Deception is universal.
Deception was defined by Vrij in 2001 as “a successful or unsuccessful deliberate attempt, without forewarning, to create in another a belief which the communicator considers to be untrue” (Vrij 2001). Another good definition of deception was proposed by de Waal in 1992: “Deception can be defined as the projection, to one’s own advantage, of an inaccurate or false image of knowledge, intentions, or motivations” (de Waal 1992). Lastly, Byrne defines deception functionally as “acts from the normal repertoire of the agent, deployed such that another individual is likely to misinterpret what the acts signify, to the advantage of the agent” (Byrne 1997).
Carolyn Ristau investigated a particularly interesting deceptive behavior in the piping plover’s “broken wing display” (Ristau 1996). The piping plovers deceive predators approaching their nest by feigning an injured wing and hopping farther and farther from the nest, leading the predator away from their young. If the predator begins to pursue them and gets close enough to catch them, they immediately take flight and escape from the danger. If the predator still approaches the eggs, the piping plover will continue to mimic a broken wing in an attempt to lure the predator away from the nest. What is most fascinating is that the piping plover recognizes different types of dangerous intruders. It distinguishes between predators that may eat its eggs or young, and animals like cows that may simply crush the eggs with no intent to eat them. In the case of a cow nearing the nest, the piping plover remains in its nest until the cow is close and it then flutters into the cow’s face, startling it into running away from the nest. This suggests that not only does the piping plover consciously intend to deceive; it understands when deception does not work to protect its offspring.
“There is very little evidence that animals use deception, and to make that link that the deception is intentional is very difficult,” said Wiline Pangle, co-author of the study and a visiting scholar in evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University. “It’s almost amusing to us. The female hears the snort and thinks, ‘oops, there is a lion.’ She steps back, and the male comes around and mates. It’s striking.”
The males uttered their false alarms only when one of the females wandering their territory was in estrus – or in heat. The researchers noted that the males made these false alarms when females were trying to leave their territories – and the males even looked in the direction the females were going, suggesting that the predator was straight ahead.
Although firm statements about intentions behind behaviors are notoriously difficult to make, our study does identify a parallel between animals and humans in their capability of using false signaling to deceive mates, a finding that hints that their communication may be less fundamentally different than widely assumed.