BEHAVIOR
October 31, 2016

No, Really, You Look Great

Lying gets easier if you do it enough, British researchers have found. It's like any habit.

If you’ve ever told a lie — and who hasn't — you may notice that it makes you feel a little uncomfortable. But if you tell another (and another), the uncomfortable feeling may fade. According to the results of a new study, lying gets easier the more we do it, and this change actually shows up in the brain.

Eighty people came into the lab to take part in a task in which they had to estimate the number of pennies in a jar. Sometimes, researchers gave them an incentive to over- or under-estimate the number, depending on whether the estimate would benefit or harm them or another, unseen, participant in various ways.

Apparently, lying is much like any other endeavor that feels uncomfortable at first, but lessens over time.

For instance, when having a larger number would benefit the participant, but harm their partner, people tended to arrive at larger estimates — a subtle form of lying. These exaggerations tended to escalate over the course of the experiment. Even more interesting was that there were some measureable brain changes that went along with it.

The amygdala, which governs anxiety and emotion, became active when the participants lied. But after they had a little more experience with lying, it activated less and less.

“When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie,” said study author, Tali Sharot, in a statement. “However, this response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it falls, the bigger our lies become. This may lead to a ‘slippery slope’ where small acts of dishonesty escalate into more significant lies.”

Apparently, lying is much like any other endeavor that feels uncomfortable at first, but lessens over time. It's like spending time with your in-laws, eating healthy food or quitting a bad habit. Over time, you just get used to it, and your brain responds less actively. The same seems be true with lying.

“It is likely the brain's blunted response to repeated acts of dishonesty reflects a reduced emotional response to these acts,” says lead author, Neil Garrett. “This is in line with suggestions that our amygdala signals aversion to acts that we consider wrong or immoral. We only tested dishonesty in this experiment, but the same principle may also apply to escalations in other actions such as risk taking or violent behaviour.”

There’s a wealth of research that could come out of this finding, along with new insight regarding different behaviors and habits that we pick up and acclimate to over time. In the meantime, if you notice yourself lying, and feeling more and more comfortable with it (perhaps even liking it), remember the results of the study and try to catch yourself, if you can, before it starts to feel normal.

The study was carried out at the University College London and published in Nature Neuroscience.
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