Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher, is faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis shortly after his fiftieth birthday. Knowing the burden his illness would have on his family and that he had only a few months left to live, he decides to take matters of supporting his family into his own hands… by entering the underground methamphetamine business. Breaking Bad’s premise is disarmingly innocent at the start. Walter decides to keep just one secret, and we see him wrangling with his conscience when he’s forced to say his first cover-up lie. But once one successful lie leads to another, slowly snowballing into a dozen bigger and scarier lies, viewers start to wonder if they can still recognize the good-natured chemistry teacher that they started with.
Stories like Breaking Bad, many of the ugly scandals that have made history, and sometimes our own life experiences show us how a series of small lies and transgressions can eventually escalate to unmanageable proportions. How does it happen that small lies seem to grow as they do? How is it that this escalation of dishonesty seems to happen to “good people” too?
A 2016 study from UCL, published in Nature Neuroscience, reveals that there is a neurobiological basis for deception and its gradual escalation. Researchers Neil Garrett and colleagues at UCL used fMRI to show that decreases in the amygdala response over time coincide with escalations of deceptive behavior: our brains desensitize to lying over time.
Imagine you and your partner are driving around together in an unfamiliar city, trying to find an Italian restaurant. You’re in the age before GPS so you are sitting in the passenger’s seat holding a map of the city, while your partner is at the wheel with eyes locked on the road, in control of the car. Although you can’t steer the car yourself, you can give directions to the driver about where to turn. On your way toward one restaurant, you spot another a much better alternative on the map: it’s an Italian restaurant that serves all-you-can-eat seafood. You love seafood, but you know your partner hates the smell. You think to yourself: if you navigate the car to this place, you can get that clam pasta you’ve been craving, and your partner won’t even know that you chose the place on purpose. Would you do it?
The researchers invited 80 individuals to participate in a computerized cooperation game, structured around the same concept, and designed to make dishonesty measurable in the lab. Participants were convinced that they were working together with a virtual partner to correctly estimate the number of pennies inside a penny jar. Participants were privileged with a close-up view of the penny jar and so they took the role of “Advisor”, having to send advice to inform their partner’s guess for the team. This gave them the opportunity to exaggerate or misreport their advice if they wanted to, without negative consequence. The experimenters varied the rewards of this game to create many different payoff scenarios. Sometimes, exaggerating the guess benefited the Advisor at the guesser’s expense. In other scenarios, strategic dishonesty made both players better off or only helped the guesser at the Advisor’s expense, among other combinations.
What are the conditions under which people to tell bigger lies over time? Could it be for altruistic motivations or only for personal gain?
Dishonesty steadily increased only when it benefitted the self in some way. The researchers wanted to see if this effect was reflected in brain activity. The emotion-processing region of the brain is called the amygdala and is activated strongly at first when participants tell a lie. Importantly, over the course of repeated lying, participants’ amygdala activations steadily decreased over time, as if they were acclimating to the deception. In further analysis, Garrett and colleagues showed that this blunted emotion effect, indeed, was driving the self-serving dishonesty escalation observed in behavior.
This activation of the amygdala when we lie seems to be evidence of a guilty conscience when we choose to deceive others. What might this be able to tell us about the condition of psychopathy, with one of the most distinctive features being pathological, remorseless lying? A large body of research on psychopathy indeed finds that deformations of the amygdala and irregularities of emotional function are characteristic of the disorder (Schultz 2016, Yang 2009). The current study complements these findings as it ties emotional processing closely to dishonesty. What is startling, though, is that the progressive blunting of emotion they observed, which predicts bigger and bigger lies, is a process that can be triggered in everyone — not only of psychopaths.
In light of these findings, some would wonder: Is there a way that this slippery slope of dishonesty can be avoided?
One of the principal investigators, Tali Sharot, suggests:
“We might want to nudge people away from small lies and [our study] also suggests a way to do so. Because if what carves our dishonesty is emotion, and in the absence of emotion we are more likely to lie, then you might want to try and arouse emotion in people.”
Perhaps if someone were to make Walter White feel more remorseful of his dishonesty, his actions might not have taken as dark of a turn as it did. Let these research findings be a small word of caution to us when we inevitably decide to tell an artful lie: our noses don’t need to grow longer to signal to us that we’ve deceived someone because we’d normally feel it. It would be worth re-examining ourselves and our actions if we notice eventually that we don’t!
Garrett, N., Lazzaro, S. C., Ariely, D., & Sharot, T. (2016). The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience, 19(12), 1727–1732. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4426 Schultz, D. H., Balderston, N. L.
Baskin-Sommers, A. R., Larson, C. L., & Helmstetter, F. J. (2016). Psychopaths Show Enhanced Amygdala Activation during Fear Conditioning. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00348
Yang, Y., Raine, A., Narr, K. L., Colletti, P., & Toga, A. W. (n.d.). Localization of Deformations Within the Amygdala in Individuals With Psychopathy. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66(9), 986.