Why Lying Is a Slippery Slope

Have you ever wondered how some people can lie so much? If you answered “no,” clearly you don’t follow politics.

According to a study published this month, prolific liars may not be born that way. Rather, it appears that lying is a habit that escalates over time. Small lies become slightly larger lies, which eventually turn into straight-up whoppers.

In the paper, titled The Brain Adapts to Dishonesty, the researchers found that repeatedly engaging in dishonest behavior increases how much dishonest behavior people will engage in in the future. Engaging in dishonest behavior can up the ante, leading people to engage in more extreme dishonest behavior in the future. To put it another way, people who lie more then lie even more.

The researchers likened the effect to a “slippery slope,” where small lies become a gateway to bigger lies.

They also found traces of this escalating dishonesty in liars’ brain activity. Using fMRI scans, they saw that a region of the brain called the amygdala was less sensitive to lying in people who had previously lied more. How people’s amygdalas reacted to lying depended on how many lies the people had told in the past.

Furthermore, when people told a lie in the present, how much less sensitive their amygdalas were in relation to the last lie they’d told predicted whether they’d ramp up their lying behavior in the future. When people’s amygdala sensitivity decreased more, their lying behavior escalated.

In other words, the brain seems to literally become desensitized to lying. Or as the researchers put it, the brain “adapts” to dishonesty.

This result sheds light on how fibbing can snowball and how a little stretching of the truth can transform into blatant deception. Sometimes there isn’t such a thing as just telling one lie — lying can be a slippery slope!

Image: Flickr/Helen K