Lessons from Animal and Plant Deception

Army soldier photo courtesy of U.S. Army; Lizard photo courtesy of ArtToday ©2000

In the animal and plant kingdoms, deception is among the most effective and widespread tools for survival. For example, when confronted by a predator, the Sepiola squid inserts a cloud of ink, which is colored and shaped just like the squid, between itself and the predator. The squid then changes color and darts away, leaving a confused predator in its wake. Members of RAND's urban operations team are analyzing deception in the animal and plant kingdoms to see how the domains of animal biology and behavior can teach further lessons in the military domain, specifically in urban operations.

Previous work has documented the important role of deception techniques in urban operations. The RAND team is building upon earlier work by delving more deeply into the variety and utility of biological deceptions. For example, studies in animal behavior have found that camouflage is often more effective in cluttered, densely populated areas, possibly due to the greater amount of information present and the difficulty an individual organism has in tracking and sorting that information. This finding could reasonably be applied to military operations in urban terrain, where identifying concealed combatants within a huge population of noisy noncombatants is a longstanding problem of great importance.

What Is Deception?

Creating a common definition with a common framework for analysis is one of the principal goals of this research. Researchers started with the current joint doctrinal definition of deception (drawn from Joint Pub 3-58): Those actions executed to deliberately mislead adversary military decision-makers as to friendly military capabilities, intentions, and operations, thereby causing the adversary to take specific actions that will contribute to the accomplishment of the friendly mission. This definition is quite broad and suggests an important truth about deception: virtually anything may be used by the deceiver if it assists in creating a disadvantageous misperception in the mind of the adversary.

The techniques of deception are many, and they extend well beyond the borders of the traditionally recognized (camouflage, decoys, etc.). Deception techniques generally fall into two broad categories: the morphological (the form of a thing) and behavioral (the function of a thing). Some deception techniques will have elements of both in degree.

Keeping in mind that the adversary possesses certain structures of perception (radars, FLIRs, eyeballs, ears, and the like) which he employs in a strategy of perception (inch-by-inch scrutiny, quick scans, random walks, spiral searches, and so on), we can come up with a simple, useful definition of deception. This definition takes into account both the joint definition of deception above and the infinite types of deception found in nature: Deception occurs when the designs embedded in the morphology and/or behaviors of one entity defeat the designs embedded in the perceptual structures and/or strategies of another entity (Rue, 1994).

This defeat leads to misperception, resulting in advantage for the deceiver.

A Resulting Four-Dimensional Framework

Researchers have created a unifying, four-dimensional framework from this definition. It accommodates all manner of biological and military deceptions. While some deception techniques will fit easily into single cells in our four-dimensional model, others will occupy more than one. That's fine: the utility of the model is in its comprehensiveness and sensitivity to nuances.

  • Proximate Objective. What is the immediate application of the deception? Is it to successfully acquire prey? To avoid detection? To learn important information about the target? There are three general possibilities: offense, defense, and intelligence-collection.

  • Type of Perceptual Defeat Sought. What is the intended effect to be gained against the target's perceptual structures or perceptual strategies? Is the deceiver attempting to mask his/her signature? Is the deceiver attempting to present a signature with some element of falsity in order to fool the target? These are the two general possibilities of perceptual defeat: evasion and manipulation.

  • Means of Deception. What is the content or character of the deception? If it is primarily form or substance (debris, dyes, temperature, shape, etc.) then we call it morphological. If it is primarily a matter of how the deception is done (timing, location, pattern, etc.) then we call it behavioral. Thus we would say that a tank with a coat of non-reflective paint matched to the environment (in order to avoid detection) is using a morphological deception. A tank driving at civilian speeds on civilian roads amongst civilian vehicles (in order to avoid detection), on the other hand, is employing a behavioral deception.

  • Level of Sophistication. How much experience, self-knowledge, and information about the target is included in the deception's design? This spectrum can generally be divided into four possibilities: 

    • Static

    • Dynamic

    • Adaptive

    • Premeditated

    1) Static deceptions are in place regardless of state, activity, or the histories of either the deceiver or target. 

    2) Dynamic deceptions are triggered under specific circumstances, even if the deception itself is unmodifiable. 

    3) Adaptive deceptions are triggered, like dynamic deceptions, but either the trigger or the deception itself may be modified with experience. 

    4) Finally, premeditated deceptions are designed and implemented based upon experience, knowledge of friendly capabilities and vulnerabilities, and moreover, observations about the target's sensors and search strategies. 

Researchers have created a matrix to show how various species and military deceptions fit into this framework.

What Can Be Determined Using This Framework? 

By using this analytic framework as a nexus between animal biology and military application, we may begin to formulate valuable hypotheses, devise experiments, and distill lessons. 

For example, as we proceed in our investigation we will ask questions like "Is evasion more or less common than manipulation?" "Is it more or less effective?" "Is manipulation more powerful in offense or defense?" "Which methods for evading detection are more valuable: behavioral or morphological techniques?" 

Clearly, there are many, many more questions to be asked. Decision-makers from the tactical to the strategic/political should know whether camouflage is more or less useful than decoys; whether to stage a feint or a feigned retreat; how much to tailor their disinformation; and so on.  Researchers believe that the theoretic step in unifying the two domains is critical in knowing what questions to ask and setting the stage for receiving valuable answers.