Posted by & filed under Moral Development, Motivation-Emotion, Neuroscience, Research Methods.

Description: I am sure you have heard the phrase “be careful, that’s a slippery slope”. What we usually mean by this is that someone is making a decision or a choice that is in some way sub- optimal but not necessarily horrible but that this might lead them to make bigger and bigger and worse and worse decisions or choices down the road. So you tell a small lie for some self-serving reason and then find that lie leading to another and another and pretty soon you are in very deep. Some neuropsychologists began to wonder what that pattern of behaviour might actually look like in the brain. Think about what centers of the brain might be involved either in telling a lie or in avoiding the telling of a lie. Have a read through the article linked below and see what this area of research suggests. As you do, be thinking about whether the interpretations and explanations offered by the researchers looking at the patterns of brain activity associated with lies of increasing size make sense or whether there might be alternative possible interpretations or explanations.

Source: Why Big Liars Often Start Out as Small Ones, Erica Goode, Science, New York Times.

Date: October 24, 2016


Photo Credit:  Adam McCauley, New York Times

Links:  Article Link —

In the research discussed in the article linked above the researchers had people play a game in which participants in some conditions could benefit financially by telling lies to fellow participants in ways that negatively affected the other participants’ performance. While playing this game participants were in an MRI scanning device. The researchers noted that that when the participants first lied that was a rather strong response in the amygdala of their brain but that with subsequent lies the size of that response decreased suggesting that the act of lying was slowly becoming more and more acceptable to the participants as they move forward in the game and as they benefited financially from their lies. The researchers pointed out that this pattern of behaviour fits a general pattern of adaptation in intensity of brain based responding over time that can be found in other areas of psychological functioning such as people’s emotional responses or the related responses of fear or disgust at viewing disturbing pictures. While this might suggest that lying is simply something we get better at with practice it may also be the case that participants simply came to the conclusion that lying was a socially appropriate strategy in the context of the game set up by the researchers. What these competing explanations suggest is that functional imaging such as MRI scanning may be showing us aspects of general brain functioning that are correlated with a variety of world experiences and that our task is researchers, as it is always been, is to be careful when moving quickly from viewing correlational data to drawing causal conclusions.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How did the researchers create a situation in which patterns of lying would be routinely engaged in by their participants?
  2. What is your evaluation of the tentative conclusions drawn by the neuropsychological researchers (that lying over time increases as a result of brain-based adaptation)?
  3. Can you think of ways in which we might design studies to sort out some of the possible explanations for these brain-based response patterns in relation to lying?

References (Read Further):

Garrett, N., Lazzaro, S. C., Ariely, D., & Sharot, T. (2016). The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience.