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Dishonesty is a new perfume you just bought. The first times you apply it, you fully notice the intensity of its essence. As the months go by, you perceive it ever less and you are forced to increase the quantity you vaporize every day to feel it, with the risk of exaggerating disproportionately.
It happens the same for dishonesty, neuroscience warns.
In an experiment conducted by Dan Ariely, 80 people had the opportunity to lie again and again on a financial job to gain money at the expense of another person. Researchers found out that individuals start with little lies, but slowly, during the course of the experiment, lied more and more.
Outside the laboratory, there are many reasons for dishonesty to intensify – incentives could increase or hiding previous lies may be necessary. Examining the human cerebral activity while they commit dishonest actions revealed a biological process called emotional adaptation.
What do emotions have to do with dishonesty?
The bad feeling we perceive when we think of cheating often prevents us from acting. In its absence, there is a higher chance of lying. During a study, researchers administered to a group of students beta-blocking substances in the form of pills, which reduced emotional arousal just before taking an exam. These students had double the chance to copy during the exam than those that received a placebo.
The experiment showed that the emotional network of the brain responds less and less to each new lie. The higher the decrease in the brain sensibility to dishonesty, the more people will lie the next time they can. In other words, individuals that have adapted to their own dishonesty will hold back less from telling bigger lies whenever there will be a chance to do so.
Brain activity is not simply diminished in time. Reduction in sensibility was proportional to lying.
A simple way to think about this process is comparing with a perfume. Imagine you have just bought a new perfume. Just as you wear it, you can feel the essence, the intensity, but some months later you will hardly manage to perceive it as the first times instead. Thus, you will start applying it more inattentively, flummoxed by the fact that nobody will sit near you on the train or in the subway… This happens because the neurons in the olfactory bulb progressively desensitize to the smell.
Repeated dishonesty is a bit like a perfume that is repeatedly applied. Initially, the response to dishonest actions is strong, but diminishes in time. As the students that consumed beta-blockers, our ability to be dishonest increases.
This can seem dreary. However, data revealed a positive aspect of human nature too. Participants could have cheated much more, but they didn’t, even when cheating would have benefited them.
Dishonesty and unethical behavior are really common, we know that well. Dishonesty is believed to be worth in the US at least 1 trillion dollars in bribes, 270 billion lost to tax evasion and 42 billion in shoplifting and stolen goods by employees.
A good amount of money if we think that one of the wishes that is most revealed by humans is being perceived as moral by others.
In a survey on World News and World Report, from some years ago, the following question was asked: “Who do you think has the highest chance to go to heaven?”. According the people that were interviewed, then-President Bill Clinton had a 52% chance; basketball star Michael Jordan had 65%; and Mother Theresa 79%.
Who scored the highest? Those who voted themselves: the majority of the people that were interviewed in fact thought to be better than Mother Theresa about the chance of going to heaven.
Research on morality shows that we have an excessively optimistic vision of our ability to adhere to ethical standards. We believe that we have intrinsically more moral than others, that in future we will behave more ethically than others, and that transgressions that were committed by others are morally worse than ours.
Why do we behave dishonestly?
Research results highlight the fact that people commit unethical behaviors repeatedly during the course of time, because the memory of their dishonest actions is blurred during the years. People have a higher chance of forgetting the details of their unethical actions than other incidents, including neutral, negative and positive events, and even unethical actions of others.
We call this tendency unethical amnesia: an impairment that progressively occurs in our memory for the details of our unethical past behavior. In other words, assuming unethical behaviors produces, in time, actual changes in the memory of an experience.
Our desire to behave ethically and consider ourselves as moral gives us a strong motivation to forget our misdeeds. Experiencing unethical amnesia, we can confront our psychological discomfort and the uneasy sensation we feel after behaving unethically.
An amnesia not to forget
Research shows that when we experience unethical amnesia we become more inclined to cheat again.
In additional studies, it was offered to 600 participants to cheat and erroneously file their own work for extra money. A few days later, they were given another chance to do it. The initial betrayal caused an unethical amnesia, which led to another dishonest behavior on the task the participants completed some days later.
Since we often feel guilty and remorseful for our unethical behavior, we could expect that these negative emotions prevent us from continuing to act unethically. It is not like this. Dishonesty is a common and widespread phenomenon.
We are more dishonest than we remember and if we don’t use awareness and a correct dose of self-critique in our actions, the only result we will obtain is becoming more and more dishonest, forgetting about it. Just as it happens with our favorite perfume.
 Garrett N., Lazzaro S.C., Ariely D., Sharot T., The brain adapts to dishonesty, Nature Neuroscience, Vol 19, pp. 1727-1732 (2016)
 Leary M.R., The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life, Oxford University, 2004
 Kouchaki M., Gino F., Memories of unethical actions become obfuscated over time, PNAS, May 31, 2016, 113(22) pp. 6166-6171