What a tangled web we weave…

We just got a biological explanation for why small lies lead to big lies: Our brains get desensitized by every lie we tell.


In an article, “The brain adapts to dishonesty”, published in Nature Neuroscience, the authors (Neil Garrett, Stephanie C Lazzaro, Dan Ariely & Tali Sharot) provide “empirical evidence for a gradual escalation of self-serving dishonesty”. In plain English: they show how people who lie just a little to help themselves will tell more frequent and bigger lies as they go on.

The authors describe how self-serving dishonesty is initially perceived as morally wrong, making us uncomfortable. But just like any other emotion-evoking stimulus, repeated exposure weakens that stimulus. So the more one practices lying, the more one becomes desensitized to it.  The researchers used functional MRI scans for brain imaging in order to identify the biological mechanism at work in their subjects. They gave their volunteer test subjects tasks with repeated opportunities to act dishonestly. In the brain scans they could observe how signals in the amygdala that would curb dishonesty diminish with repeated acts of dishonesty. In biological terms this is called adaptation. In moral terms, it is corruption. If you ignore that little voice in your head that tells you what you are doing is wrong, the next time the voice will be softer, and you will be able to tell a bigger lie. This is a classic slippery slope.

Commenting in the Scientific American, Simon Makin points out that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of dishonesty escalating over time, which is what prompted the research. “Whether it’s evading taxes, being unfaithful, doping in sports, making up data or committing financial fraud, deceivers often recall how small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time,” neuroscientist and senior author, Tali Sharot, told the press during a teleconference.

In our book, “Business Ethics for Executives”, we discuss the ethical pitfalls associated with various persuasion techniques at length. In chapter 6, “Temptations of a Salesperson”, we provide a practical, situation-based ethical framework for persuasion techniques that takes into account the information gaps and differences in sophistication between parties. We also emphasized that lying is always an unacceptable persuasion technique:

Deception and lies can be used in any persuasion strategy and will always be wrong no matter the context. And any form of coercion or bribery is obviously always wrong. Remember that there is no such thing as a little deception or a little dishonesty. Jesus explicitly warned us against rationalizing away any form of dishonesty: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”[1]

But before we go on to discuss the more nuanced persuasion strategies, let us pause to remind ourselves of the seriousness of the sin of deception. Lies of all shapes, sizes, and hues circulate freely in the business world, effectively greasing the wheels of day-to-day commerce. But Jesus was very forceful when assessing the gravity of lying: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”[2] Lying is the devil’s work—plain and simple. This may be simple, but it is not easy. Christian businesspeople should never lie!

Here we have yet another example of modern research confirming age-old wisdom. The research suggests that we are designed to be uncomfortable with telling a lie, but that if we keep overriding that impulse, it become easier for us. Deception is one “skill” we are best off not to practice at all, because we certainly do not want to become better at it!


Posted by Peet van Biljon

[1] Luke 16:10.

[2] John 8:44.