One lie really does lead to another. A new study published in Nature Neuroscience says the part of our brain that normally throws up alarm bells when we’re being dishonest gets desensitized over time the more we lie. The results suggest that once you lie the first time, it gets easier to lie again.
“Many dishonest acts are speculatively traced back to a sequence of smaller transgressions that gradually escalated,” the study said. “From financial fraud to plagiarism, online scams and scientific misconduct, deceivers retrospectively describe how minor dishonest decisions snowballed into significant ones over time.”
That feeling of uneasiness you get when you lie? It’s caused by measurable changes in your brain and body which trigger every time you’re dishonest. But while the first lie triggers a response in the amygdala – the part of the brain that regulates emotion – the study found that subsequent lies would activate it less so.
Here’s how researchers set up the study. One adult participant was asked to guess how many pennies were in a picture of a jar and send their estimate to an unseen partner. The participant was told they and their partner would get paid at the end of the study. But the payment structure changed over time. In the baseline scenario, participants were incentivized to be as accurate as possible in their guess to receive the payment. In others, they were incentivized to over- or under-estimate the amount to benefit themselves at the expense of the partner, benefit both, benefit the partner at the expense of themselves, or benefit the partner without affecting their own payment.
As the participants played the game, researchers scanned some of their brains under fMRIs and saw their amygdalas become less active over time while the size of their mis-estimations grew larger. Even further, researchers found dishonesty escalated most when the incentive structure was self-serving. Participants became dishonest more quickly when the situation benefited them.
The study reached a point where researchers were able to begin predicting how much the participant’s dishonesty would escalate in the next trial. So there’s real scientific evidence to the moral that lies are a slippery slope.
It goes to explain what could be running through the minds of people like Bernie Madoff who commit escalating levels of crime over time. His Ponzi scheme started off as a relatively small cover-up from investors following the 1987 stock market crash and snowballed from there into the largest Ponzi scheme in history at an estimated $64 billion. In interviews since his conviction, expressions of regret seem to come caveated with rationalization. It might just be predictable behavior for someone whose amygdala has received quite a bit of silencing over the years.