| ||Neil Garrett, Ph.D.|
Postdoctoral Researcher in the Daw Lab at Princeton Neuroscience Institute
On June 29, 2009, Bernie Madoff was sentenced to jail
for 150 years for what many consider the biggest financial fraud in US history.
The global financial crisis of the previous year prompted people to pull money
out of their investments, including the Ponzi scheme he had cultivated over decades.
Their withdrawals brought the scheme crashing down in a spectacular fashion,
exposing it for the sham it was. Madoff is estimated to have lost his clients more
than $18 billion, ruining the financial lives of thousands of people. But as
Madoff himself attests, he never would have believed at the outset that his
dishonest actions would escalate to such epic proportions, carrying such
devastating and catastrophic consequences.
From scandals in politics to doping
in sport, there are many examples of dishonesty that follow a similar pattern:
Acts of dishonesty starting out small, but over time rising to levels that
would have seemed absurd to people when they initially began relaxing their moral
compass. How is this possible?
Previous research has highlighted that
external factors can play a role. Features
of our environment that exert an influence on our behavior include the risk of
being caught, how the people around us are behaving, and the potential rewards
available from cheating. A recent study showed that people’s willingness to
cheat increases if the rewards from cheating start off small but gradually
increase. Imagine that someone is faced with the opportunity to steal 50 cents,
$5, or $10; which do you think they would be most tempted to steal? Although
you might expect that stealing would be the most tempting for larger amounts, the
results of a study by David Welsh and colleagues suggest that at the outset, people are actually more
likely to steal for lower monetary amounts. However, after they have “stolen”
(in the lab) low amounts and then are given the opportunity to steal larger
amounts, they now will reach for these larger amounts, amounts that they resist
if presented first, without the smaller precursors.
Until now, though, internal factors that could also play a role in causing dishonesty
to escalate have been overlooked, changes in cognitive processing that are not due
to changes in our environment. To understand why internal factors might also be
important, consider why it is that people are initially less tempted to steal
for high sums of money. One factor is our emotional response to the situation: If
we feel bad about acting dishonestly (a strong emotional response to the
situation), we are unlikely to act in this way. Emotional responses can constrain how dishonest we are willing
to be, and the larger the act of dishonesty is (stealing $10 as opposed to 50
cents), the larger these emotional responses will be. In this way, emotional
responses can act as a type of “moral gatekeeper.”
A robust finding in neuroscience
over the past 20 years is that negative emotional responses to situations do not remain at the same intensity
if they are repeated. Instead they become less distressing over time, a biological
process known as adaptation. Think back to a time when you saw a distressing photo
in the news and how you reacted to it. But as you viewed the same picture many
times over the next week (for instance, if it was used by a number of different
news providers) you were likely to be less and less repulsed by it each time. Areas
of the brain involved in emotional processing--the amygdalae in particular--respond
fiercely the first time that we encounter something unpleasant, but this
response quiets down as we become desensitized to its unpleasant nature.
So, imagine dishonesty as an
unpleasant picture. Initially when we engage in it, it generates a strong emotional
response. But each time that we do it thereafter, this response decreases. Our
brain adapts, becoming less sensitive to the immoral act. And the consequence? If
emotional responses act to constrain dishonesty (as previous studies have suggested), then as these responses
adapt and subside, dishonesty should subsequently increase.
My collaborators Tali Sharot, Stephanie
Lazzaro, and Dan Ariely and I set out to investigate if this was the case in an
experiment later published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. We asked volunteers
to give financial advice (how many pennies in different jars) to a second
person, who relied on this advice to make a decision. Participants were
incentivized to make their advice dishonest; giving dishonest advice benefitted
them but came at a cost to the person receiving this advice. Importantly, external
factors--the rewards available, the risk of being caught, and so on--were held fixed.
This meant that if we observed dishonesty increasing, it was likely the result
of changes to internal factors. To determine if this internal factor was
adaptation, we asked volunteers to do the task while undergoing a MRI brain scan;
this enabled us to unobtrusively examine changes in the brain’s emotional
We found that, indeed, people’s
capacity for dishonesty grew over the course of the experiment. Consistent with
anecdotal cases of dishonesty, our volunteers typically started off being
dishonest by just a small amount--but this grew into much larger amounts by the
end of the study.
The imaging results revealed that the
gradual escalation of dishonesty was matched by neural adaption in a network of
brain regions associated with emotional processing. This network is predominantly
comprised of the amygdalae, bilateral nuclei deep in the brain that is involved
in processing emotions including negative ones like threat and fear. Initially,
when the volunteers started out being dishonest by just a small amount, we saw
a strong reaction in this network of brain regions. But a few trials into the
task, the reaction was more muted, and a few trials later, even smaller still.
By the end of the experiment, participants could be much more dishonest without
showing a reaction even as strong as the reaction that small instances of dishonesty
generated early on in the experiment.
Given these findings, what steps
can we take to mitigate dishonesty and prevent it escalating in this way? Evidence
suggests that some of the common measures that are taken to deter dishonesty
are not the most effective. One approach, for example, is to legally compel
parties to disclose instances in which a conflict of interest is present.
However, there is evidence to suggest that this can actually increase
dishonesty as people feel less guilty about taking
advantage of a conflict if the party at risk of being harmed knows about the
What seems clear from our research
is that the adaptation of emotional responses over time is important in governing
how dishonest a person is willing to be. Behavioral interventions that
successfully reduce dishonesty in the lab include acts of confession and making
the rewards from dishonesty more obvious. An interesting possibility is that
these interventions amplify or reinstate emotional responses to dishonesty, preventing
or halting the adaptation process. Measures like these and others might hold
the key to developing alternative approaches to curbing dishonesty and
preventing it from escalating to truly harmful, Bernie Madoff levels.
Welsh, D. T., Ordóñez, L. D., Snyder, D. G.,
& Christian, M. S. (2015). The slippery slope: How small ethical transgressions pave the
way for larger future transgressions. Journal of
Applied Psychology, 100(1), 114.
Cain, D. M., Loewenstein, G., &
Moore, D. A. (2005). The dirt on coming
clean: Perverse effects of disclosing conflicts of interest. The Journal of Legal Studies, 34(1), 1-25.
Garrett, N., Lazzaro, S., Ariely, D. & Sharot, T. (2016). The
brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience, 19, 1727–1732.
Latane, B (1964). Crime, cognition and the
autonomic nervous system. In Nebraska Symposium on
Motivation, ed. D. Levine, pp. 221-73. Lincoln: University of Nebraska