Strategic disinformation outperforms honesty in competition for social influence

Ralf H.J.M. Kurvers, Uri Hertz, Jurgis Karpus, Marta P. Balode, Bertrand Jayles, Ken Binmore, Bahador Bahrami

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Competition for social influence is a major force shaping societies, from baboons guiding their troop in different directions, to politicians competing for voters, to influencers competing for attention on social media. Social influence is invariably a competitive exercise with multiple influencers competing for it. We study which strategy maximizes social influence under competition. Applying game theory to a scenario where two advisers compete for the attention of a client, we find that the rational solution for advisers is to communicate truthfully when favored by the client, but to lie when ignored. Across seven pre-registered studies, testing 802 participants, such a strategic adviser consistently outcompeted an honest adviser. Strategic dishonesty outperformed truth-telling in swaying individual voters, the majority vote in anonymously voting groups, and the consensus vote in communicating groups. Our findings help explain the success of political movements that thrive on disinformation, and vocal underdog politicians with no credible program.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103505
Pages (from-to)103505
Number of pages24
Issue number12
StatePublished - 17 Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Lucas Molleman for help with programming the experiments and Deborah Ain for feedback on the manuscript. We acknowledge financial support by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development . B.B. and J.K. were supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (819040; acronym: rid-O). B.B. was supported by the NOMIS foundation and the Humboldt Foundation . J.K. was supported by LMUexcellent, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Free State of Bavaria under the Excellence Strategy of the Federal Government and the Länder. U.H. was supported by the National Institute of Psychobiology in Israel ( 211-19-20 ) and the Israel Science Foundation ( 1532/20 ).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s)


  • Behavioral neuroscience
  • Biocomputational method
  • Biological sciences
  • Neuroscience
  • Social sciences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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