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Little lies lead to BIG lies


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Be honest now, have you ever used the expression, “It’s just a little white lie”? Meaning that while you weren’t telling the truth you had a good reason, it wasn’t hurting anyone and it might even be protecting someone’s feelings? The problem, according to new research, is that in truth even little white lies do hurt someone; they hurt you because they desensitise your brain and in the end you might become a big, fat liar.

In the study, subjects were asked to guess the number of coins in a jar and send their estimate to an unseen partner using a computer. Unbeknown to them, the subjects had been divided into a series of groups. One group was told that aiming for the most accurate estimate would benefit both them and their partner. Other groups were told that over or under estimating the amount would either benefit them at their partner’s expense, benefit both of them, benefit their partner at their own expense or benefit one of them with no effect on the other.

Brain scans of the subjects were performed while they did the tests.

Without the first little lie, the final big lie would not be made.

The results showed that when over-estimating the amount would benefit the subject at their partner’s expense people started by slightly exaggerating their estimates and then, as the experiment continued, their exaggerations also became bigger. The brain scans showed that the amygdala, a portion of the brain involved in governing emotion, was most active when people told their first lie for personal gain but the amygdala’s response to lying reduced with each lie. It was a direct relationship; the less the amygdala activity, the bigger the lie.

The amygdala is thought to generate aversion to acts of dishonesty or immorality but it seems the amygdala only has limited reserves and once you tell a small lie that partially reduces the amygdala response. and so it goes until huge lies become unrestrained by the amygdala.

Essentially, that “little white lie” begins the desensitisation process, meaning it is not so white, or little, after all. Without the first little lie, the final big lie would not be made. Maybe now you’ll understand our politicians a little better … their collective amygdala gave up long ago.

Source: Nature Neuroscience

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Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.