Friday, July 17, 2009

Neuroimaging suggests truthfulness requires no act of will for honest people

I've always believed there to be three classes of liars:
  • Born liars, aka politicians
  • Psychics
  • Fund managers who claim to be able to consistently outperform passive portfolios
Now, it turns out, they are all neurally challenged in the same way. While liars deserve our compassion for being ethically disenfranchised, and therefore candidates for affirmative action, the fact remains that they waste a lot of our time with their laborious machinations. This makes them ideal screen writers for soap operas: lightweight and mildly entertaining at the best of times, but not to be taken seriously in real life.


A new study of the cognitive processes involved with honesty suggests that truthfulness depends more on absence of temptation than active resistance to temptation.

Using neuroimaging, psychologists looked at the brain activity of people given the chance to gain money dishonestly by lying and found that honest people showed no additional neural activity when telling the truth, implying that extra cognitive processes were not necessary to choose honesty.

However, those individuals who behaved dishonestly, even when telling the truth, showed additional activity in brain regions that involve control and attention.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was led by Joshua D. Greene, assistant professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, along with Joe Paxton, a graduate student in psychology.

"Dishonesty involves activity in control-related brain networks"

“Being honest is not so much a matter of exercising willpower as it is being disposed to behave honestly in a more effortless kind of way,” says Greene. “This may not be true for all situations, but it seems to be true for at least this situation.”

The research was designed to test two theories about the nature of honesty – the “will” theory, in which honesty results from the active resistance of temptation, and the “grace” theory, in which honesty is a product of lack of temptation.

The results of this study suggest that the “grace” theory is true, because the honest participants did not show any additional neural activity when telling the truth. To prompt participants to lie, the researchers created a cover story about the focus of their study.

The research was presented as a study of paranormal ability to predict the future. Participants were asked to predict the outcomes of a series of coin tosses, and were told that the researchers believed predicting the future was more likely when given a monetary incentive and when the prediction wasn’t shared in advance of the outcome. This gave the participants the opportunity to lie to win the money by saying that they had correctly predicted the coin toss.

The researchers assessed the honesty of the individuals based on whether their number of correct responses was statistically feasible. Individuals who reported improbably high levels of accuracy were classified as dishonest, and participants reporting statistically feasible levels of accuracy were classified as honest.

The researchers emphasize that the labels “honest” and “dishonest” describe only these individuals’ behavior in the experiment and need not characterize their behavior more generally.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Greene found that the honest individuals displayed little to no additional brain activity when reporting their prediction of the coin toss.

However, the dishonest participants’ brains were most active in control-related brain regions when they chose not to lie. These control-related brain regions include the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, and previous research has shown that these regions are active when an individual is asked to lie.

While previous research has examined the brain activity of subjects who are told to lie for the purpose of a study, this is the first study to examine brain activity of people telling actual lies.

This study is also the first to examine instances of truth-telling among individuals who were otherwise dishonest, and the neural activity present when they chose whether or not to lie.

Greene notes that there was an important distinction between the brain activity when the honest participants told the truth, and when the dishonest participants told the truth.

“When the honest people leave money on the table, you don’t see anything special or extra going on in their brains at all,” says Greene. “Whereas, when the dishonest people leave money on the table, that’s when you saw the most robust control network activation.”

If neuroscience is able to identify lies by peering into the brain of the liar, it will be important to distinguish between activity in the brain when lying and activity caused by the temptation to lie. Greene says that eventually it may be possible to detect lies by looking at someone’s brain activity, although a lot more work must be done before this is possible.

The research was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging.

13 Opinion(s):

Vanilla Ice said...

Did you just add the fund manager bit in, or is it true?

Ranger Tom said...

Put my ex-wife in that machine and it'd break...

Dachshund said...

@VI: I used poetic license to illustrate a point of ironic convergence.

Vanilla Ice said...

@Dachs. Pity because I have research that suggests that they must be committing a deliberate fraud. It would have been nice to support it with neuroimaging results.

FishEagle said...

This explains why blacks have the potential to be just as intelligent as the other races. They just need to lose their dishonesty so that their minds aren't preoccupied with their own lies all the time. Lol.

Dachshund said...

@VI: Offhand I can't think of any active fund manager who would come out with the bald faced lie that he can consistently outperform passive portfolios. Not in today's economy, that is. They might have been around during the long bull market.

Active fund managers typically bullshit you, which is usually not the same as conscious lying. These guys want to believe their own PR. They just want 20% of any profits "they" make if your portfolio outperforms their benchmark. But there's never any mention of penalising themselves if they fail to perform at all, or if they lose you money.

More serious liars are the ones who tell you to "stay invested" when they are cashing in themselves. That "staying invested" story is to keep you paying their fat fees.

Dachshund said...

@FE: If it takes as much effort to make a dishonest decision as an "honest" one, a stupid person will take the one that has the bigger immediate payoff.

Have you read that Madiba's grandson can't wait for granddad to kick the bucket because he wants to (a) rename Nelson Mandela, Mandela day, for the gift that keeps on giving, and (b) move 2 million Zulus from KwaZulu to the Eastern Cape, as of next week, and (c) unite all the Xhosas under his chieftainship with a retarded, dummy "king" doing the ritual necessities.

In the Saturday Independent. I've got the print version, can't access it online.

It will be in the papers tomorrow.

FishEagle said...

Dach, it will take a person more brain activity AFTER a dishonest decision was made according to the results of this study. My comment was made based on the assumption that blacks are dishonest about their abilities. The deduction is that their incompetence is aggrevated by their dishonesty because dishonesty uses more brain energy in the long run. My comment was just tongue in cheek and I'm not really sure where this is going. The test results seem too vague to be of any practical use at this stage.

Vanilla Ice said...

We can't deduce enough from the article. At the risk of being repetitive, it relates back to IQ. To consciously lie, means you need to be aware of the truth. This implies a minimum level of intellect. Now as you reduce your IQ, you become increasingly controlled by hormones. So, if you are hungry for example, you will not be able to delay gratification. This "act" may have been illegal and will require you to lie. But you may have believed you were entitled to something, and therefore it would not register as dissonance. I believe many blacks truly feel they are entitled, and as such suffer no remorse.

Viking said...

well put, VI.
but if certain low-IQ people fail to delay gratification and steal, even violently, are we not at risk of mitigating their crimes due to their low IQ?
As you say, entitlement removes remorse, but is ignorance of lawbreaking an excuse? In most societies it isn't.

Dachshund said...

@FE: According to this article, it takes a dishonest person just as much energy to make an honest decision as a dishonest decision.

This is because a dishonest person does not know how to make an honest decision, naturally. So everything a dishonest person says, is contrived.

It's an effort for a dishonest person to think at all.

FishEagle said...

@Dach, what are you on about?

Vanilla Ice said...

@Viking. Good point, which encroaches on the equality before the law thing. Perhaps low IQ victims do have mitigating factors...another can of worms.