Avoiding confrontation, not hurting someone’s feelings, securing a better position for yourself–there are many reasons why people bend the truth from time to time. While everyone has told a “little white lie,” a new study suggests that so-called innocent lies may be a gateway into a more consistent, pathological habit.
The MRI study, entitled The brain adapts to dishonesty, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that the amygdala, the region of the brain responsible for “fight or flight,” plays an integral role in the telling of lies.
“When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie,” said Dr. Tali Sharot, a lead author of the study. “However, this response fades as we continue to lie and the more it [does] the bigger our lies become. This may lead to a slippery slope where small acts of dishonesty escalate into more significant lies.
The amgydala wasn’t the only brain region that lit up during the MRI scanning, but it did feature the most prominently. The researchers speculate that liars may develop a tolerance to the initial negative emotional response they feel when lying, similar to developing a tolerance to pain or the negative effects of alcohol. “The first time you cheat, say, on your taxes, you feel bad about it. But that’s good, it curbs your dishonesty,” said Dr. Sharot. “Next time you cheat, you’ve already adapted. There’s less of a negative reaction to hold you back, and you might lie more.”