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14 September 2012
Are you a liar? Most of you would have just answered a swift, if silent and overly resounding, “Of course not!” Come on though…let’s be honest here, haven’t you been tempted to tell a teeny tiny little lie sometime? Could it be that you have actually lied on occasion? If your previous strident denial has been transformed to a shamefaced “Yes”, then welcome to the human race. Lying is something that all people do to a greater or lesser degree. The question is why do we do it?
Previous research suggests that lying, like most other human behaviour, performs an evolutionary function. Generally, we lie out of self interest, that’s the primitive part of the brain satisfied, and we do it when we can justify the lie to ourselves, which keeps the morality of the cerebral cortex happy. In a new study though, researchers theorised that certain circumstances also make us more likely to lie.
Initially the subjects in the study rolled a die three times with the result hidden from the experimenter’s view. They were then asked to report the number they had rolled on the first roll with more money being earned for a higher reported roll. This design gave them the option to report a high roll even if it was not the first, provided they were prepared lie.
Some of the subjects were instructed to report their answer within 20 seconds while others could take as long as they wanted.
It emerged that both groups had members who lied but those under time constraints were more likely to lie.
In a second experiment the same procedure was followed except that the subjects only rolled the die once. In this case those under time pressure lied but those without time constraint did not lie.
In general then it appears from this that people lie when time is short and when they can generate justifications for doing so.
It seems that lying is a self-serving instinct that can be overridden with time to reflect: given enough time your cortex can wrestle your primitive brain into submission. It’s a valuable lesson in interpersonal and international relations: don’t push people into a corner and don’t rush them, give them time to allow their best self to emerge.