by Liz Cory, '18
“There’s a new kid in our class named Bob Schenowski,” my older sister Kenyon told my parents when she was in fifth grade. “He just flew all the way from Texas to New York.”
Bob was an all-around cool guy, and he became one of Kenyon’s good friends. When my sister went to awkward school dances, soccer games, and orchestra recitals, my mom often asked about Bob.
Oh, was Bob also at the dance tonight? He was.
How’s your friend Bob doing these days? He’s doing great.
My sister and Bob were close the whole year—that is until elementary school graduation came around. As my mom perused the graduation brochure, she couldn’t seem to find Bob’s name anywhere. When my mom asked Kenyon why Bob’s name wasn’t on the list, she giggled and replied, “Oh come on, Mom, that was all made up.”
We lie all the time. Sometimes we do it to maintain a particular self-image, to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or—as is the case with some fifth graders—because it feels good to trick our parents. It’s common to hear stories about a tiny lie quickly multiplying into a web of complicated deceit. But how does this happen?
Recent research published in Nature Neuroscience suggests that self-serving lying gradually increases with repetition, allowing for a “slippery slope” of dishonesty. In two different experiments, Neil Garrett and his colleagues at the University College London explored how lying changes over time and depends on our motivations.
In the first experiment, participants were briefly shown pictures of a glass jar filled with pennies. They were then asked to advise another person about the amount of money in the jar, which was always between £15 and £35. The other person was secretly an experimenter, and participants were told that this person would estimate the amount of money in the jar using only the advice the participants gave them.
The scientists tested how participants’ lying changed by altering who got rewarded in each case. Lying had one of four effects, based on the scenario: benefitting the participant at the expense of their partner, benefitting the partner at the expense of the participant, benefitting both, or no benefit to either. The participant had the power to lie to the partner about the amount of pennies and as a consequence reap either reward or expense.
For example, a participant could be told they would be paid more money if their partner overestimated the amount of money in the jar. Thus, participants would get a higher reward for lying to their partner. In the case of Bob Schenowski, my sister likely got a greater payoff—it felt more exciting— the more she fabricated.
The researchers found that participants got more and more dishonest over the course of each experimental block. Lying also escalated significantly faster when those lies were self-serving—that is, when the participant got a greater reward by telling the other person an overestimation—rather than self-harming.
However, researchers also found that people told bigger lies when it benefitted both themselves and their partners than when lying was purely self-serving. This may shed some light on why “white lies” are so common: they ease our consciences, all while sparing the feelings of the friend we lie to.
The second experiment tested just two scenarios. In both cases, both the partner and participant would gain something. In the first, the partner was given a fixed reward, and lying would only get the participant with a higher reward if the partner overestimated. In the second case, lying would only benefit the partner and not the participant—that is, participants got the fixed reward and their partner received a reward based on overestimation.
The results revealed that participants’ lies escalated at a much faster rate when they were self-serving. On the other hand, when they lied purely for someone else’s benefit, they did so at a constant rate. In other words, without any self-interest, lying didn’t get out of hand.
If we look back at the Bob story, it seems that my sister’s tiny lie about the new kid’s existence may not have taken on so many colorful layers had it not felt rewarding to her in some way. She always loved fantasy and often created imaginary friends. Here though, the pleasure of fooling my mom was the real payoff.
The researchers also scanned participants’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore how activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotion processing, changed as lies escalated. The researchers found that amygdala activity decreased over time. Because amygdala activity is thought to be reflective of responding to emotional salience (e.g., fear, novelty), the blunted amygdala response suggests that people might not feel as bad about lying the more they lie. The results also showed that reduced activity on one trial could predict the escalation of self-serving lies during the participant’s next decision. If we can become less averse to lying over time in this way, it may be easier to understand why we choose to lie repeatedly.
Although this study takes a valuable step toward understanding how minor dishonesty can quickly slip into a mess of lies, there is a lot more research to be done. It is unclear, for example, how lying might escalate over a course of months—or how our brains might adapt over that longer time span. This research also didn’t test how external pressure, such as social disapproval, might influence our lies and make the decision to deceive more complicated. In general, we need to learn more about why people lie under more realistic conditions to better figure out how to prevent it.
Likewise, the Bob story is a cute anecdote that can’t be totally explained by these findings alone. Yet, it is possible that my sister’s elaborate character development could have escalated in part due to the self-serving pleasure she got out of tricking my mom. And perhaps her amygdala became less sensitive to deceit. It’s conceivable that had the Bob story held any benefit for my mom in addition to my sister’s mischievous glee, the story it might have gone on even longer. Bob could still be with us to this day.