How Our Little White Lies Helped Lead To A Post-Truth Era

Neurological research shows that the more we lie, the easier it is for our brains to override the default tendency to be truthful

Ryan Lochte, who was caught fabricating a story about a robbery during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, attends a press conference. Photo by Matt Hazlett via Getty Images.

Social psychologists say that most of us are liars, at least a little bit. In our “post-truth” era—one in which the president-elect feels comfortable lying about statements he’s made before audiences of millions—Neil Garrett, a neuroscience researcher at Princeton, found himself fascinated by the topic of dishonesty. Probably just like you, Garrett had a gut feeling that little white lies often snowball over time into major falsehoods. “Many people report their dishonesty started in small instances over time and grew to much larger instances,” he says, though “no one had tested this in a lab setting.”

So he and his research team did just that. Their findings, recently published in Nature Neuroscience, suggest that even small lies done out of politeness put us on a slippery slope to much bigger deceptions.

“We were interested in seeing the mechanisms of why dishonesty escalation might be linked to emotional adaptation,” Garrett says, adding that the natural human reaction to unpleasant behavior is to have a strong initial (usually negative) reaction, unless the person is a sociopath or pathological liar. However, with incentive, our brains are geared to become desensitized to these emotional reactions.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Neurological research shows that simply practicing a lie allows people to override the default tendency to be truthful with greater ease.[/quote]

Psychologist Joseph Toomey, a professor at William James College in New England, points out that, “For most folks, lying is hard. It requires more cognitive and emotional resources because you must simultaneously keep in mind the actual truth you are trying to obscure, manufacture new information…and monitor your outward response. This can be exhausting.” However, he adds, “Recent neurological research shows that simply practicing a lie allows people to override the default tendency to be truthful with greater ease.”

Indeed, Garrett’s study found that “When (lying) behavior is repeated, our emotional reactions decrease,” he says. To test these parameters of lying, they invited 80 participants into the University College London Affective Brain Lab and put them through scenarios where they were motivated to lie repeatedly—and in greater magnitudes—for increasing financial rewards.

In the scenarios, participants were given a photo of a jar full of pennies and then asked to advise a partner in another room on how much money to guess was in the jar. The incentive structure varied in several ways: The more the partner overestimated, the higher the reward to the participant or the partner, depending on the particular scenario. In a variation on this experiment, the participants were told that that they and their partner would share in the overestimation rewards. In those cases, researchers found that the participants’ lies were even bigger than if the lies were only to benefit the partner. The scenarios included: dishonesty that would benefit the participant at the expense of their partner; dishonesty that would benefit both; dishonesty that would benefit the partner at the expense of the participant; dishonesty that would benefit the participant only (without affecting the partner); or dishonesty that would benefit the partner only (without affecting the participant).

In every case, participants believed that their partner was not aware of this incentive structure, but thought they were working together at all times to provide the most accurate estimate, which would benefit them both equally.

The team measured dishonesty “according to how far in the task they were,” Garrett says. So “dishonesty early on in the task got a bigger weight than dishonesty later in the tasks,” he says, suggesting that people who could lie with ease right out of the gate were already geared to lie without reward. But for most participants, as the financial rewards increased, so did the magnitude of the lies.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]As financial rewards increased, so did the magnitude of the lies.[/quote]

Participants were also hooked up to fMRI brain scanners to see which networks were being activated during dishonesty and what was happening to that part of the brain over the duration of the experiment. “The main brain structure (that’s activated in lying) is the amygdala, which is associated with emotional processing and detecting threats and fear in the environment,” Garrett says. Their analysis found that the “the extent to which that part of the brain responded for each unit of dishonesty decreased over time.” The amygdala became less responsive with every lie—particularly when the magnitude of the lies escalated. In other words, the less sensitive the brain becomes to one’s own dishonesty, the more participants’ dishonesty was likely to increase.

“We observed clear evidence of escalation in self-serving dishonesty, such that the magnitude of dishonesty got larger and larger over the course of a block,” Garrett says. While excited by this research, which is the “first empirical research that shows dishonesty increases over time when you hold all other factors constant,” Garrett says more research will be necessary to determine how sustained the effects are.

However, Toomey says it’s important to remember that most deceptions aren’t exactly diabolical. People typically lie “to avoid embarrassment, maintain the status quo in a relationship, maintain a particular image, or to avoid harming someone else.” Our whole society depends on lies to function, which is probably why our brains are structures at helping us get more comfortable with falsehoods over time.

The trick, it seems, is to keep ourselves from getting so good at lying that we become “trapped” in deception like Ryan Lochte or Richard Nixon or Anthony Weiner or any number of public figures caught in excessive fabrications. Frequently distorting reality can make it nearly impossible to figure what is or isn’t truthful anymore.

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