How Little Lies Turn Into Big WhoppersWhen you tell a lie, your brain balks. Tell another one, and your brain handles it better. The more lies you tell, the more sensitized your brain becomes to your self-serving and dishonest behavior, leaving your conscience speechless. That's the word from researchers at University College London, who have determined that once we engage in dishonest behavior, such behavior only escalates.
The study: Led by Neil Garrett, the team asked 80 men and women ages 18 to 65 to tell a second person the amount of money in a jar of pennies. In some of the trials, certain conditions were presented so the participant benefited from being dishonest. For example, the participant may have been promised a higher reward if he or she overestimated the number of pennies in the jar.
Twenty-five of the 80 participants did the experiments while a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine scanned their brain.
The results: Over the course of the trials as incentives were added for dishonesty, people's dishonesty escalated. The brain scans showed that the amygdala, the part of the brain that is wired for emotions, had a marked reduction in activity in response to the lies a person told as the trials progressed. In fact, the British researchers found that the amount of the reduction in the amygdala's activity for each trial could actually predict the amount the participant's dishonesty would increase in the next trial. That is, the greater the fall in amygdala activity during one trial, the bigger the lie would be the next time.
"It is likely [that] the brain's blunted response to repeated acts of dishonesty reflects a reduced emotional response to these acts," Garrett said in a news conference announcing the study's results.
Interestingly, the amygdala appears to signal an aversion to acts or words that we consider to be wrong or immoral and that helps us to avoid doing the wrong thing. Call it a conscience. But the more frequently we lie or do wrong, the more that response from the amygdala fades. Call that the conscience being silenced.
Basically, we're good people. The researchers found that the participants did not lie as frequently or as much as they could have.
The study findings were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.