They say each lie is easier than the last.
Let’s try it out.
I had a bagel for breakfast this morning. I am completely happy with my diet. My loan and rent payments are — deep breath — entirely reasonable. I am totally fine with … how this political season … has … gajsdfasdjfklsadf.
Damn it. I can’t do it.
But there is a well-known idea that little white lies can eventually snowball into giant ones. (For reference, consider any romantic comedy movie, ever.)
So scientists from University College London decided to see if lies really spin out of control like we think they do.
To test this, they made people play a lying game, and scientists watched their brains.
The game was pretty simple: The player’s task was to look at a jar of pennies and try to tell a friend how many pennies there were. They’d each get a prize based on their guesses. Sometimes the prizes would be better if they cooperated, but sometimes the player would get better prizes if they lied to their friend.
While this was all happening, the scientists used a type of brain scan called an fMRI to watch the activity in the person’s brain.
If the player lied, a region of their brain called the amygdala would light up on the scans.
The amygdala is kind of like an emotional control booth in our brains. It lights up whenever something makes us feel an intense emotion, such as learning your child bought an alligator.
The scientists saw that same emotional center light up when a person told a lie.
But the amygdala didn’t always stay lit up and that’s the interesting part of this story.
Each time a person told a self-serving lie, their amygdala reacted a little less. And larger drops in activity predicted an increase in the size of the person’s lies.
So if the amygdala controls emotion, and we see less activity after repeated lying, that means…
Repeated lies might blunt the brain’s emotional response.
At least, that’s what the scientists are speculating. (They’re a little cautious about making a big statement just yet.) They think that the first time we lie, our amygdala produces a strong emotional response, such as shame or guilt. The more you lie, however, the less the amygdala protests. Basically, the more you lie, the easier it is for you to keep lying.
However, the scientists didn’t see the same pattern when the lie actually benefited the player’s friend — just when it screwed them over.
So those little white lies we tell to protect our friends? Those stay with us. But the lies we tell to serve ourselves? Those can get so easy, we don’t even feel them.
Scientists think this could also teach us new things about decision-making in general too, but they need to do a bit more research on that line of thinking.
“We only tested dishonesty in this experiment, but the same principle may also apply to escalations in other actions such as risk taking or violent behavior,” study author Neil Garrett said in a statement.
Let’s try this lying thing again…
I did not eat pizza last night. I am definitely not currently bingeing my way through Luke Cage. The traffic in my city is — eye twitch — fine. Just fine. And I am definitely not freaking out about climate change. Nope. Not at all.
I did it! Take that, amygdala.
The research was published in Nature Neuroscience.
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