Study suggests region in front of brain exerts control over lying impulses

Haley Williams/Staff

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A group of campus researchers has linked honesty to the region of the brain that controls natural impulses, suggesting that a human’s first instinct is to lie when it is personally advantageous.

The study, conducted by a group of neuroscientists, economists and psychologists, was done in collaboration with scientists from Virginia Tech. Haas School of Business assistant professor Ming Hsu, who heads the Neuroeconomics Laboratory, led the project.

The findings showed that the brain activates the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — a region in the front of the brain that has played unclear roles in the trade-off between morality and deception — resulting in the person acting honestly in situations in which he or she would otherwise lie if it were personally beneficial.

The research team used the “lesion method” to conduct the study, comparing healthy subjects to those with damage to the prefrontal cortex. The groups played a game in which individuals had to suggest a payment option to another player.

Subjects with brain damage were found to manipulate the other players by suggesting a payment option that was advantageous to them but hurt the others, indicating that honesty requires control that they did not have.

Adrianna Jenkins, a postdoctoral researcher in Hsu’s lab, explained that the lesion method demonstrates causal rather than correlational evidence, unlike previous studies investigating the prefrontal cortex.

The findings could potentially have applications to education and policymaking through the study of the development of honesty concerns in children, according to Hsu. Hsu said that with further research, the results could also bring lessons to business ethics.

Lusha Zhu, a postdoctoral associate at Virginia Tech, said their work may even be of interest to agencies such as the CIA.

“We already know that there have been quite a few established techniques to manipulate a particular brain region,” she said. “What our study suggests is it’s possible that we can manipulate that brain region to shut it down or boost the activity — to really make someone to purely tell lies or purely be honest.”

But in terms of identifying humans as naturally moral or as motivated by self-interest, Zhu said there is still more research to conduct. For Zhu personally, the question is not whether humans are automatically programmed to to act either morally or in their self-interest.

“I have to think that both exist in our brain and they just trade off,” she said. “To me, the most important question is how the trade-off is resolved in the brain. That’s my automatic question. What interests me most is how this trade-off is computed in the brain and how this is translated into actions.”

The research team will continue its study to more thoroughly understand the brain’s controls over honesty. It will do so by connecting honesty with other behaviors guided by social norms, such as fairness and equality.

Tahmina Achekzai covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.