Beware the little white lie

By Joy Carrico | Published Wednesday, October 26, 2016

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A study was released Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience that concludes the brain adapts to dishonesty.

Scientists devised a study where they gave people incentives to be dishonest without having to admit it and measured their brain activity.

The emotional centers of the brain were very active when people first started being dishonest in the study, but the activity quieted down as the subjects continued in their dishonesty. Additionally, the researchers found that, as the study progressed, the subjects’ dishonesty grew. In other words, they got used to lying and the lies got bigger as they became more comfortable with pulling one over on someone else.

The study measured different types of lies. They measured dishonest behavior that was self-serving and dishonesty that was for the benefit of others. The results reported above were for lies that were self-serving. But when people were dishonest to the benefit of others, the results were different. That type of dishonesty showed no particular tendency to escalate.

It is well known that lying is a slippery slope and what started as a little white lie can often lead to big black ones. This study provides evidence that this is not merely a moral issue, but a physiological one. If I understood the study’s findings accurately, the researchers were able to predict escalation of dishonesty in subjects by examining the level of activity – or lack of activity – in their brains when they lied. I see a new type of lie-detector test coming.

Have you ever asked for water in a restaurant and filled your cup with soda instead? Or lingered in a movie theater to catch another film after the one you paid to see is over?

These little cheats are things people routinely do, and even revel in getting away with. There are thousands of ways to cheat just a little in life. And the primary argument I hear for doing it is “What’s the harm?”

Well, according to recent findings, the harm is to ourselves.

We often think about the snowball effect of lying as being about having to lie to cover up the lie, etc. But this study shows something else. These subjects were not challenged in their dishonesty. Their acts of dishonesty did not have anything to do with each other. And yet the lying still grew.

It is certainly true that we weave a tangled web when we try to deceive someone, getting ourselves caught up in our web of lies and ultimately getting caught. It is also true that the little lie that no one will ever catch us in, for which the external consequences are small, if they exist at all, also weave a tangled web. The brain adapts to dishonesty, and as a consequence, dishonesty grows.

A lie, however small, is not a solitary act that I can walk away from without consequence. When I am dishonest, my brain undergoes neurological changes that make it easier for me to lie again, changes that promote telling bigger lies. This, in essence, changes who I am. I may not pay out of my pocket for my ill-gotten soda, but I pay nonetheless.

Is my capacity to be honest worth the $3.50 I saved by not paying for a soda? I’m gonna go with “no.”

So if I don’t want to become a liar, the answer seems to be simple: don’t tell even the smallest lie.

I said it was simple. I didn’t say it was easy.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. She hopes her brain would light up like a Christmas tree if she were a part of this study.

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