When Lying Turns To Habit

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Many sayings and quotes suggest that lying is a bad thing, including “Honesty is the best policy” or “Liars go to hell.” However, despite all this and warnings from those around us, we all still lie. There are times when our lies would put us into trouble, but there are also times when we lie for the benefit of others, such as saying somebody’s cooking is delicious despite the apparent blandness of the food or you love that weird shirt your mom gifted you.

These were more akin to “white lies” or prosocial lies. With a real lie, the intent is malicious, and the consequence is serious. While the purpose is pleasant and positive when telling a white lie, which is frequently more like a harmless twisting of the truth and the consequences are typically minor.

But whatever type of lie it is, repeating it often can turn it into a harmful habit. University College London researchers did a study that offered additional proof and the underlying mechanics for how little acts of dishonesty can grow into bigger offenses. The study in question showed that practice makes perfect when it comes to lying since the brain gradually becomes accustomed to ignoring the emotions that deceit causes.

How Brain Adapts To Dishonesty

Many unethical actions can theoretically be linked to a series of smaller infractions that become more serious over time. Deceivers reflect on how small-scale dishonest actions grew into major ones over time, from financial fraud to plagiarism, online fraud, and scientific misconduct.

We did not have a solid knowledge of how and why small misconducts may gradually lead to larger ones despite the major impact these actions have on economics, policy, and education until the authors of the Nature Neuroscience study set out to empirically prove dishonesty progression in a controlled laboratory setting and investigate the underlying mechanism.

A substantial body of studies showing that the response to emotion-evoking stimuli decreases with repeated exposure provided the foundation for the researchers’ concept. For instance, it has been demonstrated that with each subsequent exposure to the images, both amygdala activation in reaction to negative images and affective assessments of those images diminish. Thus, it is possible that repetition also weakens the emotive signal that goes along with self-serving dishonesty. If signs that could deter dishonest behavior weaken with time, dishonest behaviors may rise. As a result, modest moral violations that start harmlessly could grow into serious transgressions with negative repercussions.

The researchers used brain imaging with a behavioral task in which subjects were repeatedly given chances to act dishonestly to test for dishonesty escalation and its underlying neurological mechanism. They found voxels in the brain that were previously linked to emotion using Neurosynth, a tool for large-scale automated synthesis of thousands of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies.

In the study, 58 participants between 18 and 65 were given a money jar and informed how much was inside. They were then instructed to inform a second individual of how much money was in the coin jar.

The following options were presented to the study participants:

  • Benefit from lying at the expense of the other.
  • Benefit from lying at the expense of both.
  • Benefit from lying at the expense of the research participant.

In contrast to the condition that benefited the second person at the participant’s expense, dishonesty increased more throughout numerous trials for the two conditions that benefited the participant.

A portion of the participants finished the test while having their functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain activity monitored (fMRI)

The amygdala in both brain hemispheres displayed a gradually diminished response to self-serving, but not self-harming, lying over time, according to the images from the fMRI scans.

The findings also imply that the reason behind dishonest conduct influences how dishonesty escalates. Specifically, whereas the degree of dishonesty was determined by factors that benefited both the self and the other, the amygdala’s reaction to it over time was best explained by whether the lying was self-serving.

A constant rate of dishonesty was seen when participants lied to benefit another person. This is in line with the idea that the purpose for engaging in dishonest behavior affects how that behavior is regarded, so when a person participates in dishonest behavior solely for the advantage of another, it may be seen as ethically acceptable. Therefore, persistent dishonesty alone is insufficient for escalation to occur; a self-interested purpose is also required.

While the study showed that self-serving dishonesty escalated in decisions, we hypothesize that decreased amygdala reactivity may have significant behavioral repercussions that stretch to other decision-making domains.

Together, these findings shed fresh light on this crucial aspect of human conduct by exposing a biological mechanism that supports the growth of dishonesty. The findings highlight the potential risks associated with routinely committing tiny acts of dishonesty, risks that are regularly seen in a variety of settings, including business, politics, and law enforcement. These revelations could impact how governments develop deterrents to stop the deception. Despite being little at first, engaging in dishonest behavior may start a chain reaction that eventually results in more dishonest behaviors.

Journal Reference

Garrett, N., Lazzaro, S. C., Ariely, D., & Sharot, T. (2016). The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience, 19(12), 1727–1732. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4426 

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