Article

The brain adapts to dishonesty

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Abstract

Dishonesty is an integral part of our social world, influencing domains ranging from finance and politics to personal relationships. Anecdotally, digressions from a moral code are often described as a series of small breaches that grow over time. Here we provide empirical evidence for a gradual escalation of self-serving dishonesty and reveal a neural mechanism supporting it. Behaviorally, we show that the extent to which participants engage in self-serving dishonesty increases with repetition. Using functional MRI, we show that signal reduction in the amygdala is sensitive to the history of dishonest behavior, consistent with adaptation. Critically, the extent of reduced amygdala sensitivity to dishonesty on a present decision relative to the previous one predicts the magnitude of escalation of self-serving dishonesty on the next decision. The findings uncover a biological mechanism that supports a 'slippery slope': what begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.

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Acknowledgements

We thank D. Prelec, B. Baharami, U. Hertz, J. Navajas and D. Bang for helpful discussions; T. Yarkoni, C. Frith and W. Penny for advice; R. Rutledge, C. Summerfield, M. Cikara, M. Edelson, R. Köster, A. Kappes, C. Charpentier, S. Suarez, L. Coutrot, L. Wittkuhn and P. Czech for comments on previous versions of this manuscript; and T. Srirangarajan, R. Anjum, S. Hadden, G. Montinola and M. Wilner for assistance with data collection and scanning; T.S. is supported by a Wellcome Trust Career Development Fellowship 093807/Z/10/Z and N.G. by a UCL Impact Award; the research was also supported by funding from the Center for Advanced Hindsight.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Affective Brain Lab, Department of Experimental Psychology, University College London, London, UK.

    • Neil Garrett
    • , Stephanie C Lazzaro
    •  & Tali Sharot
  2. Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA.

    • Dan Ariely

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Contributions

T.S. conceived the study. N.G., S.C.L., D.A. and T.S. designed the study. N.G. collected behavioral and fMRI data. N.G. and T.S. analyzed the data. N.G. and T.S. wrote the manuscript with edits from S.C.L.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Neil Garrett or Tali Sharot.

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