The Real Problem With Telling Lies—It’s Not What You Think

Updated: Nov. 07, 2016

Most of us tell little white lies here and there, but according to new research, the habit could be downright dangerous.


The truth hurts. Or is it lying that hurts more? Most people would agree that dishonesty leads to a variety of negative results, including broken trust, destroyed relationships, lost jobs, and even criminal convictions. So why do people lie? Most people lie in order to make themselves look better, to avoid hurting people’s feelings, or to gain social status in some way. Lying is never ideal, but new research has shown that it can actually be quite sinister—because it paves the way for more and bigger lies.

In a new study conducted at the University College London, researchers told participants that overestimating the amount of pennies in a jar would lead to personal gain. Participants’ brains were scanned for activity during their responses. When they first began exaggerating the number of pennies in the jar, their amygdala, the brain’s built-in gauge of right and wrong, responded strongly in reaction to their dishonesty. But as their exaggerations increased, the response of their amgydala decreased, showing that the brain becomes desensitized to repetitive dishonesty.

So with every lie a person tells, the brain essentially feels less and less guilty or ashamed, which can lead to larger and more frequent lies. Senior author of the study Tali Sharot, PhD, told, “When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie. However, this response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it falls, the bigger our lies become.” This may become a “slippery slope,” Sharot adds, where small acts of dishonesty escalate into more significant lies.

And surprisingly enough, most people lie once or twice a day, according to research by Bella Depaulo, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

What does this mean for those that want to lead a more honest life? The findings of this study suggest that as even little white lies cause trouble, so may other wrongdoings. Study co-author Neil Garrett, PhD, told, “We only tested dishonesty in this experiment, but the same principle may also apply to escalations in other actions such as risk taking or violent behavior.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest