Monday, October 24, 2016


A fair amount of attention is being paid to a new scientific study that tries to explain how the brain gets used to dishonesty. Vox's Brian Resnick reports:
The authors of a paper published Monday in Nature Neuroscience call this “emotional adaptation.” It’s similar to what happens when you’re exposed to a strong smell. At first the smell is extremely noticeable, but eventually you stop noticing it as much....

In the study, the researchers had 80 participants play a simple game. The participants played the role of an adviser. They looked at 60 photos of glass jars with differing numbers of pennies, and were told to advise a partner (who was really a researcher in disguise) on how much money the jars contained. The participants were told they’d receive compensation based on the accuracy of their partner’s guesses.

In some of the trials, the participants were incentivized to be honest: If the partner guessed correctly, they’d both get the prize money. In other trials, the participants were incentivized to lie: If the partner overestimated, the participant would get more (the study gave the participant the impression the partner had no idea about this arrangement).

When the participants were incentivized to lie, they lied more as more trials were conducted.
More, from Angela Chen at the Verge:
As the participants played the game, the researchers did brain scans of some of them. These scans, called fMRIs, show which regions of the brain used more oxygen; this is an indicator of brain activity. The researchers saw that as the participants continued to lie, the amygdala reacted less.

Participants in the game also became more dishonest more quickly when it would benefit just them and not their partner. And the amygdala really did activate less as people lied to help themselves. The participants kept lying to help themselves even if lying didn’t lead to more money every single time. This means it’s likely that people keep lying not because of rational calculation, but because they become desensitized.
This might explain why folks like Donald Trump lie so relentlessly and shamelessly: They get used to it. They keep going when they receive benefits and don't suffer consequences.

But what I want to know is why people lie to themselves -- and do so even when there's nothing to be gained from it. For instance, I know that the NRA's Wayne LaPierre has an amygdala (or whatever) that's thoroughly desensitized to lies, which explains why he can talk to his membership base this way:
During a six-minute get out the vote video, NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre described America after eight years of Obama as president in hellish terms unrecognizable to anyone who actually lives here, claiming that the president has “laid waste to the America we remember” causing the country to “completely unravel.” ...

LaPierre said his prediction that Obama “would come for our guns and do everything in his power to sabotage the Second Amendment” “came true” following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, when Obama “exploited a horrible tragedy to launch a blizzard of gun bans, magazine restrictions, and gun registration schemes against law abiding gun owners all across the country.” ...

LaPierre claimed [Hillary] Clinton “will come for your guns, she will attack your right to carry, she will attack your most basic right to defend your family with a firearm in your home.”
LaPierre also said that America is now "a sanctuary nation for felons, criminal gangbangers, drug dealers, repeat offenders, and illegal aliens” and that “our inner cities now rank among the most dangerous places in the world.” Also, " “Our economy is on life support. Health care is an utter failure. Our schools have never been worse."

For some in his audience, maybe life in America is pretty bad. But what about the guns? LaPierre and his allies have been saying for eight years that Obama would come for their guns. In the '90s, he spent eight years saying that Bill Clinton would come for their guns. Now he says Hillary Clinton will come for their guns.

But notice that after sixteen years of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, these people still have their guns. Nobody came for them. They were told it would happen, they believed it, it never happened -- and they still believe it's inevitable.

Some people get used to lying to others. Maybe they learn to calm their amygdalas in order to do that. But why do some people get used to being lied to? Why doesn't it ever occur to them that they keep believing the sky is falling, even though it never falls?

Does some part of the brain get used to being overstimulated? Are these people simply accustomed to fear? Do they enjoy it? Would they miss it if it went away?

Scientists, we await your analysis. Please let us know.


Unknown said...

Here's what I think. They know it's a lie, they just want to give themselves an excuse to buy more guns.

Dr.BDH said...

Paranoid thoughts don't go away just because the fate you fear hasn't happened yet. The NRA assures ammosexuals that it's so far successfully thwarted the gun grabbing liberals, then warns them it's only a matter of time the guns get grabbed, unless the NRA gets more money. Feeding a paranoids paranoia - it's what the NRA does best.

Green Eagle said...

One of my most basic rules of life: People believe lies, largely not because the lies are plausible, but because it suits their purpose to believe them. Consequently, there is absolutely no one easier to lie to than yourself, because there is no one who has as much interest in believing your lies as you do.

Victor said...

The NRA, and conservatism in general, has created rage, fear, and hatred junkies in the rubes, suckers, dim/nit/half/fuck-wits who believe them.

And, in order to give them the same "high," the NRA has to keep increasing the dosage.
And the marks want still more and more of their doses.

Jim Snyder said...

1) @Green Eagle: "no one easier to lie to than yourself ..."

Richard Feynman stated a similar "rule of life" 50 years ago:

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool."

Great minds think in the same rut ... :-)

(Thus endeth this episode of Trivial Pursuit ...)

2) A quote tangentially relevant to Wayne LaPierre, from Altemeyer, about Right Wing Authoritarians and "social dominators" ... "one of the most useful skills a person should develop, [social dominators] say, is how to look someone straight in the eye and lie convincingly.[6]" The footnote mentions "the Big Lie" propaganda technique.

The rest is even more off-topic, just so you're warned ...

3) There are more serious types of "fooling yourself". I know nothing about the writer, but this has stayed with me:

As is true generally of people with personality disorders, for narcissists feelings make facts. So, what is convenient for them to believe about something is what they believe.

This is what makes narcissism a personality disorder: that their sense of reality is driven pervasively and fundamentally by their personality needs.


They live in a self-policing fortress of self-serving convenience. Everything gets re-construed to fit their convenience. And because the first person they lie to is themselves, they can be utterly sincere in what they spout.

... their actions, your actions, just get re-construed to maintain the principle that their convenience comes first.

Which means that their reality principle operates so they cannot see themselves. They really do live in a self-policing fortress of self-serving convenience.

from here:

And from another post by the same guy:

"apprehension of reality is, in effect, policed before it can provide a contradicting perspective."

Point being, for a narcissist, rational conflicts (which might trigger an intervention by one's conscience) never reach a conscious level of awareness ... conflicts are disposed of silently without the narcissist becoming aware that a conflict ever existed.

That's my interpretation, anyway. I've seen the process in operation. As the writer says, the extent of the self-delusion can be staggering.

(Caveat emptor: other than beaucoup reading about NPD, I have zero knowledge of psychology, so my interpretation is free and worth every penny you paid for it ...)

4) Stitching together scattered thoughts: I seem to remember Altemeyer connecting RWA and narcissism somewhere - something about "group narcissism", I think - but not remembering where.

Frank Wilhoit said...

@Jim Snyder: Every child thinks this way until they are taught better. The failure is therefore one of education. Humans are born insane and the function of education is to heal them. We have utterly abandoned the educational enterprise and are left with a population whose emotional age is about ten seconds.

As we prepare to gloat over the forthcoming demonstration that Trump's people make up "only" (say) 42% of the country, we will measure that number with a political yardstick, where anything less than 50% is acceptable but the less the better. Instead I think we should look at that 42% (or whatever) number rather from the standpoint of an epidemiologist.

Jim Snyder said...

@Frank Wilhoit:

1) "Every child thinks this way ..."

Several writers make the point that "extreme narcissists" have the emotional development of a 6yo, e.g.:

All malignant narcissists are cases of arrested development.
They are perpetually living in a mindset of a young child. The age when a child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong but very willing to do wrong if they think they won't get caught. Like a child, they feel entitled to whatever they want. Like a child, they recreate reality to suit their fantasy about themselves and the world around them. Like a child, they want all attention focused on them. But, unlike a child, the narcissist is not subject to being molded and shaped by authority figures or reality. The narcissist is determined (read here, conscious choice) to remain a child whereas most children are driven by a desire to grow up. Children are childish and there is no crime in that. I'm not pathologizing childhood. I'm highlighting that malignant narcissists are pathological children.

(from here: )

As before, I know nothing about the writer, but it's a common theme in the lay lit.)

2) "failure ... one of education": yes, hmm no. yes, in the somewhat banal sense that children start out as consummate narcissists, and are "educated" by socializing experiences. Is socialization an objective in today's educational system? If so perhaps a form of "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" applies: can poorly socialized teachers teach socialization to children? Garbage in, garbage out. (Sorry, I'm a sucker for Latin quotes. Feel free to mock me mercilessly ... or to supply the Latin for GIGO.)

Children with dysfunctional parents unsurprisingly often turn out dysfunctional. So I read, anyway.

My point is that children are "educated" by many environmental influences, most of which aren't what one usually calls "education".

3) Agreed that the American educational system seems to have lost its way. As a lad I thought "civics" courses a waste of time. Turns out that if you don't teach civics - I have the impression that "civics" has been left as roadkill - you get a citizenry that doesn't know how the gummint works ... or why gummint is structured the way it is. Cases too many to need a list, but just one example: Christine O'Donnell and the 1st Amendment.

OTOH, could it be that we're both Grumpy Old Men? You know, "the past was better" ... when clearly the past wasn't better. The past was different, and in some ways much worse.

4) I'm not sure what point you are making with your 2nd para. I'm neither a biologist nor an epidemiologist, but my impression is that conditions are ripe for an epidemic when more than 10% of the population are vectors, but the R factor is critical, so clearly I don't know what I'm talking about.

Please elaborate? (Assuming our generous blog host doesn't mind these digressions ...)

Feud Turgidson said...

One of the authors of the 'Pennies' paper is Dan Ariely. At least some of us here will recognize that name, cuz he's not just a leading populist of behavior pscychology, he's one of yer bleeding heart liberals (Horrors!) and ... a blogger!

Jim Snyder said...

@Feud: interesting, thanks for sharing. Not familiar with the blogger.

Also at the Nature site today, "Statistics for Biologists, a Free Resource", which resolves to:

The Verge summary of the research, uh, resonates ... I've always thought of the effect as the natural result of the difficulty of keeping one's lies distinct from truth ... or put differently, the more you lie, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish lies from truth. Never occurred to me that a physiological explanation would be needed ...

@SteveM: great post, thanks!

Jim Snyder said...

Apologies if everyone has seen this already - Hunter on the NRA's latest advert:

According to Media Matters, the NRA has spent more on the Trump campaign than any of Trump's SuperPACs.

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Stellours said...

Late reading this but here's my two cents.

I've notice people kinda get a kick out of lying, like since everyone is lying - so should they and that makes them get away with it.

I've seen people lie for no reason other than to make themselves look good and feel better. Not like they were at the point of a gun and they had to lie to save their family.

I'm in the .01% and have been called very gullible. I really try to be kindly honest with people and critically honest with myself. It's a work in progress on that last. So I fall for it when people lie to me because I take them at their word as they should take me at mine.

I've wondered it that's what the other side means when they tell us to 'grow up' or that everyone turns into a republican as they get older. Maybe they mean that they think everyone lies, cheats, stereotypes, and becomes greedy and more ornier as they get older and as they realize 'what the world is'.

For me, I just keep trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. It helps me to think there's still good in this world.