People who tell small, self-serving lies are likely to progress to bigger falsehoods, and over time, the brain appears to adapt to the dishonesty, according to a new study. (this SO explains Donald Trump) Scientists have provided a glimpse into how the brain is de-sensitized each time we tell as lie. Worse yet, telling small lies physiologically leads us to tell bigger lies in future! A study published in Nature Neuroscience, provides the first empirical evidence that self-serving lies gradually escalate and reveals how this happens in our brains. The finding, the researchers said, provides evidence for the “slippery slope” sometimes described by wayward politicians, corrupt financiers, unfaithful spouses and others in explaining their misconduct.
As we’ve seen demonstrated in the 2016 elections and in the Wells Fargo sales scandal, small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time. Whether it’s evading taxes, being unfaithful, doping in sports, making up data or committing financial fraud, scientists have been able to demonstrate, in a controlled experiment, that that dishonesty increases in size and frequency with repetition. This study is the first empirical evidence that dishonest behavior escalates when it’s repeated, when all else is held constant.
The study included 80 volunteers who took part in a team estimation task that involved guessing the number of pennies in a jar and sending their estimates to unseen partners using a computer. This took place in several different scenarios. In the baseline scenario, participants were told that aiming for the most accurate estimate would benefit them and their partner. In various other scenarios, over- or under-estimating the amount would either benefit them at their partner’s expense, benefit both of them, benefit their partner at their own expense, or only benefit one of them with no effect on the other. The researchers found during these scenarios that the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotion, was most active when people first lied for personal gain. The amygdala’s response to lying declined with every lie while the magnitude of the lies escalated. Crucially, the researchers found that larger drops in amygdala activity predicted bigger lies in future.
“Think about it like perfume,” one of the researchers said. “You buy a new perfume, and it smells strongly. A few days later, it smells less. And a month later, you don’t smell it at all.” Biology seems to back up the warnings parents give to their kids: that one lie just leads to another. We swear to it!