LIVING

The More We Lie, The Easier It Gets, Says Study

10/25/2016 11:24 EDT

Whether cheating on taxes or one's lover, the little lies we tell can quickly escalate into big ones, according to a study released Monday that describes dishonesty as a "slippery slope."

Serial untruths, moreover, register a diminishing emotional response in the brain, researchers reported in Nature Neuroscience.

Indeed, the biochemical link is so strong that scientists could accurately predict in experiments how big a lie someone was about to tell just by looking at the brain scan of their previous prevarications.

liar

"This study is the first empirical evidence that dishonest behaviour escalates when it is repeated," said lead author Neil Garret, a researcher in the Department of Experimental Psychology at University College London.

Understanding how people graduate from white lies to whoppers despite the social norms or morals that discourage mendacity is of more than academic interest, the authors argue.

Whether it is "infidelity, doping in sports, making up data in science, or financial fraud, the deceivers often recall that small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time," noted co-author Tali Sharot, also of University College London.

"They suddenly found themselves committing quite large crimes."

liar

In the experiments, some 80 volunteers were asked to individually assess high-resolution photos of glass jars filled with different amounts of pennies.

Then, via a computer, they were instructed to advise a remote partner looking at a poor-quality image of the same jar as to how much money it contained.

These partners were in fact actors working with the scientists, but the volunteers did not know that.

In the first test, the volunteers were given an incentive to be honest.

"They were told that the more accurate their partner's estimate, the more money they would both receive," Garrett explained in a press briefing.

This set a benchmark for other scenarios in which volunteers were given an incentive to lie.

In one experiment, a deliberate falsehood resulted in gains for both advisor and advised. In another, the volunteer understood that a self-interested lie would come at the expense of the partner.

Practice makes perfect

"People lie the most when it is good for them and for the other person," said Sharot.

"When it is only good for them, but hurts someone else, they lie less."

Participants differed sharply on how far they wandered from the truth, and the rate at which their dishonesty escalated.

And those identified beforehand in questionnaires as less forthright were also more likely to lie during the experiment.

But most volunteers not only easily slipped into a pattern of dissembling; they also ramped up the intensity of their lies over time.

Twenty-five of the participants underwent functional MRIs — brain scans — during the experiments.

The part of the brain that processes emotions, the amygdala, responded strongly when lying occurred.

At least it did so at first.

"People lie the most when it is good for them and for the other person."

But even as the lies grew bolder, the amygdala lit up less and less, a process the researchers called "emotional adaptation."

"The first time you cheat on your taxes, for example, you might feel quite bad about it," Sharot said. "That bad feeling curbs your dishonesty."

"But the next time you cheat, you have already adapted, and there is less of a negative reaction to hold you back."

Whether the reduced activity in the brain's emotional command centre helped drive the slide towards dishonesty, or was simply a reflection of it, remains unclear.

But one conclusion from the study does seem inescapable: the more you lie, the better you get at it.

"If emotional arousal goes down, it is possible that people are less likely to catch you in a lie," said Sharot.

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  • What's The Baseline?
    Ascertain their baseline behavior, how they behave normally. Interrogation officers ask mundane questions first, such as, 'How are you, how was your day?' This is to see what’s normal and what construes a deviation later on. Notice how they normally stand, facial gestures, body language, then when they deviate you will spot the red flag.
  • Gestures
    We use gestures because we’re recalling real emotions. Liars cannot recall real emotions so they tend to freeze instead, making them look stiff and awkward. Lack of movement in the torso area is a big clue for this.
  • Shoulders
    Liars will often display a lopsided shoulder shrug, it’s as if they themselves don’t believe what they’re saying.
  • The Fake Smile
    A liar's smile can look more like a smirk, masking anger or contempt, or it can be assymetric. And it won’t reach the eyes.
  • The Nose Has It
    Tics – nose rubbing, touching the face, touching an ear – will all increase in frequency. Lying can be a very stressful activity on the brain, the body will seek to self-pacify itself, which naturally occur when we’re feeling stressed and anxious. It goes back to when we were younger, our parents would soothe us, and this is a sophisticated way of soothing ourselves under pressure. Signs can turn into grooming gestures, hair, straightening a tie, picking lint off a jacket. President Clinton touched his nose 88 times in a testimonial lasting a few hours about Monica Lewinsky.
  • Posture
    A liar will feel uncomfortable facing the accuser, they will sit at an angle, anything to distance themselves from the accuser. The posture will be stiff and awkward.
  • Look Me In The Eye
    Liars will often over-compensate with too much eye contact, thinking it makes them more credible and sincere. Beware if someone’s staring unnaturally, accompanied by a facial expression less animated. They may look downward – our normal blink rate is once every 5 seconds, with a liar it moves to every two or three seconds.
  • Get Me Out Of Here!
    Kicking feet – the foot starts kicking upwards, a subtle indicator of stress, the rate and intensity of the jitter as the questioning increases. They will point towards where the body wants to go, ie the nearest exit.
  • Between You, Me And This Desk...
    The telling of the lie makes people feel defensive, so they will form barriers – coffee, newspaper, chairs, anything to provide distance and an imaginary shield for comfort and safety. Arms and legs will also be used. Hands will be out of view, parked in pockets or being sat on.
  • I'll Ask You Again...
    Can you repeat the question, please? Or they will repeat the question back to you, to give them enough time to think of a response. Politicians do this a lot.