Toward a formal analysis of deceptive signaling

Don Fallis, Peter J. Lewis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Deception has long been an important topic in philosophy (see Augustine in Treatises on various subjects, New York, Fathers of the Church, 1952; Kant in Practical philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996; Chisholm and Feehan in J Philos 74: 143–159, 1977; Mahon in Int J Appl Philos 21: 181–194, 2007; Carson in Lying and deception, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010). However, the traditional analysis of the concept, which requires that a deceiver intentionally cause her victim to have a false belief, rules out the possibility of much deception in the animal kingdom. Cognitively unsophisticated species, such as fireflies and butterflies, have simply evolved to mislead potential predators and/or prey. To capture such cases of “functional deception,” several researchers (e.g., Sober, From a biological point of view, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994; Hauser in: Whiten, Byrne (eds) Machiavellian intelligence II, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 112–143, 1997; Searcy and Nowicki, The evolution of animal communication, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005; Skyrms, Signals, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2010) have endorsed the broader view that deception only requires that a deceiver benefit from sending a misleading signal. Moreover, in order to facilitate game-theoretic study of deception in the context of Lewisian sender-receiver games, Brian Skyrms has proposed an influential formal analysis of this view. Such formal analyses have the potential to enhance our philosophical understanding of deception in humans as well as animals. However, as we argue in this paper, Skyrms’s analysis, as well as two recently proposed alternative analyses (viz., Godfrey-Smith in Review of signals: evolution, learning, and information by Brian Skyrms, Mind, 120: 1288–1297, 2001; McWhirter in Brit J Philos Sci 67: 757–780, 2016), are seriously flawed and can lead us to draw unwarranted conclusions about deception.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2279-2303
Number of pages25
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2019


  • Deceptive signals
  • Functional deception
  • Measures of inaccuracy
  • Misinformation
  • Sender–Receiver games
  • Signaling theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • General Social Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Toward a formal analysis of deceptive signaling'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this