Telling consecutive lies loosens your brain’s discomfort with dishonesty
Once you tell a lie, chances are it’s going to clash with reality at some point. To clear up the confusion, you can either fess up, or possibly lie again to somehow rejoin your fiction with the facts around you. As the proverb warns, “lies beget more lies,” and this process is likely going to be repeated each time your first lie, and the subsequent fiction around it, with more and more chances for your fabrication to come undone. However, neurologists have found that while more and more lies may end up being difficult to thread together for your memory, your amygdala actually finds the process easier the more lies you tell. It actually encourages you to lie more, because it stops trying to remind you that it’s all a bad idea in the first place.
Like many details in life, this may feel like common sense thanks to our anecdotal experiences, but for science to really approach the problem it needs to be tested in a controlled experiment. In this case, volunteers were paired up to discuss the amount of money in a jar, but one of them was given an ulterior motive: if their partner overestimated the money in the jar, the primary test-subject would be rewarded with a larger portion of that money. This secret goal gave one person a motive to egg the estimates of their partner higher and higher, which could be done by stretching the truth about how much money was likely to be in the jar.
Easing into untruths
After an initial lie, subsequent lies became easier and easier. They also were likely to include bigger deviations from the truth, although never as big as they could have been. Participants had a ceiling on how high they could guess, but that never came directly into play, as the false quantities always started from the bottom up, creeping a bit higher over time, but always being seemingly anchored to the truth, rather than maximizing profits.
All of this was monitored with fMRI scanners looking at participants’ brains while they thought about the money in the jar. A clear pattern was found in the liars’ amygdalas, a brain structure associated with emotional regulation, among other things. With each lie, the amygdala showed less and less activity, indicating that the emotional response to lying was being diminished with each fib. A pattern even emerged with brain activity and the extent of the next lie; a bigger decline in activity in the amygdala predicted a proportional escalation of the subsequent lie.
Limited to the lab?
This doesn’t mean that the first deviation from the truth will doom us all to a spiral of dishonesty. Researchers noted that the pattern in activity didn’t hold steady if lying benefited both parties— if a liar thought they were helpig their themselves and their partner when lying, the amygdala didn’t protest as much from the start. It’s also important to note that by being in a lab, social factors weren’t able to provide feedback on dishonest behavior either. Nobody was punished for being caught in a lie, nor was anyone rewarded for being honest. It may turn out that social pressures actually partner with our amygdalas to help keep us on the up-and-up. Alternatively, perhaps the dwindling brain activity seen in this study was really concern over social pressures, and when no punishment was offered for lying, test subjects amygdalas were just becoming less worried about being ostracized?
Source: From Fibs to Fraud: Why Lying Is a Slippery Slope by Carl Engelking, D-brief