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Dishonest Brain


Considering the recent events in Turkey, I couldn’t keep myself from addressing the issue of dishonesty. I have had a couple of people ask me about why/how people choose to be dishonest instead of acting in the “right way”. What goes on in the brain when people lie, cheat, steal?

We always tend to think that dishonest acts are performed by a number of “bad people” towards the few “good people” (including ourselves, of course) in the society. In his book titled The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, the famous behavioral economist Dan Ariely asks a very crucial question about dishonesty: “Is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples, or is it a more widespread problem?”

The answer to this question is not what we usually want to believe in: rather than simply a matter of character, dishonesty is usually a matter of circumstance, experience and the resulting cognitive processes. In fact, we’re all a little dishonest! We all cheat but only by a little bit, a phenomenon that Ariely calls The Fudge Factor Theory! We tend to stretch the gray areas and take advantage of them in our favor: “You’ll add two extra receipt to your tax return, but you can’t do 20. That’s a point at which it feels wrong.” It is a clash between wanting to feel good when we look at the mirror and wanting to have a lot of money!

Recent advances in functional neuroimaging enabled cognitive neuroscientists to explore the neurobiology of dishonesty. There is now an increasing number of evidence showing that dishonest decision making requires pre-frontal (PFC) regions of the brain that are responsible for higher level thinking, as well as subcortical structures such as amygdala and ventral striatum that are responsible for emotion and reward-based learning, respectively (Abe, 2011). However, due to limitations of the current technology with neuroimaging studies, we still do not know the exact role of each of these regions in the decision to lie.

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fMRI images show the brain regions (marked yellow) that are activated during dishonest decision making. The activated regions, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), amygdala, striatum, are associated with higher cognitive function, emotion and reward-based learning, respectively.

Although currently cognitive neuroscience is still investigating the neural correlates of dishonest behavior, it is important to note that there is probably not just a single ‘lie center’ in the brain. When you are lying you must be able to distinguish the lie from the truth as well as formulate your lie according to the situation you are in, including the lies that you might have told before and the lies you might need to tell in the future. Throughout all this, you must also be able to have a control of your emotions and gestures to make sure that your lie is believable.

The complexity of dishonest behavior strengthens the possibility that instead of a single major brain area, an interaction between prefrontal cortex and various subcortical regions might be necessary. With the current interest and increase in funding in brain research it will be very exciting to see further developments and innovations that may result in a better understanding of the brain pathways that are responsible for various human behaviors, including dishonesty.


RSA Animate: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty

TED Talk: “Dan Ariely: Our Buggy Moral Code”

NPR Interview: Daniel Langleben, MD on a novel lie detection machine that uses brain imaging

PBS Video from the Wired Science network on lie detectors


Abe, Nobuhito. “How the Brain Shapes Deception An Integrated Review of the Literature.” The Neuroscientist 17.5 (2011): 560-574.

Greene, Joshua D., and Joseph M. Paxton. “Patterns of neural activity associated with honest and dishonest moral decisions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106.30 (2009): 12506-12511.

Image source: Flickr

Arın Pamukçu

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