Why do they always lie?

Posted on Tue 04 February 2020 in blog • 3 min read

Recently I came across a tweet from my Irish OpenStack community friend Dave Neary, in which he wondered aloud why a picture, which was very obviously (and poorly) doctored, made its way onto Twitter. As if, so goes the reasoning, the creator of the picture was ass enough to assume that no-one would notice.

It’s so obvious […] I just don’t understand why you’d bother.

More generally, you can summarize this befuddlement by rephrasing the question as follows: “why would anyone, in a political campaign even, run with a lie that’s so easily called out?”

This assumes that lying, deception, is something you’d prefer to go undetected. And generally that’s true, human behavior works exactly that way: when we lie and deceive — and humans do this all them time for many reasons, some of them benign — the deception only works if it isn’t caught.

Why do they lie, when it’s so easy to tell?

Then, what makes humans lie and spread falsehoods, even when they’re easily detected?

I submit that to understand why, you should play a game.

The game is called The Evolution of Trust, and its creator is Nicky Case. You can play it online, it’s available in multiple languages. And it will take only about 15 minutes to complete. Go play it. No, really do.

Did you play it? No? Well it’s here. Please go play it.

Done? OK. Let’s carry on.

What does The Evolution of Trust tell us?

The game-theoretical concepts that The Evolution of Trust introduces tell you three things about its simple game of cooperation and defection (playing by the rules vs. cheating):

  • If communications between players are perfect, then the most successful strategy is tit-for-tat (“copycat”).

  • If communications are imperfect, then the most successful strategy is tit-for-two-tats (or “tit for tat with forgiveness,” or “copykitten”) — up to a certain error rate in communications.

  • If communications are imperfect beyond that error rate threshold, then the most successful strategy is to always cheat (“cheater”).

Now, real human communications are always messy, so the perfect communications scenario is out the window. We’re always dealing with imperfect communications, but we never know how high our error rate is.

And most of us are brought up with the Golden Rule and a certain measure of forgiveness. We tend to be “copykittens.”

But now put yourself in the shoes of someone who has decided they’ll take the cheater role. They’ll not play by the rules, they’ll only ever fend for themselves and their own, everyone else be damned. They’ve chosen the asshole route.

Their problem is, they can’t win. Game theory literally tells us that the forgiveness strategy is superior. Except if the cheater manages to increase the error rate beyond the threshold.

If you’ve decided you want to be an asshole, lie. It’s your only chance.

So once you’ve decided that you’ll not play by the rules, your only shot at winning is to destroy communications — for everyone.

And your best shot at that is to lie. Never tell the truth, contradict objective facts, say the stupidest, dumbest, most blatantly false things. Small lies, large lies, medium-sized lies. It does not matter if your lie is exposed, in fact, your lies must be exposed for your strategy to work.

And now you know how to spot someone in politics who has decided to break the rules. And why you shouldn’t assume they’re stupid, just because they say objectively stupid things.