The Science of Lying

From white lies to whoppers, over time lies may desensitize the brain to dishonesty. A recent study into the science of lying suggests that telling small lies makes changes to the brain’s response to lying.

American fraudster Frank Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can, started out swindling his father out of small change for date money and ended up impersonating an airline pilot, despite the admission that he “couldn’t fly a kite”.

What the Science Says about Lying

Now scientists have uncovered an explanation for why telling a few white lies has the tendency to spiral out of control. The study suggests that telling small, insignificant lies desensitizes the brain to dishonesty, meaning that lying gradually feels more comfortable over time.

As part of testing, twenty-five volunteers played games which involved telling lies, while having their brain activity monitored by an MRI scanner. This showed that the amygdala, a part of the brain linked with emotion, was most active when people told their first lie. But while the untruths escalated in magnitude, the amygdala’s response gradually declined – and larger drops in brain activity predicted bigger lies in future.

Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist at University College London and senior author, said: “Whether it’s evading tax, infidelity, doping in sports, making up data in science or financial fraud, deceivers often recall how small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time and they suddenly found themselves committing quite large crimes.

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