A few months ago, I wrote to you all about how odd—and not at all in a good way—it seems to me that we have elevated honesty to the level of desirable asset that draws support to candidates for election rather than treating personal probity as one of the bedrock virtues that we as a nation simply expect of anyone at all who would vie for public office. Thomas Jefferson once famously wrote that honesty was, in his opinion, “the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” But since we also don’t particularly expect our candidates to be wise, only savvy, his point will probably not strike the electorate as all that compelling. This phenomenon is upsetting to acknowledge but not that hard to explain: the reason we are prepared to support candidates specifically because they strike us as honest rather simply rejecting as unworthy anyone proven to lack personal integrity is because we’ve also become strangely inured to the phenomenon of lying in society in general. And given the degree to which political campaigns seem to embody the best and worst of societal attitudes towards most things, it was probably only to be expected that the presidential campaign—the mother of all political campaigns in our country—should again and again prove my point that we no longer demand truthfulness of all office-seekers but instead prefer to admire it when it unexpectedly surfaces in one specific candidate.
All that being the case, I was particularly interested in a study published the other week in a journal intended solely for serious scientists, but which received coverage in the general press and which came to my attention in that way.
The study, published this week by Neil Garrett, Stephanie C. Lazzaro, Dan Ariely, and Tali Sharot in Nature Neuroscience, is entitled “The Brain Adapts to Dishonesty” and describes the results of a fascinating experiment undertaken by the authors of the article in which the brain—and specifically the part of the brain called the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with emotional response to outside stimuli—can be shown to become slowly but verifiably inured to the telling of untruths…and how the diminished response to the telling of self-serving lies paves the way for the individual in question to tell increasingly more brazen lies as the naturally negative response to deceit erodes in the course of time. (I actually found it slightly heartening to learn that the human brain is naturally predisposed—if that’s the right word—to respond negatively to falsehood. Who would have thought that?) Regretfully, the actual article is not all that reader-friendly because it was obviously written by scientists for other scientists, but you can check it out online anyway by clicking here. The re-presentation of the material for “regular” readers without advanced degrees in brain science by Erica Goode that was published in the New York Times just this week, on the other hand, is entirely accessible…and very interesting and provocative. (You can read Erica Goode’s article by clicking here.) I recommend taking a look at both pieces, then focusing on the one that is by far the more accessible.
In a sense, their discovery only confirms what most of us sensed anyway to be the case: the more we misbehave in some specific way—including with respect to the telling of lies—the easier it becomes to repeat the sin without feeling overwhelmed by remorse. Millennia ago, the editor of the Mishnah recorded the great sage Ben Azzai’s wise comment on human nature to the effect that just as the performance of one good deed (and the satisfaction behaving well brings in its wake) leads naturally to the desire to do more good in the world, so too does one sin often lead to another as sinners becomes inured to their own poor behavior and find it increasingly easier to justify with each subsequent iniquitous misdeed. Ben Azzai’s remark is semi-famous, but my own favorite iteration of that same thought comes from the Talmud, where we find the mordant comment of Rav Huna, the third-century master of the academy of Sura in modern-day Iraq, to the effect that “once an individual commits a sin and then repeats it, it becomes permitted to him.” By that, Rav Huna did not mean to suggest that engaging in forbidden activity somehow makes the deed allowed—which would be a patent absurdity—but rather that, as they are repeated again and again, misdeeds begin no longer to feel wrong or forbidden at all, but rather take on the feel of wholly permitted acts…to the individual doing them if not to the world around.
With that phenomenon, we are all surely familiar. You cross a specific line. You feel briefly regretful, but then, because there is clearly nothing we human beings enjoy more than mimicking ourselves, you find it, not harder, but just that much easier to repeat the offense a second or third time. And then, by the eighth or twentieth time ‘round that particular block, you barely register the concept of wrongdoing at all with respect to the deed in question and just proceed without giving the matter even a second thought. So Rav Huna really was right that the ability to distinguish forbidden from permitted becomes corrupted in the mind of the habitual sinner.
In the Nature Neuroscience study, people lied consistently when they perceived the lie to be to their own advantage and that they stood a good chance of not being caught. Nothing too surprising there! But what was very surprising was the discovery that the negative response in the amygdala decreased as the scope of the lie increased. This suggests that the brain becomes desensitized as the lies keep coming. In other words, the inner mechanism that favors honesty and reacts negatively to deceit becomes degraded when the boundary between falsehood and truth becomes consistently and repeatedly blurred.
To explain that from a spiritual point of view, we really don’t need to go any further than Rav Huna. But I can justify the results of the study without recourse to religious psychology as well: since truths correspond to reality and untruths exist solely in the realm of self-serving fantasy, it is hardly surprising that, when given the choice between interpreting data in a way consistent with what the brain perceives as reality and interpreting it in a fanciful way that the brain perceives as flawed and inconsonant with how things really are in the world, the brain naturally opts to favor reality and shun fantasy. What that says about the human condition is encouraging. But what the fact that we apparently also have the ability to erode that aspect of our human condition through habituation brought on by repetition is part of the equation as well.
Also of interest is that, if I am reading the study correctly, the amygdala only accommodated itself to self-serving lies, not to untrue statements that were merely erroneous because the speaker did not know the correct answer to a question. And that part is key, I think, because it makes this a question of moral decision-making not mere perception.
The specific experiment had to do with two groups of people: one could see a huge jar of pennies and the other couldn’t, but the members of the second group were the ones who had to report how many pennies were in the jar. Since they couldn’t see the jar, they had to depend on the data received by the people in the first group. But by manipulating the instructions—in effect, incentifying lying by the people in the first group in some cases and truth-telling in others, and by varying the likelihood of being caught—the authors of the study could see how the amygdala responds to truth telling and to lying, then see if the response varies with the level of benefit the liar imagines might accrue to him or her if the lie goes undetected. The brain does not respond to honest errors at all because it takes them for truths. (That’s what an error is, after all: a statement that is incorrect but which the speaker thinks to be correct.) But when the brain understands that it is being asked to embrace a lie, it responds negatively. For a while. Eventually, it gets used to it. Eventually, the personal probity of the person in whose head that brain is housed degrades to the point that, as per Rav Huna, the forbidden becomes permitted.
A while back, I wrote to you about the phenomenon of politicians telling what appeared to be pointless lies, which I defined as lies that do not appear to offer any obvious gain to the person telling them. We tend to dismiss such instances as mere misspeaking and I suppose many of those instances really are best demoted to the level of “mere” mistakes. But we are talking about an entirely different phenomenon here: the ability of the brain to adjust to the telling of lies, to lose its outrage and thus also its ability to inspire the kind of shame that naturally discourages future lying, and to accommodate the liar’s propensity to lie by abandoning its natural tendency to wish for the inner self and the outer world to exist in the same context of perceived reality.
In my opinion, we have done ourselves a great disservice by demoting personal integrity to the level of something we admire in candidates when we detect its presence rather than something we demand be the sine qua non of everyone who would run for public office. What elections are really about—both on the national and local levels—is not supporting candidates based on the specific positions they espouse, but rather determining the persons in who we would be acting the most wisely to put our trust. The Nature Neuroscience article is really about how wrong it would be to make that decision based solely on outer demeanor or on the trappings, absent the content, of personal integrity.