Repeat lying can desensitize our discomfort to lying. The more we lie, the more comfortable we become with lying. This can be especially true if personal gains are at stake.
One Lie Can Lead to Bigger Lies
Understanding why people are dishonest is complicated. Theories about that have been the subject of psychology and sociology books. New research that focused on a specific region in our brains suggests there is.
“When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie,” said Tali Sharot, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. “However, this response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it (fades) the bigger our lies become.”
A decreased amygdala response, in other words, may help explain the “slippery slope” of lying, said Sharot, one of the authors of “The Human Brain Adapts to Dishonesty,” just published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The scientists involved in this research tapped Neurosynth, a platform that culls thousands of maps of brain activity, to identify parts of the brain associated with emotion.
While the amygdala, located deep in our temporal lobes, wasn’t the exclusive region highlighted, it predominated, researchers said. So when the neuroscientists set out to look at how the brain changes while lying, they focused on that region.
A study was devised in which participants were partnered with someone else and then put into a brain-imaging scanner. They were shown images of a glass jar filled with pennies and asked to advise their partners (who had a blurry image) about the amount of money in the jar — thereby establishing a baseline.
Without telling participants to be dishonest, the researchers switched incentives. In one approach, they incentivized them to lie by saying that if they got their partners to overestimate the amounts it would entitle the participant to a bigger cut of a financial reward.
The researchers found that when dishonesty served the participants, they were more inclined to lie. The more they lied, the less their amygdala lit up.
“If someone lies repeatedly, they no longer have an emotional response when they lie,” explained Sharot. “In absence of an emotional response, they feel more comfortable and lie more.”
The concept, she said, isn’t exclusive to emotions.
Consider this: A cold pool feels unbearable at first, and then you adapt. A woman drenched in the perfume she’s worn for ages doesn’t notice the smell, but strangers recoil. Gruesome photographs are less difficult to look at the second, third, fourth time around.
Similarly, small lies can desensitize our brains to the negative feelings associated with lying, which opens the door to more significant lies. And the more often we’re dishonest about something, the easier it is to continue being dishonest. Read more…
Now, how do we reverse this phenomenon?