Psychology that has yielded evidence showing infants engage the world around them through an internalization of those around them and not just an accumulation of experience. Camaioni, another researcher, stated that after 12 months, proto-declarative pointing is not merely the child indicating an object to another person because they desire it, but rather because the child has recognized that it is an object of common interest.

For better or worse, deception plays an integral part in our society and has played that integral part for millennia. It is therefore not surprising that deception is likely to involve multiple cognitive processes (Spence et al., 2004). Some the factors involved in fabrication and proper execution of a lie are Information processing, information release, and information control (inhibition). Though humans can boast a highly sophisticated mechanism for deception, even Darwin was aware of its physiological limitations and that “those muscles of the face…will sometimes alone betray a slight and passing emotion”. Ekman later corroborated this in 2003, “…leakage of one’s true emotion will be proportionate to the intensity of the felt emotion.”


Unfortunately, many recruiters are not exactly lie detectors by training and they often fall for the wit and charm of sometimes under-qualified individuals.

In writing this, I set out to explore some ideas about why people lie. I found that not only are we basically programmed to do it, but one might argue it is a “standard” compound in this thing we call the human element.

However, I leave it to you, the reader, to consider where you want your mental resources allocated. Deception is a slippery slope and requires just as much time and dedication as does the truth. The only difference perhaps being that one comes at a greater cost than the other.

“One must know how to color one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver. Men are so simple and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived” ~ Niccolo Machivelli


Spence, S. A., Hunter, M. D., Farrow, T. F. D., Green, R. D., Leung, D. H., Hughes, C. J., & Ganesan, V. (2004). A cognitive neurobiological account of deception: evidence from functional neuroimaging. The Royal Society, 359, 1775–1762. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2004.1555

Brinke, L. T., MacDonald, S., O’Connor, B., & Porter, S. (2011). Crocodile tears: Facial, verbal and body language behaviours associated with genuine and fabricated remorse. Law and Human Behavior,36(1), 51–59. doi: 10.1037/h0093950

Gombos, V. A. (2006). The cognition of deception: The role of executive processes in producing lies.Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs, 132(3), 197–214.

Hadar, A. A., Makris, S., & Yarrow, K. (2012). The truth-telling motor cortex: Response competition in m1 discloses deceptive behaviour. Biological Psychology, 89, 495–502. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2011.12.019

Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition: Making sense of people. (1 ed.). Cambridge Mass.USA: Bradford Books.

Costal, A., & Leudar, I. (2007). Getting over the problem of other minds: communication in context. Infant Behavior and Development, 30, 289–295. doi: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2007.02.001