It seems intuitive that lying gets easier the more we do it, but that may actually be supported at the neurological level!
New research found that, when we lie frequently, our brain begins to adapt to the practice of deception, to the point that we no longer feel the emotional stress that normally comes with lying. These results are important both for informing on how we practice deception but also for shedding light on the ways in which our brains adapt to patterns of, perhaps immoral, behavior.
Typically, when we tell a lie, our brain’s amygdala produces a negative emotional state, essentially making us feel stressed or uncomfortable during the process. However, a new study in Nature Neuroscience contends that, the more people lie, the less their brain produces negative stimuli.
In this study, participants were given images of glass jars filled with pennies. They were asked to report the number of pennies but were often incentivized to exaggerate the amount. While they often told the truth, they often engaged in deception when given self-interested reasons to do so.
Over the course of repeated deceptions, the researchers tracked each participants’ amygdala’s functioning, finding that they became less intensely activated each time. This even remained the case when the magnitude of the lie increased.
This last point is especially troubling, as it suggests that minor lies can escalate into major acts of deception the more accustomed to them we become. Study author Dr. Tali Sharot emphasized this point saying, “[the amygdala] response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it falls the bigger our lies become. This may lead to a ‘slippery slope’ where small acts of dishonesty escalate into more significant lies.”
In fact, the study also found that, not only did people begin to feel better about lying the more they did it, but they also became more likely to do so.
While this experiment demonstrates how our brains react to deception, it may also reflect broader trends in our ability to adapt emotionally to other actions. The lead author, Dr. Neil Garrett, alluded to the possibility of these results being replicated during troublesome behaviors besides lying.
Dr. Garrett remarked “We only tested dishonesty in this experiment, but the same principle may also apply to escalations in other actions such as risk taking or violent behavior.”
What do the results of this study mean for efforts to detect deception? In fact, it bolsters many of the challenges with lie detection, namely that habitual liars can be incredibly good at it. Not only do they learn how to lie, but their brain actually adapts to the practice!
Think you know everything about microexpressions? Take a look at our list of common microexpression misconceptions:
1) Seeing a microexpression automatically means that a person is lying
Microexpressions occur when people are trying to conceal their emotions, most often in high stakes situations. When you see a microexpression, don’t automatically assume that the person who gave off the micro is lying. The first thing you need to do is establish a baseline: ask yourself what the person’s normal behavior is.
If you indeed notice a hot spot (where their verbal actions contradicts their nonverbal actions), you need to stop and ask more questions. Don’t automatically assume that what they are saying is a lie.
2) Microexpressions include the following:
• Rate that the person is blinking • The direction their eyes are moving • Restlessness • Heavy breathing
All of the above actions are great examples of nonverbal behavior which may be indicative that someone is lying, but are not microexpressions. While microexpressions are one type of nonverbal behavior that occurs on the face, they do not involve how frequently a person blinks or how heavy their breathing is.
Microexpressions commonly represent the seven basic emotions: happiness, fear, sadness, anger, contempt, disgust and surprise. They occur as fast as 1/25 of a second and are classified by the speed at which the expression occurs on a person’s face.
These “truth wizards” that were discovered by Maureen O’Sullivan during her Wizards Project were a select group of people that were particularly good at detecting deception. You don’t have to be a wizard to see microexpressions. Anyone can learn to see microexpressions, especially if they get the proper training.
4) Microexpressions were discovered recently
Despite the show Lie to Me that aired on FOX, microexpressions were first discovered by Haggard and Isaacs over 40 years ago. They published a report on these expressions, which they called “micromomentary” expressions in 1966. The article they wrote was entitled Micro-momentary facial expressions as indicators of ego mechanisms in psychotherapy. Many subsequent studies have been conducted based on the research by Haggard and Isaacs, but the discovery of microexpressions should be attributed to them.
The conclusions of this article are highly flawed for many reasons and below he outlines a few of them.
1. The fact of the matter is that a close inspection of the findings indicates that the raw data in the study supports the universal recognition of emotion (i.e., significantly higher rates of agreement than chance for each and every emotion, for both ethnic groups). That this is the empirical criterion that could and should be used as a basis to draw conclusions about universality has been discussed and debated years ago (Ekman, 1994; Ekman, O’Sullivan, & Matsumoto, 1991a, 1991b).
2. The cultural difference is in absolute levels of agreement rates are not a novel finding. Indeed, I have published exactly the same findings 20 years ago and since (Biehl et al., 1997; Matsumoto, 1989, 1992; Matsumoto & Ekman, 1989).
3. As argued then, cultural differences in absolute agreement rates cannot and do not argue against universality. Universality in expression recognition is demonstrated by the fact that observers in all cultures studied agreed on what emotion is portrayed at above chance levels. This is exactly what they found, replicating the same findings for years. Cultural differences in the absolute levels of that agreement can occur for many reasons, including cultural rules about how to decode universal facial expressions. And it has been well known in the field for years that universality and culture-specific in emotion recognition coexist (Mesquita & Frijda, 1992). Arguing for their mutual exclusivity is a strategy long since abandoned by those who know the literature well.
4. Moreover, the confusions these authors report – that disgust was confused with anger, and fear with surprise – are confusions that occur all around the world. They are not specific to East Asian cultures, and are a published finding from over 20 years ago (Ekman et al., 1987; Matsumoto & Ekman, 1989). That they occur in all judge cultures tested to date says something more about those emotions than they do about cultural differences.
5. A close reading of the authors’ own findings indicates that their findings concerning the eye tracking do not justify their conclusions. They reported a significant culture by face region interaction on the eye data, but an absence of a significant culture by face region by emotion interaction. That means that the eye tracking differences between the two cultures were not specific to emotion. If that’s the case, the eye tracking differences could not possibly account for the judgment differences on two emotions only, because the eye tracking differences that occurred did so for all emotions. This is a basic flaw in their interpretation of possible mediating variables (Baron & Kenny, 1986).
6. Moreover, the East Asian – US American differences in scanning procedures of scenes, objects, and faces is a well established finding for years and is not novel. The differences in eye contact show a typical Asian response, that is, focusing in the eyes/nose bridge area rather than the whole face. The person identification literature has shown for years that Caucasians differ from African Americans and Asian Americans in terms of how much time they spend looking at different parts of the face to see if they recognize someone (Caucasians more of the face including hairline and hair; Africans and Asians in that eyes-nose bridge area). Thus what the authors report in this article is not specific to viewing facial expressions of emotion (and as mentioned above, cannot thus explain emotion specific differences in judgments).
7. The sample size for the East Asian sample was 13 (12 Chinese, 1 Japanese). Such a small number could not possibly tell us anything vis-à-vis the overwhelming evidence for universality in the production of facial expressions of emotion, including over 74 studies published in peer reviewed journals conducted by multiple investigators in multiple countries (Matsumoto, Keltner, Shiota, Frank, & O’Sullivan, 2008); studies of congenitally blind individuals (Matsumoto & Willingham, 2009; Peleg et al., 2006); studies demonstrating linkage between facial expressions of emotion and physiological responses across cultures (Ekman, Levenson, & Friesen, 1983; Levenson, Ekman, & Friesen, 1990; Levenson, Ekman, Heider, & Friesen, 1992); and studies of nonhuman primates (Bard, 2003; de Waal, 2003). There is also well over 100 studies documenting the universality in recognition of facial expressions (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002; Matsumoto, 2001).
8. Finally, the East Asian subjects in their study were actually immigrants in the United Kingdom, and it is not known what kind of self-selection, language proficiency, or acculturation biases may have been exerted in the data.
There is nothing wrong with the data presented in the article in question, but the conclusions drawn from the data are entirely incorrect and not empirically justified. In my opinion, the conclusions border on sensationalism in relation to a very modest study.
I was aided in the preparation of this commentary by my colleagues Dr. Mark Frank and Dr. Jeff LeRoux
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