Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Tactical deception in primates

A. Whitena1 and R. W. Byrnea1

a1 Psychological Laboratory, University of St. Andrews St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9JU, Scotland


Tactical deception occurs when an individual is able to use an “honest” act from his normal repertoire in a different context to mislead familiar individuals. Although primates have a reputation for social skill, most primate groups are so intimate that any deception is likely to be subtle and infrequent. Published records are sparse and often anecdotal. We have solicited new records from many primatologists and searched for repeating patterns. This has revealed several different forms of deceptive tactic, which we classify in terms of the function they perform. For each class, we sketch the features of another individual's state of mind that an individual acting with deceptive intent must be able to represent, thus acting as a “natural psychologist.” Our analysis will sharpen attention to apparent taxonomic differences. Before these findings can be generalized, however, behavioral scientists must agree on some fundamental methodological and theoretical questions in the study of the evolution of social cognition.