Altruistic deception

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Altruistic deception (or the telling of “white lies”) is common in humans. Does it also exist in non-human animals? On some definitions of deception, altruistic deception is impossible by definition, whereas others make it too easy by counting useful-but-ambiguous information as deceptive. I argue for a definition that makes altruistic deception possible in principle without trivializing it. On my proposal, deception requires the strategic exploitation of a receiver by a sender, where “exploitation” implies that the sender elicits a behaviour in the receiver that is beneficial in a different type of situation and is expressed only because the signal raises the probability, from the receiver’s standpoint, of that type of situation. I then offer an example of a real signal that is deceptive in this sense, and yet potentially altruistic (and certainly cooperative): the purr call of the pied babbler. Fledglings associate purr calls with food, and adults exploit this learned association, in the absence of food, to lead fledglings away from predators following an alarm call. I conclude by considering why altruistic deception is apparently so rare in non-human animals.
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