Why We Lie

A recent article in National Geographic (sometimes behind a pay wall, sometimes not) takes a look at some interesting new research across disciplines on lying: why we do it, why it was important to learn how in the first place, how the brains of frequent liars are different, and why refuting that patently false story making the rounds on social media is so difficult.

Here are some of my take-aways from this excellent article:

  • Learning to lie is an important developmental milestone in a child’s development. There are important evolutionary advantages that may explain why we, as a species, developed this skill.
  • Those who are skilled liars show, in scans, more neural fiber development in their prefrontal cortex. Why that is remains the subject of debate.
  • Other researchers (doing separate projects) have established that while we may intrinsically set limits on the scale of our lies (thus illustrating some internalized moral code), lying appears to get easier, neurologically, the more it is done. Specifically, our amygdala’s response to a lie appears to get weaker after each successive lie.
  • Researchers have shown that we’re predisposed to accepting facts that reinforce our worldview. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff explains, “If a fact comes in that doesn’t fit into your frame, you’ll either not notice it, or ignore it, or ridicule it, or be puzzled by it- or attack it if it’s threatening.”
  • Researchers in Australia discovered that while study participants accepted evidence that challenged a demonstrably false claim (in this case, the link between vaccines and autism) in just a week after the study they had slipped back into believing the erroneous claim. Research also suggests that retracting a false claim might actually reinforce it because our brains are geared to respond to familiar information.

The article ends on an ominous note. Our natural tendency to trust and our brain’s reluctance to let go of what is familiar is running up against the ease with which lies in the 21st century can be shared and reinforced. It’s an important thought to mull over as more of us retreat to our corners of the internet and less scrupulous actors get into the business of sharing information and news.

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