Sex Ed

In Nature, Sexual Deception is Everywhere You Look

October 2, 2019 by Justin Lehmiller

A few weeks ago, I posted an article about the beautiful—but sexually deceitful—orchid. Some orchids have evolved to mimic the appearance and scent of female bees in order to lure male bees, which then attempt to have sex with the flowers. This is in the orchid’s interest, of course, because the bees’ actions actually help the orchid to reproduce through pollination. However, it’s not necessarily in the interest of the male bees.

This kind of sexual deception is hardly unique to orchids—in fact, you can find evidence of it throughout nature. For example, researchers have observed that, in certain types of spiders, males will trick females into mating by presenting them with a “worthless gift” [1]. Male spiders usually offer food (i.e., insects) wrapped in silk, which females will eat while they’re mating (how’s that for multitasking?). However, when food isn’t available, males sometimes engage in trickery by wrapping up seeds or other inedible objects to present.

Sexual deception also happens under the sea. For example, small male cuttlefish have evolved the ability to switch their physical appearance from male to female [2]. This gives them the opportunity to bypass the mate-guarding efforts of larger male cuttlefish. Specifically, changing their appearance allows them to sneak past rival males in order to mate with protected females.

These are just a few of the many examples we see in the animal kingdom. However, we know that sexual deception happens in humans, too. For example, in one study of online daters, more than 80% of participants were found to have lied about something on their profile, such as their height (especially men), weight (especially women), or age. Of course, people lie about a wide range of things—not just their appearance—in order to get dates and sex. For example, people might also lie about their wealth, career, social status, sexual history, and/or relationship status.

So why is sexual deception everywhere we look? It likely has to do with the fact that all living things—plants, animals, and humans alike—are programmed to reproduce to ensure the survival of their species. Deception is just one of many strategies for overcoming reproductive challenges—and because deception can facilitate reproduction, traits that promote deceptive practices are actually more likely to get passed on.

What this tells us is that evolution isn’t selecting for moral or socially desirable behaviors—rather, evolution is selecting for behaviors that facilitate reproduction. And this can potentially help to explain why various behaviors that a given society or culture deems undesirable tend to persist (and perhaps even increase) in the population over time.

As further support for this idea, some research suggests that having psychopathic traits may offer a reproductive advantage. How so? Because people with antisocial personalities tend to reproduce earlier and more often than the rest of us (read my summary of this research here) [3].

In short, all of this sexual deception we’re seeing is there for a reason: it appears to be adaptive in an evolutionary sense. That said, let me reiterate that just because something evolved doesn’t make it right, nor does it justify anything. It just helps to explain why sexual deception is everywhere we look, and why it isn’t likely to go away.

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[1] Albo, M. J., Winther, G., Tuni, C., Toft, S., & Bilde, T. (2011). Worthless donations: male deception and female counter play in a nuptial gift-giving spider. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 11(1), 329.

[2] Norman, M. D., Finn, J., & Tregenza, T. (1999). Female impersonation as an alternative reproductive strategy in giant cuttlefish. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 266(1426), 1347-1349.

[3] Tielbeek, J. J., Barnes, J. C., Popma, A., Polderman, T. J., Lee, J. J., Perry, J. R., … & Boutwell, B. B. (2018). Exploring the genetic correlations of antisocial behaviour and life history traits. BJPsych Open, 4(6), 467-470.

Image Source: 123RF/elvan74

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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