From Fibs to Fraud: Why Lying Is a Slippery Slope

By Carl Engelking | October 24, 2016 11:43 am

In the 1995 movie “While You Were Sleeping”, lonely Lucy (played by Sandra Bullock) saves a stranger from certain death after he falls on the train tracks. But in the hospital, she lies to the man’s entire family by claiming she’s his fiancé. It goes downhill from there.

It’s the plotline of countless romantic comedies: a tiny lie or deception grows into a monster until everything falls apart in hilarious, heart-breaking and ultimately heart-melting fashion. It’s the ol’ “snowball lie” trope, and it plays out in classics like “Sabrina” to more modern flicks like “Wedding Crashers.”

There’s a reason the snowball lie is a popular premise in movies; it’s a reflection of real life. Tax evaders, cheating spouses and blood-doping athletes often recall dipping their toe in the shallow waters of deception long before they found themselves drowning in a sea of increasingly severe, perhaps criminal, fabrications. So why have so many tumbled down this slippery slope? Maybe we just can’t help ourselves.

Scientists, in a new study, say the lies we tell progressively diminish the brain’s sensitivity to dishonesty, which makes it easier to push the envelope in subsequent deceptions. It’s something we’ve always assumed, but now scientists believe they’ve, for the first time, empirically shown that our brains adapt to deception,  

Financial Advisors

Researchers at the University College London based their study on the theory of emotional adaptation. When a person sees a gory image for the first time, for example, neurons in the amygdala — the brain’s emotional processing center — fire fiercely. But repeated exposure to graphic content quiets these neurons and the images lose their shock value.

To see if this dynamic was true for dishonesty, researchers designed a simple game. While sitting in an fMRI scanner (a method of measuring changes in blood flow to parts of the brain), participants examined 60 photos of glass jars filled with pennies. Their task: share advice about how many pennies each jar contained with a partner. Eighty participants were recruited for the study, and 25 played the game in the fMRI machine.

“You could think of this as a well informed financial advisor tasked with advising a client who is less informed about what investments to make,” says Neil Garrett, a UCL researcher and lead author of the study.

In one scenario, participants were tasked with being honest — the more accurate the estimate the bigger payday everyone. In another scenario, participants were told if they overestimated the amount of money in the jar, they would get a larger cut. Their partner would get screwed. It may come as no surprise, but people grew more and more dishonest in the latter scenario.

The Appeal of a Lie

When participants lied the first time, researchers observed a strong response in the amygdala, but with each new deception, that reaction diminished. And as activity in the amygdala fell, the size of the next lie increased. In fact, researchers could use the level of reduced activity in the amygdala to quantify the amount a person would lie in a subsequent trial. Garrett and company published their study Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“The more the amygdala response dropped per one unit of lying, the more participants would subsequently lie the next opportunity they got,” says Garrett.

Garrett believes his team’s study is the first empirical evidence that lying begets bigger lies, in the same spirit of emotional adaptation — we get used to it. He says a similar mechanism may also drive risk-taking and violent behaviors.

It’s important to note that these results were observed in a controlled environment, so it’s hard to say if dishonesty follows a similar trajectory in the real world. Outside the lab, there are so many factors that facilitate dishonesty escalation or bring it to a halt. The laws of the land, social ties and positions of power and accountability can all impact this trajectory. Still, researchers write, knowing more about the underlying mechanisms of dishonesty escalation may help inform better laws or initiatives to curb it in the first place.

For Garrett, there’s a simpler takeaway from their work.

“It highlights the potential dangers of engaging in small acts of dishonesty on a regular basis,” says Garrett.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • OWilson

    The answer to liars, is the same as the answer to crime. Low or zero tolerance.

    Once they are accepted, they become routine.

    The first Clinton Presidency was the first where a known liar was allowed to continue in office, wasn’t forced from office, or had the good sense to resign. “I want you to listen to me, I’m gonna say this again……”

    The Media had so defended him that when he came out and admitted he lied, they still stuck to their script. “It depends what “is” is.

    Now it’s routine. “You can keep your plan, your doctor, PERIOD!”

    The New York Times endorses a candidate who their esteemed columnist, William Safire called a “congenital liar”.

    But at least half the country now is quite comfortable with liars.

    Or are they?

    We’ll see next month!

    • Uncle Al

      True Americans are deserving not earning, diverse not qualified, addicted not responsible, illegals not citizens. Liars are brave heroes, Progressive to the last unctuous slink. Extreme unction for America!

      • OWilson

        Once upon a time it was Family, God, and Country. We loved babies.

        Now you can marry your mother, there’s no God, and open borders, and we have killed over 50 million babies in and out of the womb.

        Ah, but it’s “cool” to be “progressive”. :)

        • St. Kolbe

          At least there is consistency…the leftist ideology is a self-deluded lie. So of course, they should select the best at it…the biggest liar. You cannot criticize them for finding the best example of their deceptive ideals. But you can ridicule the irrational nature of their ideals.

          • Uncle Al

            I respected Bernie Sanders for his decades of unfounded consistency in the face of empirical reality. Then, he flash sold out for a mess of pottage (new home, new car) and hints of Vince Fostering his descendants. Trotsky died, Stalin killed; Lenin lied. To Hell with all of them.

        • terry the censor

          > Once upon a time it was Family, God, and Country…etc.

          None of that is true. It is an illusion based on not looking at the past and exaggerating the present.

          You know what makes progressives uncomfortable? The vision of mindless nationalism and conformism that you represent.

          You would have us choose nothing but obedience.

          • OWilson

            Your choices are your own!

            Only you know what is best for you.

          • European

            Over here in Europe we have had our share of people (not just Germans!) blindly following Führers, Flag and Country. Being proud of what your country stands for (provided it is freedom and justice for all or in other words: “liberté, egalité, fraternité”) is one thing however if the political class is corrupted (and I mean both sides!!) then it would be time to think about a reset. As we see it the US politicians are self serving and paid by lobbyists. And yes they get this by lying to all of you.
            Unfortunately ours are hardly better, but we have a more independent press that is not lying to us because the owners wants them to.

          • temporary guest

            I wish I could disagree with that .. but I don’t know anything about European media :o(

          • temporary guest

            Uh … Obedience to whom? God, or pontificating tyrants?

            That question was answered in our nations “birth certificate”, the Declaration of Independence … but then, the left would have us believe that the idea that the Declaration was signed by decent, God fearing men is a myth, I know…. because they say so.

    • cgs

      My goodness, lying has been around for a long, long time. Why is this so? Well, H.L. Mencken, with penetrating wit, observed:

      No normal human being wants to hear the truth. It is the passion of a small and aberrant minority of men, most of them pathological.

      Mark Twain’s observation was even more to the point:

      “Think what tedious years of study, thought, practice, experience, went to the equipment of that peerless old master who was able to impose upon the whole world the lofty and sounding maxim that ‘truth is mighty and will prevail’ – the most majestic compound fracture of fact which any of woman born has yet achieved. For the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sown thick with evidence that a truth is not hard to kill and that a lie told well is immortal.”

      And who could forget the lies that condemned Socrates to his hemlock?:

      How you, men of Athens, have been affected by my accusers, I do not know. For my part, even I nearly forgot myself because of them, so persuasively did they speak. And yet they have said, so to speak, nothing true. I wondered most at one of the many falsehoods they told, when they said that you should beware that you are not deceived by me, since I am a clever speaker. – Apology

      Lying will always be a normal part of human behavior. But take heart! “Why?”, you ask. Well, because it has always been equally true that:

      “It is open to every man to choose the direction of his striving, and every man may take comfort from the fine saying that the search for the truth is more precious than its possession.”– Albert Einstein

      Now enough quoting! It’s all just lies anyway!

      • OWilson

        As Einstein says, you can join them in the swamp, or demand better from your public servants.

        Your choice! :)

        • cgs

          And I think it was Billy Shakespeare (or perhaps Chris Marlowe!?) who asked why would any decent person go into politics. And to improve the supply perhaps the demand side should first do a little soul-searching. To me, I find it worth juxtaposing these two quotes (apologies) and then thinking for a little while.

          “Because the television commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americans would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of television commercials. …The commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, and that they are solvable fast through the interventions of technology, techniques and chemistry. This is, of course, a preposterous theory about the roots of discontent, and would appear so to anyone hearing or reading it.” -Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

          “…And people say ‘Why does government not work?’ It is partially because the public demands answers before they are available; it’s partially because [the public] expects a sound-bite solution to how you’re going to cure cancer or bring peace to the Middle East; it’s partially that government fuels those things because it makes it easier to avoid answering and taking specific positions and getting blamed for anything.” –NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Interview, The Atlantic Magazine

          And I offer you the final word!

          • OWilson


            But please continue!

            The quote above is ok, as far as it goes, but a lot of us, who have made a lifetime study of how government does and doesn’t work have can see other direct connections.

            Blaming TV (current culture) is one thing, but I can point to at least one other issue missing from that statement.

            That would be the moral relativism, taught by liberal educators with a demonstrated left leaning philosophy.

            As, in “The Cold War was an arms race between two superpowers”. and “They all do it”. “America is not exceptional”, but rather responsible for the hell we see going on with the world.

            And “all religions are equally (beneficial or dangerous)”

            Kids grow up with these ideas ingrained into their psyche, so they don’t expect better.

            Its the expectations that are downgraded, not the desire, for a better world.

          • cgs

            I can only speak from my own experience.

            I received my bachelors at one university and doctorate at another. Both were large universities, not small liberal arts colleges. At the first university, the only thing I could point to that someone with a conservative viewpoint could call “indoctrination” was my government textbook, which I still have. It is titled “The Irony of Democracy: An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics”. What was so uncommon about it? Its first sentence reads: “Elites, not masses, govern America”. I suppose that was a new notion back then.

            Multiculturalism and PC seemed at the time (1980s) to be important campus issues while at the second university. I remember going to a lecture by Dinesh D’Souza, read his book “Illiberal Education”, Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind”, and a nice little book called “Debating PC” by Paul Berman.

            Neither pole captured me. If D’Souza and Bloom hoped to sway me to the right, they failed. If liberal professors were out to indoctrinate me in moral relativism, they also failed. I am liberal, but that failing [;)] they cannot take credit for. My friends were more decisive in that area. And if there is any point to this, it is that I’d bet that is likely true even today.

            Finally, I wouldn’t say I am blaming TV. But I do think the electorate has no patience with the idea that many problems are nuanced and require putting off the reward of a solution to a later time. As to where this impatience comes from, Postman’s observation seems to me to be worthy of pondering. And the idea that this impatience is a component of government dysfunction is also worthy of consideration.

          • OWilson

            What is wrong with the country at present, is really well illustrated in your post.

            First, you were blessed indeed to be exposed to folks like D’Souza, and Bloom in your liberal education. The classic definition of “liberal”.

            I think you would agree with me that that is not the norm, these days. Even Bloom says, “… most academics are politically left of center, they generally use their theories of irrationality to explain the beliefs of the politically right of center….”.

            But since then, Obama had D’Souza thrown in jail for an “improper political donation” (we presume it had nothing to do with D’Souza’s notoriously devastating “Obama’s America” film) :)

            (Hillary, who is no stranger to “improper political donations” herself, in a similar move, had another, more obscure, film maker thrown in jail, for, she told her true believers, causing the rape and death of our Ambassador to Libya, and 4 of his brave defenders.)

            (How a film maker could cause the death of an entire Embassy staff, and still be completely anonymous is a little bizarre in itself. Oh, that Main Stream Media! :)

            37 Attorneys General, and a Presidential candidate, want to “bring climate deniers (like me) to justice”. They are a little delayed, however, because they cannot find more than a few nut cases, who actually deny there is a climate, and that it changes.

            And on it goes. :)

            Government’s priorities have further shifted from governing to surviving in power at all costs. Destroying their political rivals is job one.

            That’s why cleaning house (especially the White House) once in a while is never a bad thing.

            It sends the little pests, parasites and critters that have made a comfortable home in your cupboards and mattresses, and grossly incompetent government agencies, desperately scurrying for their lives.

          • cgs

            (I am having to post this twice since D-brief did not accept a link I had.)

            I think you would agree with me that that is not the norm, these days.

            Being a scientists makes me approach questions in a particular way: I try to be very sure to differentiate what I believe I know from what I certainly don’t know. And even those things I believe I know, may turn out to be wrong.

            In this case, I can’t agree or disagree with this statement. I don’t have sufficient information. From my veiwpoint, to get sufficient information, I would have to examine the speakers invited to several liberal colleges over the past decade – something that is obviously far from easy to do.

            But I DO have one bit of information. There was an Atlantic article recently concerning Liberty University. You can Google The Atlantic and Liberty University for the post.

            I’ll quote the relevant text:

            Talking with students on Liberty’s campus, the overwhelming sense is not division, but fatigue. “Liberty is shockingly anti-politics in some ways,” said Wahl, a junior from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “Some students are kind of tired of all the political leaders we get here.” The administration requires all students to attend thrice-weekly speeches called Convocation; in a single October week this year, Ralph Reed, Mike Pence, and Dinesh D’Souza all presented. Philip Sitterding, a junior from Virginia Beach, said these meetings have often felt like a “pro-Trump rally” this fall, since many of the speakers support the Republican nominee. While the small number of students who aspire to careers in politics might find this energizing, many others wanted a different Liberty.

            Based upon this, I think I know that Liberty University invites almost exclusively conservative speakers.

            Now this is a private university. But is it providing its students with an array of differing viewpoints from which to learn?

            And it is interesting that the administration requires students to attend these lectures.

            There are many that would argue that is indoctrination.

            Let me be clear again about my intent here: my intent is NOT to argue the assertion you’ve made above. As I have said, I can’t argue it one way or the other. My intent IS to present what little evidence I have on the subject and to show that, at least in one case, that evidence seems contrary to what your general perception is.

          • OWilson

            You are pointing out the exceptions to the rule, in the political leanings of academic institutions.

            In great detail, I might add, yet you claim to have “insufficient” knowledge of the subject. Your long and detailed descriptions of these exceptions to the rule, or as you put it, “at least in one case” belies your claim of ignorance. :)

            I won’t play that game with you here, but if you are not aware of the overwhelming pervasiveness of liberal leanings and financial support among academics, journalist, educators, the Media and their institutions, I am not able to help you.

            But, as you seem very interested in at least the exceptions to the “norm” I proposed, I would recommend a simple google search, or, for a more direct view from liberal sources, see:

            “Liberal intolerance is on the rise on America’s college campuses”, – The Guardian.

            “Should we care that US universities are ‘too liberal’ “? – Washington Post

            There’s a lot more on the subject but that will give you an idea. :)

          • cgs

            Thanks for the links.

            That the faculty at most universities leans liberal was something I did already know. Whether they are teaching their charges bad things like moral relativism and whether that, in turn, is having a corroding effect on politics, I don’t know. Though they may very well be true, these particular things don’t keep me awake at night. I will say that at one of your links argues strongly that some of today’s entering freshmen could benefit greatly from understanding that their moral viewpoint is not necessarily superior – i.e they could benefit from a little moral relativism. (As a friendly FYI, I regularly read Conor Friedersdorf, a libertarian, at the Atlantic, and he wrote extensively on student campus free speech issues. He is very good. On the other hand, I think James Fallows is also very good…)

            Just to clear up one misunderstanding that I think has occurred, I read D’Souza and Bloom on my own. They weren’t taught to me.

            Finally, I have not been playing any games with you. The length of my post should not indicate I have more knowledge on this subject than I am admitting to. There is no game here, and it’s interesting that you perceive that. Perhaps dwelling in comments sections, which are not known for promoting great conversation, has worn away at your ability to discern honest commentary?

            Again, I leave the final comment to you.

          • OWilson

            Thanks, but I’ll pass!

          • terry the censor

            If you think D’Souza (BTW, an adulterer like WJC) is a political prisoner, you are deranged. You can only see things in terms of bias, not in terms of fact.

    • terry the censor

      > The first Clinton Presidency was the first where a known liar was allowed to continue in office

      Clearly, you were born after Nixon.

      • OWilson

        Nixon resigned, before he was Impeached, thanks to the relentless efforts of those tenacious journalists Woodward and Bernstein, (who just happened to miss 25 years of Clinton scandals). :)

        The Clinton Presidency (Bill and Hillary, two for one they promised us) continued to term, including two terms in the Senate, and continue to this day as husband and wife Presidential candidates.

        There’s a good chance they will be elected President.

        There is a better chance that 25 years of Special Prosecutors, FBI Investigations, Justice Department Investigations, Grand Jury Empanelments (all, strangely enough, by Democrat Administrations) will continue to accompany them, as long as they are in public office.

        • terry the censor

          Nixon ran vile congressional campaigns, smearing opponents with innuendo and insinuation, suggesting without evidence that they were communists. This was seen by the right as patriotism, not lying. Nixon served as VP for two terms and was elected president twice.

          Trump’s fans today have the same standards: since his lies “feel” true, and are mostly directed at Dems or the GOP establishment, facts don’t matter.

          I’m no fan of the Clintons (why can’t the Dems ever get somebody better???), so if you criticised them on the merits, I’d be fine. But like most partisans, facts aren’t good enough for you, you need to create an alternate reality where you can ignore stubborn truths.

          You should be ashamed.

          • OWilson

            You look like you need a shower! :)

            “Drain that Swamp”!

    • Kamran Rowshandel

      Do you know what a fascist book is? The first one that comes to your mind, what is it? Was it the infamous couple of books that are most published in the world? The Koran and Torah are written by one family and they trace back to each other thru one person named Shem, child of one person named Noah.

      They are the only ones with bright skin able to identify their African branch of the family having significantly darker skin brightness.

      Everyone else’s family records have been destroyed by a propaganda campaign similar to the one 80 years ago where children of this Shem assert that at 1/400th -1/40th the death rate during a propaganda war where one of their biological kind invented nuclear explosions, their murders due to not being helpful in society for over 400 years are the greatest “genocide” OF ALL TIME (OF ALL TTIME!) and the targeting of a genetically isolated island simply based on genetic reasons for elimination via genetic damage due to radiation or manipulating a bunch of other people to die protecting them is part of the reason they should be held unaccountable for instating eye-for-an-eye judicial policy across the world in a blatant colonial fashion beginning with Hammurabi while asserting their family IS A HIGHER POWER.

      Love them, I demand you to!

  • I.C.

    Just look at Hil and Bill:

    “Did not have sex with that woman.”
    “Did not put classified info on my legal server.”

    Pretty soon you lose track completely of reality.

    Vote Trump 2016, the honest choice!

    • terry the censor

      You prove the point of the article. Trump constantly lies and so you have become desensitised to his lies.

      • I.C.

        Nice try.

      • temporary guest

        Talk about being “desensitized to lies” … you haven’t even noticed the Clintons????

  • Henry Bowers

    They had to remove Hillary’s results as a high outlier.

  • Reverend Joe Ruyle

    Can we assume that between Bill, Hillary and Obama we have an aggregate amygdala response of absolutely zero?

  • temporary guest

    “Scientists, in a new study, say the lies we tell progressively diminish the brain’s sensitivity to dishonesty, which makes it easier to push the envelope in subsequent deceptions.”

    Well… that explains the Trickle Down Corruption of American politics these days… rot spreading in a barrel of apples if left unchecked will eventually contaminate the entire barrel. It started in the Democrat party and spread to the Republican party. The end result: What we used to call “common sense” is now the most prevalent “politically incorrect” hate crime of our time.

  • Overburdened_Planet

    The Stanford experiment showed people can be convinced to torture others if the person directing them was an authority figure.

    And the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Wiki has a link but can’t include link here without delaying my post).

    So yes, many factors play a role when deciding to betray or otherwise hurt another person.


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