We've all told a little white lie once or twice in our lives. Researchers have gone back and forth over the years trying to understand why people lie and what causes us to resort to lying. Well, a recent CNN article may have gotten us closer to the answer.
Recent research that focused on a specific region in the brain suggests that there could be a biological component in action when we lie. Tali Sharot, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, told CNN:
"When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie."
She continues on to say that, "This response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it [fades] the bigger our lies become."
Sharot concludes from the research that a decreased amygdala response may help explain what she called the "slippery slope" of lying.
Scientists utilized a platform known as Neurosynth for the research. Neurosynth contains thousands of maps of brain activity that are used to identify parts of the brain associated with emotion. Scientists found that although the amygdala was not the only region highlighted when lying occurred, it was the predominant region.
The study was set up so participants were partnered with someone else and then put into a brain-imaging scanner. The scientists gave participants incentive by saying that if they deceived their partners into overestimating amounts it would entitle the participant to a bigger financial reward.
The results showed that the more inclined participants were to lie, the less the amygdala lit up on the Neurosynth. Sharot explained this, stating:
"If someone lies repeatedly, they no longer have an emotional response when they lie. In absence of an emotional response, they feel more comfortable and lie more."
This goes along with previous research which has suggested habitual liars tend to feel less guilt when lying.
With this in mind, the study hypothesized that small lies can desensitize the brain to negative feelings created when we lie. This allows an individual to develop his or her small lies into larger lies; the more often we're dishonest, the easier it is to be dishonest.
Although the evidence is compelling, not everybody is convinced. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Northeastern University, as well as the author of the upcoming book, "How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain," states that focusing on the amygdala as the brain's source of emotion could be misguided.
Barrett goes on to say that hand-selected, meta-analyses of brain mapping data have shown that the amygdala is not shown to be essential for emotion:
"People feel emotion without changes in amygdala action," she told CNN. "Yes, that region of the brain is often engaged during emotions — but it also becomes engaged when something appears that is novel or simply interesting. It's associated with perception, memory and social interactions."
Barrett is also concerned on whether or not the research is viable outside of a laboratory:
"They did not reward or punish for lying, whereas there is always a payoff or risk in real life," she said. "That might cause the amygdala to maintain its engagement."
Barrett does believe that habitual lying is still a key role in the investigation. She is simply unsure of the new research, but will continue to look into the topic.
Lead Image Credit: Alexa LaSpisa via Flickr Creative Commons