A fascinating experiment, reported in New Scientist (no.3097), shows that the brain becomes desensitised through lying. Tali Sharot at University College London showed one group of volunteers jars of pennies with differing degrees of fullness and asked them to send estimates of the quantities of pennies to partners in another room.

The partners saw blurry images of the jars, so had to rely on the estimates they were given to guess the amount of pennies for a reward. When the volunteers were told they would receive a higher reward if their partners’ estimates were wrong – and the less accurate the answer, the greater the reward – they started to tell small lies. The lies soon escalated, so that a person whose small lie had garnered £1 may have ended up telling lies worth £8.

Brain scans showed that the first lie was associated with the amygdalae, which are involved with emotional responses. But activity lessened as the lies ramped up.

‘This highlights the danger of engaging in small acts of dishonesty,’ Sharot said. This research perhaps shines a light on the tendency for those who exaggerate to have less reliable memories, an area for future research.

For more on Dr. Sharot’s research, check here.

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