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Neuroscientists Show How Tiny Fibs Snowball Into Big Lies

By Amina Khan
Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Can a small lie lead to a bigger fib? Researchers suggest that may be the case and it may be biological. Scientists suspect this has to do with a biological process known as “emotional adaptation”, where over time the brain responds less and less strongly to a repeated stimulus.

Los Angeles Times

A little dishonesty goes a long way. Scientists who studied the brain activity of people who told small lies to benefit themselves found that these fibs appeared to pave the way to telling whoppers later.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, demonstrate how self-serving lies can escalate and offer a window into the processes in the brain at work.

It’s commonly held wisdom that small transgressions often lead to bigger and bigger ones, study co-author Tali Sharot of University College London said in a news briefing.

“Whether it’s evading tax, infidelity, doping in sports, making up data in science, or financial fraud, deceivers often recall how small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time and they suddenly found themselves committing quite large crimes,” Sharot said.

The researchers suspected this had to do with a biological process known as emotional adaptation, where over time the brain responds less and less strongly to a repeated stimulus. The first time you put on a perfume, for example, you smell it clearly; on the 10th day, you might hardly detect it. The amount of perfume hasn’t changed, but your brain’s response has.

Something similar might be happening when people lie, she explained.

“The first time you cheat, you feel quite bad about it, but that bad feeling keeps you from cheating a whole lot,” she said. “So it’s good. It curbs your dishonesty.”

But over time, the brain reacts less and less, the way it would to a strong smell. And a lower negative reaction could make it easier to lie the next time, the theory goes.

So Sharot and her colleagues set up an experiment to see if this really was true. The researchers designed a set of two-person guessing games. Eighty participants were asked to work with another person (who they thought was another participant, but was in fact an actor) to guess how many pennies were in a jar. But by shifting who got the reward after each round, the scientists made several different versions of this game, some of which incentivized participants to lie. The actual study participants had higher-resolution images of the jar of pennies than their partners, so they could choose whether to lead their partners to a more or less accurate answer.

In one version, participants were told that going for the most accurate estimates would help both them and their unknown partner. In another, overestimating the amount would benefit them but hurt their partner. In a third, both players would benefit if the participant overestimated the amount; in a fourth, overestimating the number of pennies would benefit the partner, at the participant’s expense. Another version would benefit only one of them (with no effect either way on the other).

The scientists also took a subset of 25 volunteers and used a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner to watch their brain activity during these tests. They found that the first time people exaggerated the estimates at the expense of their partner, they stretched the truth only slightly. On top of that, a region of the brain called the amygdala, which is associated with emotion, lit up. But as the experiment went on, the exaggerations grew bigger, and the response from the amygdala declined. The larger the drop in activity in the amygdala, the bigger their future lies were.

“I think this study’s the first empirical evidence that dishonest behavior escalates when it’s repeated, when all else is held constant, and it ties this phenomenon to emotional adaptation,” study lead author Neil Garrett of University College London said. “The same mechanism may well underlie all sorts of other escalations, such as escalation of risk-taking or escalation of violent behavior.”

People tended to lie most readily when lying in the game would help both them and their partner, perhaps because the mutual benefit made it easier to rationalize, Sharot added.

“I think it highlights the potential dangers of engaging in small acts of dishonesty on a regular basis,” Garrett said, “and also suggests that possible avenues for curbing dishonesty, such as finding ways to reproduce the negative emotional reaction that stops us from engaging in such acts.”

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