This is the era of the Big Lie. The media cannot be trusted, nor can any politician. Sifting truth from lies is a full-time occupation.
The participants in this debate are all scientific researchers in the pathology of lying. Their comments have been edited slightly in the interests of brevity. Readers can check their full statements by clicking on their names. (LD)
TIFFANY O’CALLAGHAN: The word of the year, according to Oxford Dictionaries, was “post-truth”. Not least in the furious debates surrounding the UK Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as US president, claims and counter claims of fake news, dodgy experts and media mendacity have been flying around.
For a hardcore of relativist philosophers, that’s all a storm in a teacup – there’s no such thing as objective truth, they maintain — truth that exists outside our minds. Nonsense, harrumphs Peter van Inwagen of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. If a doctor says I have cancer of the gut, he says, “whether that is true depends on what is going on in my gut, and not on what is going on in my doctor’s mind”.
ANIL ANANTHASWAMY: The more you lie, the easier it gets. Our brains are naturally better at telling the truth than lying, but repeated lying can overcome our tendency for veracity, making subsequent lying easier – and possibly undetectable.
Neuroimaging studies have shown that people’s brains show considerably more activity when they are lying than when they are not, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, suggesting that lying requires extra cognitive control and inhibition of truth-telling. Lying also takes measurably longer than telling the truth.
To test whether the brain’s so-called “dominant truth response” can be changed, Bruno Verschuere of Ghent University in Ghent, Belgium, and colleagues studied three groups of students. The students were first asked to provide a written report about their daily activities. Each student was then questioned about these activities, and asked to either lie or tell the truth in their answers. Interspersed with these questions were “filler” questions on a new topic. One group was always asked to tell the truth to the filler questions, a second group had to lie, and a third group was asked to lie or tell the truth in equal measure.
The researchers found that the frequent liars became more adept at lying. The normal difference in reaction times between telling the truth and lying disappeared. In other words, the practiced liar becomes good at it.
“In people who lie a lot in real life, such as pathological liars, this dominant truth response might not be as strong as we theorise,” says Ewout Meijer of Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Crucially, says psychologist Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the results raise the intriguing possibility that at least some lie detector measures may be relatively ineffective for practiced liars, including psychopaths. “Lie detector tests are most often used on people suspected of crimes, who have higher rates of psychopathic characteristics – including pathological dishonesty – than other individuals,” he says.
“The finding implies that peppering a lie-detector test with simple questions designed to elicit a truthful response will strengthen the brain’s truth response, making it harder for someone to lie. This will increase the accuracy of such tests,” says Meijer.
BRITISH PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR
A PATHOLOGICAL LIAR
WHO BELIEVED HIS OWN LIES
JESSICA HAMZELOU: Little white lies have a tendency to snowball. Now we’ve found out why – the more we lie, the more our brains seem to become desensitised to the act of lying.
It isn’t difficult to think of someone who has ended up in a tangled web of their own lies. “The examples are everywhere you look,” says Tali Sharot at University College London.
Sharot and her colleagues wondered if a person’s brain might get desensitised to lying, in the same way we get used to the horror of a violent image if we see it enough times. Most people feel guilty when they intentionally deceive someone else, but could this feeling ebb away with practice?
To find out, Sharot and her colleagues set up an experiment that encouraged volunteers to lie. In the task, each person was shown jars of pennies, full to varying degrees. While in a brain scanner, each person had to send their estimate to a partner in another room.
Sharot found that scans showed that the first lie was associated with a burst of activity in the amygdalae, areas involved in emotional responses. But this activity lessened as the lies progressed. The effect was so strong that the team could use a person’s amygdala activity while they were lying to predict how big their next lie would be.
“When you lie or cheat for your own benefit, it makes you feel bad,” says Sophie van der Zee at the Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “But when you keep doing it, that feeling goes away, so you’re more likely to do it again.”
IAN JOHNSTONE (science correspondent for the Independent) : Whenever you lie, your brain adjusts to make telling bigger whoppers easier. Telling small lies causes changes in the brain that lead people down a “slippery slope” towards increasingly large acts of dishonesty, according to a new study.
Brain scans showed there was a strong emotional reaction in the minds of people who lied for the first time in a guessing game, but this effect gradually reduced over time as they played.
And, while players initially tended to tell relatively small lies, they gradually became more untrustworthy as they got used to deceiving other players for their own advantage. The researchers said the study, described in a paper in the journal Nature Neuroscience, was a warning to people to stick to the truth because failing to do so could have serious consequences.
One of the researchers, Dr Tali Sharot of University College London, said: “In life, you’ve probably observed small acts of dishonesty grow over time to larger and larger ones. This anecdotally seems to be true.
“Whether it’s evading taxes, infidelity, doping in sports, making up data in science or financial fraud, deceivers often recall how small acts of dishonesty snowballed over time and they suddenly found themselves committing quite large crimes.”
She compared the effect to ‘emotional adaptation’. Under this process, someone who is shocked by a photograph of a mutilated body, for example, gradually becomes less affected by the image when shown it repeatedly.
In the tests, the scientists discovered that at first people were willing to tell small lies, but this gradually escalated over the course of the game.
By monitoring their brain with an MRI scanner, they were able to show that an area of the brain associated with emotion, the amygdala, initially reacted strongly to a lie but this effect decreased over time. Large reductions in this reaction were associated with particularly big lies.
“When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie,” Dr Sharot said. “However, this response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it falls the bigger our lies become.
HITLER AND THE BIG LIE
Explanatory note by LD
The above picture is obviously a Jewish attempt to portray Hitler as the original advocate of the Big Lie. A cursory reading of Mein Kampf will reveal that Hitler, far from advocating the Big Lie, was telling his readers that the Jews were among the foremost masters of mendacity. In fact, he quotes Schopenhauer as saying that the Jew is “the Great Master of Lies.”
Here are Hitler’s own words on the Big Lie:
“All this was inspired by the principle — which is quite true in itself — that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.
It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.
Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying. These people know only too well how to use falsehood for the basest purposes.
From time immemorial, however, the Jews have known better than any others how falsehood and calumny can be exploited. Is not their very existence founded on one great lie, namely, that they are a religious community, where as in reality they are a race? And what a race! One of the greatest thinkers that mankind has produced has branded the Jews for all time with a statement which is profoundly and exactly true. Schopenhauer called the Jew “The Great Master of Lies”. Those who do not realize the truth of that statement, or do not wish to believe it, will never be able to lend a hand in helping Truth to prevail.
— Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 134. ‘On the Big Lie‘.