It’s election season and, as ever, truths are being bent and fibs are being peddled as candidates clamber towards the top of the greasy pole. To help make sense of such rampant dishonesty, researchers from University College London have just published a new study that reveals how the human brain can become so used to lying that it more or less stops caring.
The study, which was published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience, focuses on a brain region called the amygdala, which controls our awareness of and aversion to our own immoral acts, such as lying and violence.
As part of their experiments, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the activity in the amygdala of volunteers as they took part in a game in which they were given the opportunity to lie for personal gain. During the game, they were instructed to guess the number of pennies in a jar, and use their estimate to help advise another player who was only shown a pixelated image of the jar to determine how many pennies it contained.
The more inaccurate the second player’s guess was, the less money they would receive and the more money the first player would receive. As such, it was beneficial for the first player to try and deceive the second player, in order to secure a greater reward for themselves while depriving others.
Some politicians have more or less trained their amygdala to stop responding to their own dishonesty. Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock
Interestingly, the researchers discovered that participants initially told small lies, only slightly deceiving the second player, and that this was accompanied by a large spike in activity in the amygdala. However, as the game went on the size of these lies increased, while the response of the amygdala to these dishonest actions decreased.
"When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie," explained study co-author Tali Sharot in a statement. "However, this response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it falls the bigger our lies become. This may lead to a 'slippery slope' where small acts of dishonesty escalate into more significant lies."
In other words, the brain becomes accustomed to lying as activity in the amygdala diminishes. "It is likely the brain's blunted response to repeated acts of dishonesty reflects a reduced emotional response to these acts," adds co-researcher Neil Garrett.
All in all, these results show how telling a few small lies here and there can lead to habitual deceitfulness as we become desensitized to the moral baseness of our actions – which could well explain many of the things that come out of politicians’ mouths.