In a world mired in misinformation and populated by politicians who don't seem to care if they are caught lying, researchers have shed light on the brain activity underlying deception.
It all depends on what kind of person is doing the cheating.
New research from the Rotterdam School of Management claims to show that the neurocognitive processes for cheating differs between people who are usually honest and those who are less so.
Participants in the study were cocooned in an MRI scanner and asked to perform a series of cognitive tests. Not the kind Donald Trump felt the need to tell the world about, but a spot-the-difference trial.
Subjects were told there were "always three differences between the image pairs" and that "the purpose of the study was to investigate the underlying neural mechanisms of visual search for marketing purposes."
Under an investigatory ruse, they were also led to believe the experiment was supposed to look at how a monetary reward affected the speed and accuracy of visual search.
The subjects were told to say when they had spotted all three differences between image pairs, and that the reward would be greater the more pairs they got through in a given time.
But here's the catch: not all the image pairs had three differences, so the researchers knew when the subjects were lying.
The information allowed researchers to place their subjects into two broad groups – "honest" and "cheaters". But honest people were not always honest; sometimes they cheated. And cheaters were sometimes honest. Using data from the MRI scanner, the researchers claim they were able to discern some of the underlying processes.
They found that the brain region associated with the processing of reward was more strongly activated for cheaters during the decision-making process, while honest people showed higher activity and connectivity in a network of regions related to self-referential thinking.
But differences in "cognitive control", the phrase psychologists use when they mean willpower, was the most significant result. "Surprisingly, we found that for honest participants, more cognitive control was needed to cheat, whereas for participants who cheated frequently, control was needed in order to be honest," explained Sebastian Speer, PhD candidate and lead author of the paper.
Whether someone is likely to cheat or not depends not only on their willpower, but also on the individual's "moral default".
Professor Ale Smidts, who helped conduct the study along with Prof Maarten Boksem, said: "There are immense economic costs caused by dishonest behaviour, such as tax evasion, music piracy or business scandals, so finding effective ways to reduce dishonest behaviour are of great relevance to policy makers. Also, during the COVID-19 pandemic dishonesty in the form of selling low-quality face masks and fraud on governmental subsidies are highly prevalent, which highlights the relevance of our findings."
Which might all seem a bit rich coming from the researchers who had to lie to people to get a scientific result.
It turns out you can't trust anyone these days. Except The Register, of course. ®