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The brain adapts to dishonesty


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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Figure 1: Procedure and dishonesty escalation.
Figure 2: Replication and extension study.
Figure 3: Reduction in sensitivity to dishonesty over time.
Figure 4: Reduction in brain response to dishonesty predicts its escalation.


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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

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Neil Garrett or Tali Sharot.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Integrated supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1 Mean dishonesty and starting dishonesty

(a) Mean dishonesty over the course of the block (Self-Serving-Other-Harming: t54 = 5.49, p<0.001; Self-Serving-Other-Serving: t54 = 6.16, p<0.001; Self-Harming-Other-Serving: t54 = -0.39, p=0.70 - one sample ttests vs 0; comparisons between conditions: Self-Serving-Other-Harming vs Self-Harming-Other-Serving: F1,53 = 26.44, p<0.001; Self-Serving-Other-Serving vs Self-Harming-Other-Serving: F1,53 = 39.67 p<0.0001; Self-Serving-Other-Serving vs Self-Serving-Other-Harming: F1,53 = 7.72, p=0.008 - statistics reported for separate 2 way ANOVAs with condition as a 2 level repeated factor controlling for study). (b) Starting dishonesty (Self-Serving-Other-Harming: t54 = 4.48, p<0.001; Self-Serving-Other-Serving: t54 = 5.56, p<0.001; Self-Harming-Other-Serving: t54 = 1.69, p=0.097, one sample ttests vs 0; Self-Serving-Other-Harming vs Self-Harming-Other-Serving condition: F1,53 = 7.74, p=0.007; Self-Serving-Other-Serving vs Self-Harming-Other-Serving condition: F1,53 = 21.99, p<0.001; F1,53 = 8.84, p=0.004, 2 way repeated measure ANOVAs controlling for study). N=55.

Error bars represent standard error of the mean.

*p<0.05, n.s. = non-significant

Supplementary Figure 2 Voxels restricted to bilateral amygdala

fMRI analysis was repeated on voxels in our ROI that were restricted to the anatomically defined amygdala. This analysis generated similar results as those portrayed in Figures 3, 4. Specifically, (a) time-weighted dishonesty regressor positively correlated with BOLD response when dishonesty was Self-Serving-Other-Harming (t24 = 2.68, p=0.01, one sample ttest vs 0) but not when it was Self-Harming-Other-Serving (t24 = -0.9, p=0.38, one sample ttest vs 0) with the former parameter betas significantly greater than the latter (t24 = 2.60, p=0.02, paired sample ttest). (b) Reduction in BOLD response to one unit dishonesty on a current trial relative to the last predicted dishonesty escalation on next trial relative to current trial, when dishonesty was Self-Serving-Other-Harming (t24 = 2.30, p=0.03, one sample ttest vs 0) but not when Self-Harming-Other-Serving (trend in opposite direction t24 = -1.77, p=0.09, one sample ttest vs 0) with the former betas significantly larger than the latter (t24 = 3.05, p=0.01, paired sample ttest). N=25.

Error bars represent standard error of the mean.

*p<0.05, n.s. = non-significant

Supplementary Figure 3 Awareness of dishonesty

Fifteen participants, who completed the task outside of the scanner in testing cubicles in Experiment 1, were also asked immediately after the Self-Serving-Other-Harming block of trials to estimate the magnitude by which they gave advice over and above what they actually thought was in the jar on the last trial, as well as on average throughout that block (order of these two questions was counterbalanced). Participants did not know in advance that they would be asked to do this. Comparing participants’ self-reports to their actual dishonesty revealed no significant differences on the last trial (t14 = 0.04, p>0.95, one sample ttest against a test value of 0) and on average (t14 = 1.29, p=0.22, one sample ttest against a test value of 0).

n.s. = non significant

Supplementary Figure 4 Baseline accuracy

(a) Mean absolute error in the baseline condition (t54 = 19.06, p<0.001, n=55, one sample ttest vs 0). (b) Parameters show that errors were not changing with time in the baseline condition (regressing error rate over the 60 trials on trial number for each participant revealed no change over time: t54 = 0.67, p=0.51, n=55, one sample ttest vs 0). As participants did not receive any feedback it is not surprising that they did not show significant improvement over the course of the block.

Error bars represent standard error of the mean.


Supplementary Figure 5 Reaction time

RTs were slower in the Self-Harming-Other-Serving condition than the Self-Serving-Other-Serving condition (t54 = -2.19, p=0.03, n=55, paired sample ttest). Note, there was no correlation between mean RT and escalation of dishonesty in any of the conditions (all P > 0.3).

Error bars represent standard error of the mean.


Supplementary information

Supplementary Text and figures

Supplementary Figures 1–5 and Supplementary Tables 1–4 (PDF 712 kb)

Supplementary Methods Checklist (PDF 608 kb)

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Garrett, N., Lazzaro, S., Ariely, D. et al. The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nat Neurosci 19, 1727–1732 (2016).

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