Liar, Liar: How the Brain Adapts to Telling Tall Tales

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As the U.S. presidential campaign has highlighted, the more a person lies, the easier it seems to become. But politics is not the only realm where dishonesty abounds. In 1996 Bernard Bradstreet, co-chief executive of the technology company Kurzweil Applied Intelligence was sentenced to jail for fraud. His initial transgressions were relatively minor: To boost quarterly accounts he allowed sales that had not quite been closed to go on the books. But before long customers' signatures were being forged, documents altered and millions of dollars in fake sales reported—allowing the company to show profits when it was losing money while investors paid millions for company stocks. Similar tales emerged after the Enron scandal, one of the largest bankruptcy cases in U.S. history. Anecdotal reports of dishonesty escalating over time are common, so a team of researchers from University College London (U.C.L.) and Duke University decided to investigate. “Whether it’s evading taxes, being unfaithful, doping in sports, making up data or committing financial fraud, deceivers often recall how small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time,” U.C.L. neuroscientist Tali Sharot, the work’s senior author, told members of the press during a teleconference last Friday. The team's findings, published today in Nature Neuroscience, confirm in a laboratory setting that dishonesty grows with repetition. The researchers also used brain imaging to reveal a neural mechanism that may help explain why. “We suspected there might be a basic biological principle of how our brain works that contributes to this phenomenon, called emotional adaptation,” Sharot said. In the study the researchers recruited 80 adults to participate in a task that involved estimating and advising a partner about the amount of money in a glass jar of pennies, which contained between £15 and £35 (around $18 to $43). The participants saw large, high-resolution images of the jars for three seconds and were told their partner (played by an actor) would see a smaller picture of the jar for one second. The participants were told their partner's goal was to estimate the amount with the help of the participant's advice, sent via linked computers. This allowed the researchers to record participants' estimates for each jar when they had no reason to lie. The participants were then given different instructions that provided incentives to be dishonest. Comparing estimates between the honest and dishonest situations allowed the team to measure degrees of dishonesty. Depending on the scenario, dishonesty could benefit the participant at their partner's expense, benefit the partner at the participant's expense, benefit both or benefit either the participant or partner without affecting the other. For instance, in the first case participants were told they would be rewarded according to how much their partner overestimated the amount whereas their partner would be rewarded for accuracy. Participants were told their partner had no knowledge of these new instructions.

Read More: Liar, Liar: How the Brain Adapts to Telling Tall Tales - Scientific American


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