Web of lies: research reveals adaptation towards dishonesty

By Angelica Coleman

Staff Writer

According to a recent study, individuals who begin to tell small lies are more inclined to participate in greater levels of dishonesty with repetition.


Source: Meg Lauber / Flickr

The research, published in Nature Neuroscience on Oct. 24, shows that there is a general decrease in signaling from the amygdala, an area of the brain that controls emotional response, when an individual displays a history of dishonest behavior.

The lowering of signal levels with each lie correlates to a heightened level of dishonesty in future decision-making. Thus, lying behavior is proven to be a kind of “slippery slope”, the study explains.

The research, conducted by scientists at University College London and Duke University, consisted of experiments in which participants were asked to give estimates about the number of pennies in a jar. The participants were partnered, and were given various incentives for lying about their estimation.

Sometimes participants were informed that their lie would increase the compensation for them and their partner. Other times, they were told that lying would increase their compensation but decrease that of their partner. Overall, the participants were inclined to lie when it resulted in a reward, regardless of the consequences for their partners.

It is believed that lower signal levels in the amygdala after repetitive lying directly cause an increase in lying behavior. The research showed that the function of the signal decrease could actually predict the magnitude of increase in dishonesty for the next decision made by a participant.

However, there could be other factors influencing lying behavior. For example, the repetition of such lying behavior could also be influenced by the lack of consequence in this experimental environment. Without consequence, it is logical that the feeling of guilt or wrongdoing decreased in the individual with time. Nonetheless, whether it has causal elements or not, the amygdala signaling is shown to be directly connected to and influenced by lying behavior.

Researcher Tali Sharot reported to NPR that more studies should be conducted “to examine if similar adaptation causes escalation of other negative behaviors, such as violent acts and excessive risk taking.” Research like this could have a big impact on how we understand behavioral development.

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