Lying is a slippery slope: our brains become desensitized with repeated lying

Theologians like Thomas R. Kopfensteiner maintain that the more we sin, the more inclined we are to sin and the more difficult it is not to sin.
Now, scientists have discovered neurological evidence to support that theologian observation.
A study by a team of researchers discovered a biological mechanism in our brain, specifically in the amygdala, which supports a ‘slippery slope’ of lying — what begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger moral transgressions. In other words, the brain actually adapts to dishonesty by becoming desensitized, so that the more you lie, the more you are disposed to lie, and the bigger the lies.
The amygdalae are two almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep and medially within the temporal lobes of the brain, which govern memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions.
Neil Garrett, Stephanie C Lazzaro, Dan Ariely and Tali Sharot reported their findings in “The brain adapts to dishonesty,” published online on October 24, 2016 in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Neuroscience 19, 1727–1732.

  • Dr. Neil Garrett is a post-doctoral researcher at Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
  • Dr. Stephanie Lazzaro is a senior teaching fellow at the Affective Brain Lab of the Department of Experimental Psychology, University College London, UK.
  • Dr. Dan Ariely is a professor of of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, Durham, South Carolina.
  • Dr. Tali Sharot is an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London (UCL).

Here’s the Abstract of the article (the full text of the article costs $32):

Dishonesty is an integral part of our social world, influencing domains ranging from finance and politics to personal relationships. Anecdotally, digressions from a moral code are often described as a series of small breaches that grow over time. Here we provide empirical evidence for a gradual escalation of self-serving dishonesty and reveal a neural mechanism supporting it. Behaviorally, we show that the extent to which participants engage in self-serving dishonesty increases with repetition. Using functional MRI, we show that signal reduction in the amygdala is sensitive to the history of dishonest behavior, consistent with adaptation. Critically, the extent of reduced amygdala sensitivity to dishonesty on a present decision relative to the previous one predicts the magnitude of escalation of self-serving dishonesty on the next decision. The findings uncover a biological mechanism that supports a ‘slippery slope’: what begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.

Xavier Symons provides more details of the team’s findings in BioEdge, Oct. 29, 2016:

“The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, provides the first empirical evidence that self-serving lies gradually escalate and reveals how this happens in our brains.

Researchers recruited 80 volunteers who took part in a ‘team estimation task’ that involved guessing the number of pennies in a jar and sending their estimates to unseen partners using a computer. This took place in several different scenarios. In the baseline scenario, participants were told to aim at the most accurate estimate, while in other scenarios, over or under-estimating the amount would either benefit the participant at their partner’s expense, benefit both of them, benefit their partner at their own expense, or only benefit one of them with no effect on the other.

The researchers found that dishonesty increased over 60 presentations of the jar, but only when it was self-serving.

Twenty-five of the participants conducted the task in a functional MRI scanner, and researchers discovered that activity in amygdala — a brain region that responds to and processes emotion — decreased over time during the subsequent acts of dishonesty.

This study is the first empirical evidence that dishonest behavior escalates when it’s repeated, when all else is held constant,” lead author Neil Garrett, a cognitive neuroscientist at U.C.L., told reporters at a recent press conference.”

In an article in The Conversation on Oct. 24, 2016, Neil Garrett and Tali Sharot provide more explanation of their findings:

“In an experiment we carried out with colleagues Stephanie Lazzaro and Dan Ariely – published in Nature Neuroscience – we gave 80 people the opportunity to lie again and again on a financial task in order to gain money at another person’s expense. We found that people started with small lies, but slowly, over the course of the experiment, lied more and more. This escalation of dishonesty was observed only when participants lied for their own benefit, not when they did so solely for the benefit of others.
Outside the laboratory, there are many reasons for why dishonesty may escalate – incentives may become larger or past lies might need to be covered up. Examining people’s brain activity while they were being dishonest in our task revealed another reason – a biological process called emotional adaption.
What does emotion have to do with dishonesty? Well, that bad feeling you have when you think about cheating can stop you from doing it. In its absence, you are more likely to lie. In one study, a group of students were given pills called beta-blockers that reduced emotional arousal just before taking an exam. These students were twice as likely to cheat on the exam compared to students who received a placebo.
Most of us do not pop a pill before we lie. But the results of our experiment showed that the brain’s emotion network responds less and less with each additional lie. The greater the drop in the brain’s sensitivity to dishonesty, the more people lied the next time they got a chance. In other words, people adapted to their own dishonesty and less was holding them back from telling bigger lies.
It was not the case that brain activity simply decreased over time. The reduction in sensitivity was very specific – it was specific to the exact amount someone lied and it was detected only in the brain’s emotion network, not in other brain areas….
Repeated dishonesty is a bit like a perfume you apply over and over. Initially your response to your own acts of dishonesty is strong, but over time it decreases. Like the students taking the beta-blockers, your capacity for being dishonest increases….
Previous research by Ariely and others shows that dishonesty can be curbed through interventions such as reminding people of their values, emphasising the honest actions of others and wiping the slate clean through acts of confession. Interventions like these could be used to nudge people away from dishonest acts before they escalate.”

In the case of habitual pathological liars like Hillary Clinton, her amygdalae must have become so desensitized to lying that they’ve probably ceased to function altogether. See:

See also “Sunday Devotional: Lies are a hallmark of evil”.


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Christian Zionist
3 years ago


Kevin J Lankford
Kevin J Lankford
3 years ago

Little hard for me to see it as an actual function of the brain. I have always seen lying as an act of ego, a pursuit of greed, or just plain demonic possession. Although, I suppose they will all have some effect on ones controlling synaptic path.
Makes me wonder about one of the favored premises of communist, socialists, and now included, liberals; “repeat a lie long enough it becomes accepted as truth”. Why is it that I have tried repeating the “Truth” for the past eight years and all I get is I’m just “beating a dead horse”.

3 years ago

Right. Apparently no biological “mechanism” was actually discovered, even less biochemically described, let alone as the conclusion of some laughably contrived experiment in which most volunteers would easily guess the desired outcome and wanting to help the researchers as their volunteering proves bring about the desired result with increasingly less emotional involvement as they learned to respond dishonestly as the experimenters desired. Fifty of the volunteers were placed in a functional MRI scanner and we’re supposed to take the experiment’s conclusions as representative of everyday life? What a farce, unless of course you’re a naturalist desperate to “prove” our minds… Read more »

3 years ago
Reply to  Dr. Eowyn

I make no claim regarding the evident compatibility of science (per se) and faith, nor am I critical of science. Is all science good science in your book? I’m embarrassed for you for taking such a cheap shot about the advances of science (which you seem to confuse somewhat with engineering), which is a mixed blessing about which most people, myself included, would agree the good greatly outweighs the bad. The fact the experiment agrees with a universal truism, however, is hardly grounds to support its implied claim, as I understand it, that moral based decisions are an electro-biochemical process… Read more »

Paul Blake
3 years ago

Hillary has lied so often that she cannot utter a word now without contradicting herself…

Longknife 21
Longknife 21
3 years ago

It is often hard to be honest. Even “painful’. That is why young children often lie, and if not corrected and trained in the necessity of being truthful, ESPECIALLY when it is hard or uncomfortable, they will revert to lying when stressed. Our whole society has become “Making it easy on the children” and “Don’t stress anyone”. So people that lie are rarely held responsible and are easily excused. If there is no “cost’ or “negative reinforcement” to lying there is no reason for childish or irresponsible person not to do it. The more they do it, and “get away… Read more »


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3 years ago

This explains much of my former wife’s behaviours and how she became a murderous psychopath. These people lie so well that she fooled me into remarrying her 20 years after I got out from under her earlier control. And she’ll never stop lying, as it’s now her second nature.


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