Unreliable: The cost of honesty and the value of deception

by Judith Donath

We tend to think of communication as a cooperative endeavor, with information flowing smoothly from one being to another. Yet much communication is subtly or overtly adversarial: one party strives to make an advantageous impression while the other attempts to assess actual abilities and intentions. This competition between honesty and deception creates an arms race in communication - a race which has shaped the evolution of all creatures and profoundly influences the world we live in.

Most of the time, there is a functional balance between honesty and deception. (Communication need not be 100% reliable. In fact, some deception is not bad: while unchecked deception renders communication useless, absolute honesty makes cooperation impossible.)

Today, however, technology is rapidly changing the way we communicate, disrupting the equilibrium between honesty and deception. Some technologies - think of online dating - make deception easier; others, such as ubiquitous surveillance and vast data trails, promise to eliminate it. Social agents and robots gain our confidence and affection by mimicking the appearance of children and trustworthy companions. To decide whether we want to embrace these technologies - or regulate or reject them - it is essential that we understand how communication really functions: how the economics of honesty shapes it, and the roles that both honesty and deception play in helping individuals and society flourish.

This book is in progress. In the meantime, here are some related writings: