This isn’t a political post.
I try to stay out of politics unless there’s something concrete we can do, like call our Congresspeople and tell them to vote against the newest law aimed at trying to take over our health. Politics is a stinking swamp full of alligators, and stepping a toe into it is more than I want to do. That said, here’s what I want to talk about today:
Politicians lie. They lie a lot. And they tell lies the size of Texas without turning a hair, appearing as sincere as you or me.
If any of us didn’t already know this, the current election cycle makes it abundantly clear. And the bulk of the country is still smarting from whoppers like, “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” and “the ACA will save the average family $2,500 a year.” Yes, politicians lie. And it seems like the longer they’re in office the more easily they lie and the bigger the lies become.
Of course they’re not the only ones. They’re just the most visible. Salesmen lie as effortlessly as they breathe. CEOs caught with their pants down or their hands in the cookie jar—or hiking drug prices by thousands of percents—lie, and the lying seems to snowball. Tell one whopper and they’re more likely to tell another…and another…even when it seems pointless. Honestly, how many of us think “I don’t recall” is a truthful answer when it comes to game-changing events?
We see it happen even with relatively honest people—tell one lie and you’re more likely to tell another. Tell two, and you’re more likely to tell a third, even if it isn’t strictly necessary. Lying seems to beget more lying, even when it serves no real purpose. Tell enough lies, and it becomes so easy that you lie more often than you tell the truth.
So why am I telling you this, if it’s not a political post?
Because science now has an answer for why this happens.
Here’s what happens when you tell a lie
We’ve all seen that one episode of dishonesty seems to make the next easier, but till recently no one had really bothered to find out why. If anything, we’ve seen it as primarily a character flaw.
Then researchers at University College London decided to look at lying from a scientific perspective. They wanted to know two things: what kind of situations make people most likely to lie, and what happens in their brains when they do it. What they found was equal parts unsurprising and downright chilling.
As you might expect, they found that people were likely to lie if it benefited them. They paired people up with “partners” (played by actors) then, with the “partners” in a separate room, asked them to estimate the amount of money in a photograph of a jar full of coins. In some cases, they had no reason to lie. In others, they were given incentives to be dishonest.
People were unlikely to lie if it didn’t have some benefit. And they were more likely to lie if it benefited them rather than the partner, though they often lied in both cases. But they were most likely to lie if it benefited both people in the pair.
That’s the “not surprising part.” Neither was the fact that the more times people were presented with the jar, the more likely they were to lie—especially if both they and their “partner” got something out of the deal. We see it every day as politicians lie to benefit themselves and their Big Pharma/Food/Ag “partners.” And we also know that the longer they’re in office, the more lies—and bigger lies—they’re going to tell.
Now here’s where we get to the “downright chilling” part. About a third of the study participants took part while in a functional MRI scanner, letting the researchers look at what was going on inside their brains. They found that the emotion-related parts of the brain lit up the first time a participant told a lie (indicating that they felt guilty, as most people would.)
However, with each successive lie there was less activity in these areas. And not only did repeated lying cut down on the emotional response, the greater the reduction in brain activity the bigger the lie they subsequently told.
In short, lying initially made them feel guilty. But once they had lied, it got easier. With each lie they told, the more their emotions were numbed. And the more numb their emotions, the bigger the whopper that came out of their mouths. So there you have it folks. Lying, it seems, actually changes how your brain functions. And it appears to be a slippery slope. Tell enough lies—even small ones--and your brain my end up working a lot like…a psychopath’s. Or a politician’s. So keep that in mind the next time you think about telling a harmless fib.