Thanks to the shambolic state of politics in this country, Americans have had a lot of occasion to think about lying, who lies, and how to spot a liar lately. The issue has been dissected in op-eds, screamed about over dinner tables, and puzzled over by disgusted citizens of every political persuasion.

But what does science actually have to say on the topic?

While there are a few studies that suggest ways to spot individual deception--like impersonal language, excessive negativity, and over complicated word choice--perhaps the most fascinating (and terrifying) truth about dishonesty is just how easily it snowballs.

Lying rewires your brain.

We think of lying as something we do to others, but in fact lying also does something to us. In short, the more you lie, the easier lying becomes. In a Washington Post article rounding up recent research on lying, reporters William Wan and Sarah Kaplan explain:  

In a 2016 study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, [Duke psychologist Dan] Ariely and colleagues showed how dishonesty alters people's brains, making it easier to tell lies in the future. When people uttered a falsehood, the scientists noticed a burst of activity in their amygdala. The amygdala is a crucial part of the brain that produces fear, anxiety, and emotional responses--including that sinking, guilty feeling you get when you lie.

But when scientists had their subjects play a game in which they won money by deceiving their partner, they noticed the negative signals from the amygdala began to decrease. Not only that, but when people faced no consequences for dishonesty, their falsehoods tended to get even more sensational.

Lying, in effect, desensitizes your brain to the fear of getting caught or hurting others, making lying for your own benefit down the road much easier.

"The dangerous thing about lying is people don't understand how the act changes us," Ariely says.

What sort of brain are you building?

The good news is that this principle--summed up by neuroscientists with the phrase "neurons that fire together wire together"--isn't just true of dishonesty. These sort of feedbacks loops, in which thinking a thought or performing an action makes thinking or doing something similar in the future easier, exist for positive traits as well as negative ones. Lying getting easier the more you do it, but so does gratitude, for instance.

And there's even more reason to believe that telling the truth will strengthen your honesty muscles. We often fear honesty will be awkward and cause conflict, but a recent study out of the University of Chicago shows the opposite. Researchers asked participants to be more honest for a few days while reflecting on their expectations of the experience and its actual consequences. They discovered honesty is actually way more pleasant than we think it will be.

"People generally assume that others will react negatively towards increased honesty. As a result, people assume that honest conversations will be personally distressing and harm their relationships. In reality, honesty is much more enjoyable and less harmful for relationships than people anticipate," said study co-author Emma Levine, summing up the findings for Quartz.

That suggests that while lying gets easier the more you do it. So does honesty, not least because you'll probably see just how positively telling the truth impacts your life.

What's the bottom line here? These findings might help you understand how some of the monsters you see on the evening news got to be so monstrous, but that's admittedly pretty cold comfort. Instead, they're probably more useful as a warning.

If you're tempted by just one or two little falsehoods, beware. Science suggests that even if you don't get caught--especially if you don't get caught--you're doing real damage to your character. On the other hand, find the courage to be honest and you'll probably be rewarded with way more positive reactions than you expect.

Published on: Oct 2, 2018