Lying and the Eagerly Agreeable Dishonest Brain

Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST

Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed. — I. F. Stone

Our brains, those boneless, three-pound jelly-like wrinkled organs with billions of connections all running simultaneously, is a servant that eagerly awaits our wishes (our “code” if you will). Sitting up there in its bony catacomb are two small structures that incorporate a host of biological commands and emotions, some good and some designed to deceive; the amygdalae.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a human brain, actually a collection of human brains, floating freely in large glass containers in a hospital morgue collection. The attendant, who was intent on showing me as much as I could bear, pointed out that human brains are not grey but pinkish when first removed from the skull. It is the formaldehyde in which they are preserved, which turns them a light shade of gray.

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I wasn’t that interested in brains at the time, and he proceeded to show me a collection of disfigured aortas from young men who had died in recent wars. Then we walked over to the refrigerators and he opened one of the small doors, sliding out the rack as he did.

Thank God he didn’t pick one that had a body on it, or I would have run out of that room. Afterward, I would smell of formaldehyde for hours; it had permeated my clothing. Now, I would’ve been more interested in the brains.

Learning to Feel Better About Lying

Lying doesn’t occur without effort. We decide to formulate how we will lie (the mode here), and then we proceed to put the lie into action. During this process, our brain shifts into a lie-mode where biological processes such as changes in respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure all kick in. These are natural biological responses, but research has shown that our brain’s activity can be ameliorated if we practice deceiving sufficiently enough. As in so much else, practice, practice, practice doesn’t make perfect, but much easier.

As shown by brain studies using small fMRI scanning, the amygdala responds in one way when a person initially attempts to deceive but diminishes this response as the person continues to practice lying. In other words, the amygdala is waiting to be trained to engage in less action in habitual liars.

Over time, there is less and less of this biological reaction to lying. Therefore, the response to dishonesty is perceived as a normal part of functioning in this individual.

Whatever the current moral code might be, these dishonest and lying individuals will manage to be self-protective from any sense of discomfort as they continue with this behavior. In fact, in addition to the amygdala, another portion of our brain, the prefrontal cortex where judgments are made, also plays a role in what has been known as the “Pinocchio Syndrome.”

Does Lying Have a Place in Society?

We know that in certain social situations telling the absolute, unvarnished truth may be both unacceptable and in some ways problematic. Therefore, we engage, probably regularly, in what we term “little white lies.” Of course, this is a way of soothing our conscience and telling ourselves that this behavior is okay but necessary to survive in our culture.

Initially, children are not adept at lying and must learn the two rules to be applied; rule one is that they can recognize and understand social rules and consequences for transgression. The other is the ability to evaluate and imagine what the person to whom the lie will be told is thinking. This ability will continue to develop with the child’s cognitive skills. For some children, lying may also be a matter of a life-and-death approach in their particular situation.

It takes time, however, to become skilled. A 2015 study with more than 1,000 participants looked at lying in volunteers in the Netherlands aged six to 77. Children, the analysis found, initially have difficulty formulating believable lies, but proficiency improves with age. Young adults between 18 and 29 do it best. After about the age of 45, we begin to lose this ability.

Not only must the liar learn to lie effectively, but they must also learn to inhibit telling the truth and percolating into their lies’ scenarios. The liar must work at lying and effectively remember the lie’s facts so that they will not trip themselves up when deceiving another.

Our results also suggest that dishonesty escalation is contingent on the motivation for the dishonest act. Specifically, while the magnitude of dishonesty was driven both by considerations of benefit to the self and benefit to the other, the escalation of dishonesty, as well as the amygdala’s response to it over time, was best accounted for by whether dishonesty was self-serving. When participants were dishonest for the benefit of someone else, dishonesty at a constant rate was observed. This is consistent with the suggestion that the motivation for acting dishonestly contributes to its affective assessment, such that when a person engages in dishonesty purely for the benefit of another it may be perceived as morally acceptable. Thus, the simple act of repeated dishonesty is not enough for escalation to take place, but a self-interest motive need be present.

Photo by mahdi rezaei

Lying and Its Purpose

It would seem from the results of these studies by Garrett et al. (2016) that altruism and self-interest also play a role in the utility of lying. Therefore, lying can be seen as a necessary evil when it is used for the good of others.

An example is in a prisoner of-of-war camp during World War II, where the Nazis asked any Jew in a line to step forward. A Catholic priest stepped forward to save a Jew. He became known as the Saint of Auschwitz.

The Rev. Maksymilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who volunteered in Auschwitz to die in another man’s stead, was proclaimed a saint of the Roman Catholic Church today.

The man whose life the priest saved, Franciszek Gajowniczek, lived to the age of 94 and witnessed the priest’s courage.

There have also been other instances where people have been willing to sacrifice their life for the life of another, but that does not diminish the significance of the moral courage shown by any of them.

The question of lying remains one of purpose and intent. Those who lie to deceive others for self-interest and who continue to lie purposefully are not seen as candidates for rehabilitation from lying. It just becomes too easy for them and is an ingrained part of their personality.

For the rest of us, lying will remain a part of our culture since it does have a place not necessarily in self-protective areas but in protecting others. However, do we pay a price for lying if we are not inveterate liars? The answer is probably dependent on the outcome of the lie.

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