Scientists at Aalto University School of Science in Finland have conducted a study in which they found that some lies may be more destructive to society than others, and that some types of lies may be essential to the growth of cohesive social networks.

“There is no society without lies,” stated lead researcher Rafael Barrio, a theoretical physicist at Aalto University.

illustration of two types of social developments based on liesThe report, “Effects of deception in social networks,” was completed by Gerardo Iñiguez, Tzipe Govezensky, Robin Dunbar, Kimmo Kaski and Rafael A. Barrio at Finland’s Aalto University School of Science, and was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

In their research, the Aalto University team differentiated between selfish lies–protecting oneself at the expense of others or lying to purposefully hurt others–and “white lies,” such as encouraging a child’s early attempts at performing music, which are generally socially acceptable. The researchers called these two types of lies antisocial and prosocial lies.

Robin Dunbar, one of the researchers on the team, told The Speaker, “The model is based on the impact that lies have: selfish lies are those where the individual gains a benefit at the expense of the recipient, whereas prosocial lies (fibs) are those where the recipient (or at least the relationship between the liar and the recipient) benefits. Prosocial lies are of the kind we do when we “Like” someone’s Facebook page post even when we don’t in fact like it at all, but feel we ought to.”

The team created a virtual scenario where 200 virtual individuals with various fixed opinions engaged in 200,000 interactions. By adjusting the honesty level of individuals, as well as the types of lies told, the researchers observed differing social developments.

There researchers found differences based prosocial and antisocial lying. “Antisocial lying causes social networks to become increasingly fragmented,” the report stated. “Antisocial dishonesty thus places strong constraints on the size and cohesion of social communities, providing a major hurdle that organisms have to overcome (e.g. by evolving counter-deception strategies) in order to evolve large, socially cohesive communities.

“In contrast, white lies can prove to be beneficial in smoothing the flow of interactions and facilitating a larger, more integrated network.”

After running a number of scenarios, the researchers found that a perfectly honest society increased trust over time and resulted in a well-connected group.

The introduction of antisocial liars led to fragmentation of the network. Small, tightly connected groups of honest individuals formed. The small groups were weakly connected to other small groups by dishonest individuals. When all individuals engaged in antisocial lying the result was complete isolation.

When prosocial lies were factored in, however, the social fabric was not destroyed. Instead, two large communities formed. The communities were composed of like-minded honest agents, and were based on shared opinions. Between the two groups, mostly dishonest agents provided a weak connection.

Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that some kinds of lying could actually enhance cohesiveness in society.

“Our results demonstrate that these group-level effects can arise as emergent properties of interactions at the dyadic level,” the report read. “The balance between prosocial and antisocial lies may set constraints on the structure of social networks, and hence the shape of society as a whole.”

The researchers also found that when individuals were initially undecided as to their opinions, prosocial lies reduced indecisiveness.

By James Haleavy