July 13, 2009
Honest People Not Tempted To Dishonesty

Okay folks, what do you make of this? Some people do not feel tempted to lie.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. A new study of the cognitive processes involved with honesty suggests that truthfulness depends more on absence of temptation than active resistance to temptation.

Using neuroimaging, psychologists looked at the brain activity of people given the chance to gain money dishonestly by lying and found that honest people showed no additional neural activity when telling the truth, implying that extra cognitive processes were not necessary to choose honesty. However, those individuals who behaved dishonestly, even when telling the truth, showed additional activity in brain regions that involve control and attention.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was led by Joshua Greene, assistant professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, along with Joe Paxton, a graduate student in psychology.

"Being honest is not so much a matter of exercising willpower as it is being disposed to behave honestly in a more effortless kind of way," says Greene. "This may not be true for all situations, but it seems to be true for at least this situation."

Do you know people who seem to default to lying to a point where it is counterproductive for them? I come across this tendency and I suspect imaging of their brains would show the opposite of what scientists found in honest people above. Some people are more disposed to dishonesty or violence or thievery or other unethical activities.

Others do not even feel tempted to unethical behavior. The people who live more ethical lives mostly do not fight an uphill battle to act ethically.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 July 13 11:26 PM  Brain Ethics Law

James Bowery said at July 14, 2009 4:57 AM:

No, but what they do fight is an evolutionary uphill battle in a world where invaders are protected by the government.

Fat Man said at July 14, 2009 6:29 AM:

I guess you don't watch House.

bbartlog said at July 14, 2009 8:59 AM:

That's consistent with what I've seen and heard about corruption (or the lack thereof) in northern Europe, too. It's not that there's a conscious decision to toe the line or a weighing of the benefits against the social and legal risk; it's that the very idea is vaguely absurd - the thought doesn't even occur.

Lono said at July 15, 2009 9:44 AM:


Hmm... That rings true...

Being the child of a Dane I have never felt particularly inclined to lie, steal, or be significantly dishonest in any way.

I am also - like most Dane's - completely shameless - in that I really have no real concerns what most people think of me - being particularly resilant to criticism (especially by those I hardly consider to be my intellectual peers)

So perhaps those who find an honest living to be their default approach are also not easily influenced by social criticism or peer pressure - thus reducing the motivation to expend extra and self defeating energy in deceit.

Addison said at July 15, 2009 1:59 PM:

This has some interesting implications for who should and should not be allowed to hold government offices. If we can nail down a genetic basis for it, is there any justification for allowing non-honest types to hold any official office?

Randall Parker said at July 15, 2009 9:02 PM:


Excellent point. Imagine an honest political candidate who reveals his genetic profile and some sort of brain scan analysis that shows he is very honest. Then he could challenge his opponents to do likewise.

Lono said at July 15, 2009 9:20 PM:

Addison, Randall,

I think you are both correct - and that such a selection process is to be the true future of Human governance - although we may have to endure a somewhat authoritarian world government before there is enough will to enforce such a reformed system.

Eventually - I suspect most advanced civilizations come to the logical conclusion that ideal bureaucrats should be artificially created with the specific genetic profile to best fulfill their duties without the tendency to consolidate power for themselves.

The sooner we embrace this reality the sooner we can move on to become a true space faring civilization.

(love the new spell check btw Randall!)

Lono said at July 15, 2009 9:23 PM:

Oh that's just Firefox - nevermind...


elitist said at July 20, 2009 2:34 AM:

would be curious to know whether they are there genetic profiles that "program" people to be honest within the group/family/tribe and lie to outsiders?

but there are doubtless larger issues here involving language use in general:

are their genes for realism which affect language use?

if so, there could be correlations between:
a) the Protestant reform of Catholicism
b) the general probity, honesty, and lack of corruption of northern European societies, and
c) the objective approach to examining the natural world that led to explosion of the natural sciences in western and northern Europe (and nowhere else on earth)

not to sound racist here, but one of the main reasons for the difficulties of intercultural communication is that some cultures use language instrumentally, to persuade, seduce, manipulate.

I ended up living in Germany, where I find the center of gravity lies more to the honest side.

to ask the "forbidden" question:
are qualities like rectitude, accuracy, objectivity, and honesty doomed to disappear as the populations of northern Europe are replaced by immigrants from cultures where the scientific attitude is historically underdeveloped, and where a profoundly different relationship to language obtains?

Nico said at July 28, 2009 7:34 AM:

hi elitist, very good analysis. I thought of that in detail, too. there is surely a relationship between 1/lack of corruption 2/protestant reform and 3/respecting and cherishing scientific culture. it puzzled me for a long time because these historical/geographical facts are so evident yet no one talks about it other than in jokes/unconscious-- surely because it's embarassing/taboo and also not that evident for some people. I used to think that such a culture of 'honesty and objectivity' was mostly a product of average iq in a population, a kind of higher iq culture that could be imposed on lower iq individuals, but maybe there is also a brain module for honesty that comes into play, and maybe other factors. it might be a whole set of mental organs (other than just iq) that was selected 'to take tough decisions in a very harsch/cold environment' (or some similar constraint) and that favors the cultural traits we noticed. on the other hand, humans who lived in warmer climates had to face different problems and could have had to develop slightly different mental organs and cultures. however I wouldn't worry too much about immigrants 'invading northern countries', because soon artificial intelligence will change our lives and this problem won't be an issue anymore, at least not in a social/biological way. it appears that a large majority of humans will within a few decades have vastly enhanced brains, if the exponential pace of tech progress carries on, cf Ray Kurzweil. I have reasons to think that this path will lead to more cooperation and comprehension. I believe it's not just wishful thinking, and some authors have confirmed that view, for example Robert Wright, in the Moral Animal (very good) and Non Zero Sumness.

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