When was the last time you lied to someone? Chances are it wasn’t long ago. We all lie, and we do it all the time. Whether it’s a small white lie or a monster, lying is just part of human nature. So, why do we view it as unacceptable behavior? Why are we all so bent out of shape about knowing the truth the whole time?

We value truth and honesty because it lets us know a person’s intention towards the world, society, and you. Truth is important because it keeps us on a path in life where we understand what’s happening in the world around us.

When we have nothing but lies in our social environment, it affects our sense of community with others. We don’t trust anyone, and we feel everyone is out for their own benefit, and they’ll hurt us if it means they get what they want from us.

Given the social and interpersonal problems lying can create in our lives, we must ask why we continue this behavior? It could be because lying has been a part of our culture since we formed communities.


Why Do We Lie?

The pressure exerted on us to be valuable members of our community causes a sense of disappointment and fear in ourselves when we make mistakes. We’ll do anything to cover up[ these misdeeds and actions, and we lie about our involvement with them to save face, avoid hurting others we love and care about and avoid conflict.

Those are only a few reasons why we lie. The reality is that human social behavior is a complex subject, and we lie for many reasons. Lies have a huge impact on society. It ruins relationships, costs the economy billions each year, and even takes people’s lives.

What’s more, it seems the smarter the person is, the better they are at lying, and the more propensity they have to lie to people around them. Look at the smartest criminals in history, and you’ll find they were excellent liars.

Case in point, Sam Bankman-Fried. This former media-proclaimed altruistic billionaire was supposedly an ethical businessman. SBF fought for regulation of the cryptocurrency markets, ran the second-biggest exchange in the world, and helped people with financial donations. Many influential people in society put SBF on a pedestal, claiming he was a great guy with noble intentions.

Fast forward to the end of 2022, and SBF becomes embroiled in one of the biggest financial scandals of all time, eclipsing even the infamous Bernie Madoff with the scale of his Ponzi scheme. SBF fleeced investors out of billions of dollars while claiming he had no idea how it happened and that he was not, in fact, a crook.

However, the truth came out, and SBF lost his fortune, ruined his reputation, and collapsed his image as an altruistic philanthropist. Now, society views him as nothing more than a liar.

According to scientists, lying is a part of life. Research shows adults, men, and women lie in around a fifth of their social exchanges that last more than ten minutes. During the average week, we lie with about 30% of the people we meet and interact with in our lives.

Typically, females are more likely to tell lies that avoid hurting others’ feelings. Males are more likely to tell lies about their character and actions. It’s more common for men to lie to impress others, and the average conversation between men might contain as many as 8X the number of lies about themselves than they say about others.


The Neuroscience Behind Lying – A Guide to the What Happens in the Brain When We Lie

Lying stimulates three key areas of the brain. The chain reaction involved with lying starts in the frontal lobe of the neocortex. This area of the brain can suppress the truth from our conscious thoughts. Its intellectual role in our thinking makes us capable of being dishonest with others.

Next, the limbic system comes to the party. The amygdala reacts to the anxiety created by telling a lie, and it’s responsible for creating the stress response or feeling of guilt or shame we experience during the process of lying.

Finally, we seal the deal with the temporal lobe. This part of the brain is responsible for creating mental images and retrieving our memories. The anterior cingulate cortex assists in monitoring errors, and our dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex attempts to control our behavior.

In short, the brain is highly active when we tell a lie. However, there’s not as nearly as much neutral activity when we tell the truth. The frontal lobe isn’t inhibited from telling the truth, so there’s no stress on the limbic system.

The reality is telling white lies, like bluffing at a poker game, desensitizes the brain to the negative response and emotions created in the limbic system when we lie. Since we adapt to this behavior, it makes it easier for us to tell bigger lies without experiencing stress on the limbic system.


How the Brain Adapts to Lying

Nature Neuroscience published research proving that telling self-serving fibs escalates this behavior gradually. Scientists scanned the brains of volunteers involved in tasks where they lied for personal gain.

The results show that the amygdala, the brain controlling our emotions, becomes most active during this behavior. The conclusion was that the amygdala’s guilt response involved in lying was desensitized from the impact of being dishonest, while the scale of the lies escalated. Large declines in amygdala response led to the propensity to tell bigger lies.

So, when we lie and do so for personal gain, the amygdala initiates a negative emotion limiting the extent of the lie. But this response fades away as we tell more lies; the more this feedback loop grows, the greater the lies become.

This cycle becomes a slippery slope where our smaller acts of dishonesty scale up into significant lying behavior. Science believes the blunted neural response to telling lies reflects a lowered emotional response to the behavior.

This reaction suggests the amygdala has an aversion to telling lies or acting immorally. Science believes it’s the same response that occurs in thrill-seeking behavior. This would explain why the thrill of sky-diving for the 100th time is not as potent as doing it for the first time and why some people lie to chase the excitement of deceiving others. They continue the behavior in an attempt to chase the dopamine response created by the first time they notice they can get away with lying to others for personal gain.

Dishonesty is a part of living in a social world where we’re all connected. From personal relationships to politics and finance, straying from the moral code involves a small breach of ethics that grows over time. As mentioned, there’s an evolutionary mechanism attached to this behavior, supporting our actions to do so.

Behaviorally, the more we reinforce this behavior in our mind with repetition, the more we add it to our everyday behavior and interactions with others. Studies involving scanning the brains of participants involved in research studying the mechanism of lying in the brain show a slight reduction in amygdala activity as we tell more lies and become accustomed to this behavior.

This conclusion is evident through MRI scanning technology to see how the brain responds when we decide to lie. It’s clear evidence of adaptation to the behavior over time.


Lying in Formal Scenarios

Where is it most common for us to tell lies in our social experience? At work. More specifically, we’re more likely to tell lies to avoid work. Research from 2020 shows of 1,000 Americans participating in a study, more than 96% of them lied to get out of their responsibilities at work.

The most common lies told in the workplace involve lying about family emergencies, doctor’s appointments, family emergencies, and feeling ill. The study shows people use, on average, seven different excuses to avoid going to work on various occasions.

The research also shows less than 30% of respondents in the study said they felt guilty about telling lies to get out of work. Over 40% of them stated they would do it again.

Over 90% of people telling lies to get out of work never get caught in their lies. Interestingly, men regret telling lies more than women to get out of work. It’s also interesting to note that the older we get, the less likely we are to tell lies to avoid going to work.

Does this behavior mean we’re all compulsive or pathological liars? Or should we examine why we adopt this behavior instead of being honest and acting with integrity? What about the people that don’t feel any sense of guilt when they lie in these circumstances and is it a cultural problem we need to address?


Daniel Langleben – Revolutionizing Lie Detection with Modern Technology

Daniel Langleben is a neuroscientist and psychiatrist working at the University of Pennsylvania. He has some interesting studies and theories surrounding lie detection. Some experts consider his work as setting the foundation for the future of lie detection.

Langleben’s attempts to discover new deception detection methods involve doing away with the traditional polygraph machine and exam. Instead, the neuroscientist looked directly at the brain and its activity while we tell a lie.

Langleben’s interest in deception comes from working with children suffering from attention deficit Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). His research indicates that children with ADHD are bad liars. Children with the condition seem unable to keep themselves from telling the truth.

He thought this behavior might have something to do with a lack of impulse control. So, this research led him to conclude that lying was harder on the mind than telling the truth. A person would need excellent impulse control to lie, or they would end up being honest all the time.

These conclusions helped Langleben develop a method of tracking the formation of lies in the brain using an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan. Langleban states,

“The key point is that you need to exercise a system that regulates and controls your behavior when you lie more than when you just say the truth. Three brain areas generally become more active during deception: the anterior cingulated cortex, the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, and the parietal cortex.”

The anterior cingulated cortex is responsible for monitoring errors, while the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex controls our behavior. Langleben noticed fMRI scans on their subjects showed increased blood flow in these parts of the brain when they told lies, meaning the brain worked harder to form deceptive behavior.


In Closing – The Brain Is the Powerhouse of Lies

Since humans are not the only species on the planet capable of communication, it makes you wonder if other intelligent lifeforms are capable of deception. For example, dolphins and whales have a complex communication system and a language all of their own. However, does that mean they’re capable of deceptive behavior?

There’s no scientific study showing these creatures have any capacity to lie. So, if that’s the case, and humans are the only species capable of lying, what does that say about the topic. A brief synopsis would be that language and society are responsible for developing lying behavior in humans.

Moreover, the development of the brain and the emotional centers controlling our thoughts and behaviors plan a central role in our understanding of what deceptive behavior is and how to use it in interactions with others.

While the brain has the capability to create and add value to society, it also has the power to destroy and lie. How we choose to use it is up to us. Our values system determines our behavior and how we place ourselves in society.

If we consider that those who lie frequently, and moreover, do so for personal gain while risking the safety and livelihoods of others, we would have a weak values system. However, this is all speculation, and there’s no real hard scientific evidence to prove this. After all, Sam Bankman-fried was raised by two lawyers. Just something to think about.