Lying, whether it be a little white lie or something with a bit more weight to it, is a common activity within society; integrating itself into many domains. A new study shows that there is a biological mechanism that supports lying and it is this support that allows for the escalation of simple, small lies into more extravagant ones.
Called “The Brain Adapts to Dishonesty”, the study provides evidence for the self-serving dishonesty progression. A group of 80 were instructed to play a game; a game designed at testing honesty. Participants had to look at photos of jars containing pennies to make an estimate on the number of pennies there were in each. Each ‘player’ then had to coach a partner (unknown to the participants, this person was an actor) via a computer into making an estimate based off the same pictures of lower quality.
The game was played in two different ways. In one, both participants would financially benefit from accurate coaching of the partner; the more accurate the estimate, the more money they both received. In the second situation, deliberately misleading your partner away from an accurate estimate, would be more beneficial to yourself at the expense of your partner. Over time, participants in the second version of the game would drive their partner further away from an accurate estimate as rounds of the game progress; increasing their reward. This was supported by less and less blood flow to the amygdala; a term called emotional adaptation. The amygdala (above) is an area of the brain sensitive to the recollection of previous dishonest behaviour as well as emotions and survival instincts.
“The first time you cheat on your taxes, for example, you might feel quite bad about it,” Dr Tali Sharot said. “But the next time you cheat, you have already adapted, and there is less of a negative reaction to hold you back.” Whether it is “infidelity, doping in sports, making up data in science, or financial fraud, the deceivers often recall that small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time,” said Sharot.
Dr Neil Garrett, a colleague of Dr Sharot, said “This is in line with suggestions that our amygdala signals aversion to acts that we consider wrong or immoral,”.He continued with “We only tested dishonesty in this experiment, but the same principle may also apply to escalations in other actions such as risk taking or violent behaviour.” With this emotional slippery slope becoming desensitised over time, it might just be that honest is the best policy.