A Little Dishonesty Leads to a Lot of Trouble

Summary and Comment |
December 19, 2016

A Little Dishonesty Leads to a Lot of Trouble

  1. Steven Dubovsky, MD

As one's self-serving dishonesty increases, the amygdala's response decreases, thus allowing dishonesty to escalate over time.

  1. Steven Dubovsky, MD

How do leaders and colleagues whom we believed to be honorable end up conducting major acts of dishonesty? A clever series of computer-based experiments examined this question. Fifty-five study participants were told that they would be paid for providing accurate estimates of how many coins were in a jar to their partners (who were secretly part of the experiment) and that they had a better view of the jar than their partners. Later they were given different incentives: Coin overestimates could lead to more reimbursement to the participant (self-serving), to the partner (other-serving), or to both participant and partner (self- and other-serving); or to more reimbursement to the participant but a loss to the partner (self-serving and other-harming). Reimbursement was to be based on a single, randomly chosen trial.

Sixty trials were conducted. Self-serving dishonesty (i.e., greater overestimates) increased with each trial, with stronger increases in combined self- and other-serving scenarios. Dishonesty that was only other-serving did not escalate. On functional magnetic resonance imaging, progressively decreasing activity in the amygdala correlated with increasing dishonesty in self-serving scenarios. Activity in other brain regions related to decision making did not change (except the insula in post hoc analysis). The results were not explained by attentional or other factors that could lead to desensitization to self-serving dishonesty.


The amygdala signals an emotional response to situations that are considered wrong. As editorialists note, self-serving dishonesty occurs on a slippery slope. The emotionally aversive response generated by the amygdala progressively decreases with each dishonest act such that initial small acts of dishonesty become increasingly blatant, and less disturbing, over time. The lesson to us and our patients: Because small lies or unethical behaviors tend to escalate, we should stick to the path of honesty to avoid disastrous outcomes.

Editor Disclosures at Time of Publication

  • Disclosures for Steven Dubovsky, MD at time of publication Grant / Research support Otsuka; Tower Foundation; Oshei Foundation; Patrick Lee Foundation; Wendt Foundation; Takeda; Lilly; Sumitomo; Hoffmann-La Roche; Pfizer, Neurim Pharmaceuticals; Neurocrine Biosciences Editorial boards Mind and Brain; Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic; Current Psychiatry; Journal of Psychosomatic Research


Reader Comments (4)

Ernest Tassoni Physician, Pathology, Retired

"Let him that is without sin caste the first stone."

Would we see ourselves as other see us?

Is the mirror (Facade) we offer free of distortion?

Max Voysey Physician, Psychiatry

It is only a slippery slope for those who do not know how to or choose to ignore or try to regain their balance - one of the consequences of our actions is that we may loose control of some of some of our choices. . . so should we never choose? The parallel fallacy is that it was "inevitable" that he would pull the trigger - which, up until that point, it was not. I had to lie to cover up my lies form my (secret) gambling and drug addiction. . . . where does it end/where does it start are less interesting questions than can you stop it at ANY point?

Look at King David, adultery, murder, lying, on and on Physician, Family Medicine/General Practice, Residency Program

Honesty is the best policy. Dishonesty as said is a slippery slope

John Wynn, MD Physician, Psychiatry, Seattle, WA

"If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time."
Thomas DeQuincey:Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827).

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