Nobody likes being lied to, even if the lie is a "white" one that's not necessarily intended to hurt anybody. What we want is honest, empathetic people who can read what we need and support us. And now new research suggests that, if behavioral scientists are correct, there's actually a negative connection between telling seemingly trivial fibs and your ability to demonstrate the empathy others crave.

The more you lie, the worse your empathy might be

Led by Ashley E. Hardin of Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the research actually looks at eight individual studies involving more than 2,500 participants. Hardin's team found that when people lie and cheat, they're not able to read the feelings of others as well. These people also aren't as prone to define themselves in terms of the connections they have with others. Conversely, people who have greater social sensitivity--which we actually can measure physiologically by how reactive your vagus nerve is--are less likely to act dishonestly.

What leaders need to understand

The first big takeaway, according to Hardin, is that you might have to rethink the idea that being dishonest or "bad" is always because of moral shortcomings. If you don't have the physiological ability to be as socially sensitive (i.e., poor vagus nerve reactivity), Hardin argues, then you naturally might be more likely to engage in lies or other poor behaviors and suffer the relationship consequences.

Secondly, if you can't read that other people are feeling bad because of your initial lie or other dishonesty, it might compromise the interactions you have later. Since you can't really see how others are hurt and dehumanize them, you can feel like you have a green light to keep right on lying. This creates a negative cycle that increasingly distances you from others.

Now take this in the context of additional research from University College London. Using fMRI scans, researchers have figured out that increased dishonesty actually decreases activity in the amygdala of the brain, making it even harder for you to feel bad about playing Pinocchio. Or put another way, the more you lie, the less you care that you do.

So the bottom line is, if you value being able to connect to others, honesty isn't just a buzzword based on the increasing desire for authenticity and transparency--it's a scientific way to protect your ability to recognize how others feel and keep your team strong. Tell the truth as much as possible and encourage others to follow suit. And if you notice that someone leans toward fibbing, don't assume that they have an easy time knowing that they cause pain. Be clear about discipline, but be willing to help others who are suffering in the lie-poor empathy cycle to practice honesty, too.

Published on: Aug 6, 2019
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