In 1978, Sisela Bok claimed, “After the first lies […], others can come more easily. Psychological barriers wear down;
lies seem more necessary, less reprehensible; the ability to make moral distinctions can coarsen; the liar’s perception of
his chances of being caught may warp (8).” In 2017, Garret et al. reported on the results of their neurology experiment,
“[T]he extent to which participants engage in self-serving dishonesty increases with repetition” (10). They concluded
that the amygdala (a part of the brain that regulates emotions) adapts to continuing dishonesty, which allows a person to
be increasingly dishonest without feeling bad about it (Garret et al, 10).
Write an essay that addresses both of the following questions:
What are the processes by which people develop into liars (as described and explained in the reading set)? Based on
your explanation of these processes, how could individuals and/or societies be protected from being deceived?
It would be a good idea to do the following:
Use ideas and facts from the reading set while also relying upon your own logic. For example, you might agree
with or disagree with an author and give your reasoning. Or, you might choose to emphasize the importance of
one idea while diminishing the importance of another, with an explanation of why you are valuing the ideas in
Make connections between the readings. Although the authors’ approaches are different, you will find parallels
between them. For example, you could identify points of agreement and disagreement, or you could point out that
they are reaching similar conclusions by different methods or logic.
Define and employ key terms that seem to be central to the arguments of your sources and, therefore, to your
argument as well. Here are some possible key terms: co-operative behavior; freeloading; centrality of
truthfulness; skepticism and determinism; discrepant perspectives; Golden Rule; principle of veracity; and
self-harming and other-serving dishonesty vs self-serving and other-harming dishonesty.
The following is REQUIRED. Essays that don’t conform to these requirements will not be graded:
The length of your essay must be 1,500 words or longer. This word count does NOT include the following
(which are not required): title page; abstract; bibliography/references/works cited.
Quote and/or paraphrase and work directly with material from all three readings in this reading set.
Attribute any material that you summarize, quote, or paraphrase to its source (using the page numbers of the
reading set). The context paragraph, above, gives examples of what proper attribution looks like. (We are using
MLA style, but you may also use APA style or any other style you’re comfortable with.)
Your own ideas and thinking are necessary and important, and you cannot pass this evaluation without them.
However, you should base your essay on the information contained in this set of readings, and engage with the
arguments contained in the set of readings. Do not give an account of your own life experience; do not use any
outside readings (including from the internet); and do not rely on information from courses you have taken.
You may only receive assistance with writing your paper from employees of UMass Boston—not from friends,
relatives, or outside tutors. You may not use electronic assistants such as Google Translate or Grammarly. (You
can and should use the spelling- and grammar-checker built into your word processing program, a writer’s
handbook, and a dictionary or thesaurus.)
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Table of Contents
University of Massachusetts at Boston
Colleges of Education and Human Development, Honors, Liberal Arts,
Nursing and Health Sciences, Science and Mathematics, and the School for
June 2020 Writing Proficiency Evaluation (WPE)
Portfolio Reading Set: The Slippery Slope of Lying
Due by electronic submission May 29-June 3, 2020
Table of Contents
1. Dol, Daniel. “The Darker Side of Imagination.” The Instruction of Imagination:Language as a
Communication Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.
2. Bok, Sisela. “II. Truthfulness, Deceit, and Trust.” Lying: Moral Choice in Private and
Public Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.
3. Garrett, Neil, Stephanie C. Lazzaro, Dan Ariely and Tali Sharot. “The brain adaptsto
dishonesty.” Nature Neuroscience. 19, 1727-1732 (2016). Web.
Articles reprinted with permission
Review the portfolio requirements (modified for the June 2020 WPE only) at this link:
Your portfolio must contain a challenge essay that is at least 1,500 words (double spaced in
10 or 12 point type) that answers the question above; three course papers as described in the
portfolio requirements link above, and an honesty statement.
Submission instructions will be emailed to all registered students on May 29, 2020. Portfolios
may be submitted from the time you receive instructions on May 29, 2020 until June 3, 2020 at
Late portfolios will not be accepted.
The following will not be graded:
• Challenge essays that are too short
• Portfolios that are incomplete
• Challenge essays with severe attribution problems
• Portfolios that include any paper that employs academic dishonesty or plagiarism
• Challenge essays that make use of facts or sources that are not in the reading set
• Challenge essays that fail to use all the required essays in the reading set.
Plagiarism in a portfolio, whether it is in the new essay or in one of the supporting essays, will be
treated in the manner as outlined in the Student Code of Conduct, which can be downloaded in PDF
form at: https://www.umb.edu/life_on_campus/policies/community/code. The consequences of
violating these policies are serious and may include suspension or expulsion.
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 1 of 14
The Darker Side of Imagination
By Daniel Dol1
The growing human capacity for creative imagination turned us into who we are not just in positive
terms. There was a darker side. At a certain point along the way, some of the more intelligent speakers
must have begun to realize that the new technology could be used with a very different type of
communicative intent–the intent to deceive. This was a moment of enormous consequences: the lie was
The intent to deceive as such was already there before language. Other animals deceive as well.
Language, however, provided deceivers with a tool so much more powerful than presentational
communication that it changed deception forever. Three interrelated factors were involved. First,
experiential communication allows for the communication (honest or deceptive) of a much narrower set
of meanings than language–those meanings that are anchored in the here and now of the
communication event. With language, the set of possible meaning-types explodes for honest
communication as well as for deception: everything that has ever been mutually identified becomes a
potential lie. Second, the nastiest characteristic of the lie is the fact that it is functionally based on the
very trust it betrays: you can only lie to those with whom you share a language, and among those you
can only lie to those who trust you to tell the truth. The very logic of language and the very nature of
the process of socialization for language thus prepare the listeners for their unfortunate role as the
potential victims of deceptive communication. Third, and much more important, is the fact that in
presentational communication, communicators can only present their interlocutors 2 with something that
is there for them to experience. Communicators, for example, cannot threaten their interlocutors unless
they really are frightening. Whatever is communicated may be verified or rejected by the others in real
time, and because of that, presentational deception is a very difficult fit. […] Consequently, the apes
usually deceive by hiding something that is there–not by trying to present something that is not. With
language, however, the problem simply disappears. It allows communicators to tell their interlocutors
about things that they cannot experience– and thus cannot verify or reject at the time of
communication. Language thus deprives the listeners of the single most important tool that they could
use to defend themselves against deception: the critical judgment of what they just heard on the basis
of what they experience with their own senses.
Taken together, the three factors actually carry a rather amazing implication: the invention of language
eventually did more to enhance the human capacity for deception than it did to enhance the human
capacity for honest communication. The functional envelope of presentational deception is narrower
than that of honest presentational communication, but the functional envelope of linguistic deception is
wider than that of honest linguistic communication: language allows speakers to communicate mutually
identified experiences external to the here and now, but as long as they are honest, they may still only
communicate, at every given moment, those experiences they did experience: this is what honesty is all
about. Honest speaking is bound by the contingencies of the experiential world of the speaker (both
external and internal). In lying, however, the speaker is for the first time truly released from the bounds
of experience: everything that can be said can be lied about. Language is deceivers’ heaven.
So much so, as a matter of fact, that it seems tempting to postulate that language was originally invented
for lying–that it was born as a tool of deception. Everything said here so far indicates, however, that
1 Dr. Daniel Dor, a linguist, media researcher and political activist, received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford
University (1996). He has been teaching at the Department of Communication at Tel Aviv University since 1998.
Interlocutor: one who takes part in dialogue or conversation. Source: Merriam-Webster.
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 2 of 14
this could not possibly be the case. The collective effort of the invention and stabilization of the new
technology must have been based on high levels of reliability and trust between the inventors:
otherwise they would not have been able to get the system going. But when language was stabilized,
when certain levels of trust for language were achieved, the door was opened–and some individuals
rushed in. Because of that, the entire history of the evolution of language, beyond the original
invention, must have been closely tied up with the function of the lie.
Theoretical models of the evolution of language usually think about the lie in terms of the more
fundamental problem of the evolution of co-operative behavior. The argument runs as follows: The
individuals involved in any collective project should not just be willing to share the collective gains of
the project they should also be committed to give their share of the effort. They should be willing to
pay the price. For the project to survive, of course, the gains should be greater than the cost. The
problem is that co-operative projects also invite free-loaders to the table: if you manage to get your
share of the gains without putting in your share of the effort, you end up in an even better position than
others. This is a rational strategy, which means that it should in principle be adopted by everybody. If it
were, however, the entire project would collapse. Co-operation, then, is a reasonable individual choice
only to the extent that the others are also willing to avoid freeloading. Everybody should agree to put
some of their selfish interests aside. To explain the emergence of co-operative systems in evolution, we
should find a way to theoretically control the phenomenon of freeloading. In the case of language,
freeloading is lying.
Language is based on trust, but once the trust is there, lying seems to be the most advantageous
individual strategy. If everybody lied, however, the trust would collapse, dragging language down with
it. Different writers thus try to control lying in different ways […]
All these explanations are undoubtedly important, but they also seem to betray an implicit universalist
assumption: the option of freeloading is equally open for all individuals. This, however, could not have
been the case. At every point in the evolution of language, individuals were different in their languagerelated cognitive capacities, their emotional makeup, and their social status and each of these carried
implications for the individual’s ability to either lie and get away with it, or detect a lie and make sure
that the liar was punished. Lying requires more emotional control than telling the truth: liars have to
prevent their faces and bodies from betraying their intentions. An individual’s ability to lie and get
away with it, as well as to punish a liar, is also dependent on his or her social status: other things being
equal, higher status guarantees more immunity and more control. The consequences of getting caught
lying are often less intimidating than actually telling the truth. Most importantly, lying is a more
complex cognitive activity than honest speaking, and lie detection is more complex than simple
comprehension, both requiring additional cognitive processing. This is also evidenced in the very
gradual development of children into full-fledged liars.
All this carries a simple implication: the drama of the lie should be read as a variable story. Not
everybody lied, not everybody lied efficiently, not everybody lied to everyone else, and not everybody
who lied got caught. More than anything, the first liars must have been among the most imaginative
speakers in their communities. In honest linguistic communication, the speaker’s intent emerges from
his or her own experiences. The challenge is the translation of the intent into the socially constructed
terms of language. This challenge is also involved in the lie, of course, but the major difficulty resides
somewhere else: the speaker has to artificially imagine an experiential intent in his or her mind which,
from his or her experiential point of view, is counter-factual. The speaker has to imagine a world
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 3 of 14
different from the one he or she actually experiences. All linguistic communication requires imagining
for understanding. The first liars found the ways to imagine for speaking. They were probably good
listeners as well: lying requires a good understanding of the victim’s experiential world. And they
found new ways to control and suppress their emotions, and prevent their systems of presentational
communication from betraying their intentions: good liars have poker faces. This is exactly what the
apes simply cannot do. All this could not have been easy. Patterns of variability among liars began to
emerge: some were more imaginative than others, more controlled, more convincing, more cunning,
quicker on their feet. The better they were, the more they managed to freeload.
The victims of the liars, those lied to, must have made as variable a group as the liars. Many of them
may have never understood what was happening: their skills were not good enough for the detection of
They were easy prey. The liars lied and increased their share of the gains at the expense of their
victims, and the sense of trust on which language was founded remained intact. As long as the lie was
not exposed, the problem of instability never arose. Gradually, a new relationship (a very special
relationship) came to be formed between two groups: the best liars and their most devoted believers.
The division of labor was clear: the liars described the world to their victims, turned their attention to
certain experiences and away from others, invented collective lies, and constructed the symbolic
landscape to suit their goals. When those [who were] lied to began to look at the world through the
perspective spoken to them by the liars—precisely where language took them to places they had no
experience with—language turned into the most effective tool of social coercion that ever was. It still
Not all those lied to, however, were easy prey. Some of them may have been more experienced or
more suspicious, better speakers and listeners, better readers of presentational communication, or
simply smarter. Many of them must have been liars themselves–liars also lie to each other. They began
to develop different types of defense strategies–including those discussed in the literature–and different
individuals probably began to apply them to different degrees and in different ways. One defense
strategy was probably a retreat into the stronghold of the safest, most intimate social bonds. The lie
began to re-arrange societies along new lines of suspicion. Secrecy was another strategy. Speaking the
truth became a moral issue.
At the same time, and as significantly, however, some individuals probably began to develop new ways
of lie detection. A more sensitive understanding of speakers and the relationships between what they
said and how they behaved allowed for the more efficient detection of liars. Better memories helped
listeners keep track of what speakers were saying, for a longer time, and begin to compare. New means
gradually developed to critically judge the relationship between the message and the world. Certain
questions came up for the very first time: Is this reasonable? Does it make sense? Could it be? These
contributed to the development of language-based epistemology3
just as much as honest, co-operative
From a certain point on, then, a full-fledged arms race was launched between the liars, with their
unique capacities, and the lie detectors and decipherers, with their own sets of skills. The liars were
3 Epistemology: the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. The term is derived from
the Greek epistēmē (“knowledge”) and logos (“reason”), and accordingly the field is sometimes referred to as the theory of
knowledge. Source: www.britannica.com.
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 4 of 14
forced to work harder, sophisticate their techniques, develop those linguistic behaviors that allowed
them to convince: this was the origin of rhetoric. Those lied-to were also forced to work harder too, on
all fronts: among other things, this was the origin of logical investigation. Where the liars were strong
enough, and especially where they learned to lie together, the levels of stability required for language
were actually achieved by the lie, in its collective form. In other places, the levels of stability required
for language were maintained and fractured, strengthened and betrayed, again and again, in a constant
Freeloading was never controlled. The lie has always been a key determining factor in the web of
evolutionary relationships between languages, their speakers, and their societies. A language that would
really evolve only for honest communication would probably be much simpler, require much less from
its speakers, and change society to a much less dramatic degree.
Thoughtfulness, Deceit, and Trust
By Sisela Bok4
Lying and Choice
Deceit and violence–these are the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings. Both can coerce
people into acting against their will. Most harm that can befall victims through violence can come to
them also through deceit. But deceit controls more subtly, for it works on belief as well as action.
The knowledge of this coercive element in deception, and of our vulnerability to it, underlies our
sense of the centrality of truthfulness. Of course, deception—again like violence—can be used
also in self-defense, even for sheer survival. Its use can also be quite trivial, as in white lies. Yet
its potential for coercion and for destruction is such that society could scarcely function without
some degree of truthfulness in speech and action.5
Imagine a society, no matter how ideal in other respects, where word and gesture could never be
counted upon. Questions asked, answers given, information exchanged—all would be worthless.
Were all statements randomly truthful or deceptive, action and choice would be undermined from
the outset. There must be a minimal degree of trust in communication for language and action to
be more than stabs in the dark. This is why some level of truthfulness has always been seen as
essential to human society, no matter how deficient the observance of other moral principles. […]
A society, then, whose members were unable to distinguish truthful messages from deceptive ones,
would collapse. But even before such a general collapse, individual choice and survival would be
imperiled. The search for food and shelter could depend on no expectations from others. A warning
that a well was poisoned or a plea for help in an accident would come to be ignored unless
independent confirmation could be found.
All our choices depend on our estimates of what is the case; these estimates must in turn often
4 Sisela Bok, formerly a Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis University, is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the
Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, Harvard School of Public Health.
5 But truthful statements, though they are not meant to deceive, can, of course, themselves be coercive and
destructive; they can be used as weapons, to wound and do violence. [Author’s note.]
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 5 of 14
rely on information from others. Lies distort this information and therefore our situation as we
perceive it, as well as our choices. A lie, in Hartmann’s words, “injures the deceived person in his
life; it leads him astray.”
To the extent that knowledge gives power, to that extent do lies affect the distribution of power;
they add to that of the liar, and diminish that of the deceived, altering his choices at different
levels. A lie, first, may misinform, so as to obscure some objective, something the deceived
person wanted to do or obtain. It may make the objective seem unattainable or no longer
Lies may also eliminate or obscure relevant alternatives, as when a traveler is falsely told a
bridge has collapsed. At times, lies foster the belief that there are more alternatives than is really
the case; at other times, a lie may lead to the unnecessary loss of confidence in the best
Similarly, the estimates of costs and benefits of any action can be endlessly varied through
successful deception. […]
Finally, the degree of uncertainty in how we look at our choices can be manipulated through
deception. Deception can make a situation falsely uncertain as well as falsely certain. It can affect
the objectives seen, the alternatives believed possible, the estimates made of risks and benefits.
Such a manipulation of the dimension of certainty is one of the main ways to gain power over the
choices of those deceived. And just as deception can initiate actions a person would otherwise
never have chosen, so it can prevent action by obscuring the necessity for choice. This is the
essence of camouflage and of the cover-up-the—creation of apparent normality to avert
Everyone depends on deception to get out of a scrape, to save face, to avoid hurting the feelings
of others. Some use it much more consciously to manipulate and gain ascendancy. Yet all are
intimately aware of the threat lies can pose, the suffering they can bring. This two-sided
experience which we all share makes the singleness with which either side is advocated in action
all the more puzzling. Why are such radically different evaluations given to the effects of
deception, depending on whether the point of view is that of the liar or the one lied to?
The Perspective of the Deceived
Those who learn that they have been lied to in an important matter–say, the identity of their
parents, the affection of their spouse, or the integrity of their government–are resentful,
disappointed, and suspicious. They feel wronged; they are wary of new overtures. And they
look back on their past beliefs and actions in the new light of the discovered lies. They see that
they were manipulated, that the deceit made them unable to make choices for themselves
according to the most adequate information available, unable to act as they would have wanted
to act had they known all along.
It is true, of course, that personal, informed choice is not the only kind available to them. They
may decide to abandon choosing for themselves and let others decide for them–as guardians,
financial advisors, or political representatives. They may even decide to abandon choice based
upon information of a conventional nature altogether and trust instead to the stars or to throws
of the dice or to soothsayers.
But such alternatives ought to be personally chosen and not surreptitiously imposed by lies or
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 6 of 14
other forms of manipulation. Most of us would resist loss of control over which choices we want
to delegate to others and which ones we want to make ourselves, aided by the best information
we can obtain. We resist because experience has taught us the consequences when others choose
to deceive us, even “for our own good.” Of course, we know that many lies are trivial. But since
we, when lied to, have no way to judge which lies are the trivial ones, and since we have no
confidence that liars will restrict themselves to just such trivial lies, the perspective of the
deceived leads us to be wary of all deception.
Nor is this perspective restricted to those who are actually deceived in any given situation.
Though only a single person may be deceived, many others may be harmed as a result. If a
mayor is deceived about the need for new taxes, the entire city will bear the consequences.
Accordingly, the perspective of the deceived is shared by all those who feel the consequences of
a lie, whether or not they are themselves lied to. […]
An interesting parallel between skepticism6
exists here. Just as skepticism
denies the possibility of knowledge, so determinism denies the possibility of freedom. Yet both
knowledge and freedom to act on it are required for reasonable choice. Such choice would be
denied to someone genuinely convinced–to the very core of his being–of both skepticism and
determinism. He would be cast about like a dry leaf in the wind. Few go so far. But more may
adopt such views selectively, as when they need convenient excuses for lying. Lies, they may
then claim, do not add to or subtract from the general misinformation or “unfreedom” of those
lied to. Yet were they to adopt the perspective of the deceived, such excuses for lying to them
would seem hollow indeed. Both skepticism and determinism have to be bracketed–set aside if
moral choice is to retain the significance for liars that we, as deceived, know it has in our lives.
Deception, then, can be coercive. When it succeeds, it can give power to the deceiver—power
that all who suffer the consequences of lies would not wish to abdicate. From this perspective, it
is clearly unreasonable to assert that people should be able to lie with impunity whenever they
want to do so. It would be unreasonable, as well, to assert such a right even in the more
restricted circumstances where the liars claim a good reason for lying. This is especially true
because lying so often accompanies every other form of wrongdoing, from murder and bribery
to tax fraud and theft. In refusing to condone such a right to decide when to lie and when not to,
we are therefore trying to protect ourselves against lies which help to execute or cover up all
other wrongful acts.
For this reason, the perspective of the deceived supports the statement by Aristotle:
Falsehood is in itself mean and culpable, and truth noble and full of praise.
There is an initial imbalance in the evaluation of truth telling and lying. Lying requires a reason,
while truth-telling does not. It must be excused; reasons must be produced, in anyone case, to show
why a particular lie is not “mean and culpable.”
The Perspective of the Liar
6 Skepticism: the attitude of doubting knowledge claims set forth in various areas. Skeptics have challenged the
adequacy or reliability of these claims by asking what principles they are based upon or what they actually establish.
7 Determinism: in philosophy, theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by
previously existing causes. Determinism is usually understood to preclude free will because it entails that humans
cannot act otherwise than they do. Source: www.britannica.com.
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 7 of 14
Those who adopt the perspective of would-be liars, on the other hand, have different concerns.
For them, the choice is often a difficult one. They may believe, with Machiavelli, that “great
things” have been done by those who have “little regard for good faith.” They may trust that they
can make wise use of the power that lies bring. And they may have confidence in their own ability
to distinguish the times when good reasons support their decision to lie.
Liars share with those they deceive the desire not to be deceived. As a result, their choice to lie
is one which they would like to reserve for themselves while insisting that others be honest.
They would prefer, in other words, a “free-rider” status, giving them the benefits of lying
without the risks of being lied to. Some think of this free-rider status as for them alone. Others
extend it to their friends, social group, or profession. This category of persons can be narrow or
broad; but it does require as a necessary backdrop the ordinary assumptions about the honesty
of most persons. The free rider trades upon being an exception, and could not exist in a world
where everybody chose to exercise the same prerogatives.
At times, liars operate as if they believed that such a free-rider status is theirs and that it excuses
them. At other times, on the contrary, it is the very fact that others do lie that excuses their
deceptive stance in their own eyes. It is crucial to see the distinction between the “freeloading liar
and the liar whose deception is a strategy for survival in a corrupt society.8
All want to avoid being deceived by others as much as possible. But many would like to be able
to weigh the advantages and disadvantages in a more nuanced way whenever they are themselves
in the position of choosing whether or not to deceive. They may invoke special reasons to lie—
such as the need to protect confidentiality or to spare someone’s feelings. They are then much
more willing, in particular, to exonerate a well-intentioned lie on their own part; dupes tend to be
less sanguine about the good intentions of those who deceive them.
But in this benevolent self-evaluation by the liar of the lies he might tell, certain kinds of
disadvantage and harm are almost always overlooked. Liars usually weigh only the immediate
harm to others from the lie against the benefits they want to achieve. The flaw in such an outlook
is that it ignores or underestimates two additional kinds of harm—the harm that lying does to the
liars themselves and the harm done to the general level of trust and social cooperation. Both are
cumulative; both are hard to reverse.
How is the liar affected by his own lies? The very fact that he knows he has lied, first of all,
affects him. He may regard the lie as an inroad on his integrity; he certainly looks at those he has
lied to with a new caution. And if they find out that he has lied, he knows that his credibility and
the respect for his word have been damaged. […]
Granted that a public lie on an important matter, once revealed, hurts the speaker, must we
therefore conclude that every lie has this effect? What of those who tell a few white lies once in a
while? Does lying hurt them in the same way? It is hard to defend such a notion. No one trivial lie
undermines the liar’s integrity. But the problem for liars is that they tend to see most of their lies
in this benevolent light and thus vastly underestimate the risks they run. While no one lie always
carries harm for the liar, then, there is risk of such harm in most.
These risks are increased by the fact that so few lies are solitary ones. It is easy, a wit observed,
to tell a lie, but hard to tell only one. The first lie “must be thatched with another or it will rain
8 While different, the two are closely linked. If enough persons adopt the free-rider strategy for lying, the time will
come when all will feel pressed to lie to survive. [Author’s note.]
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 8 of 14
through.” More and more lies may come to be needed; the liar always has more mending to do.
And the strains on him become greater each time–many have noted that it takes an excellent
memory to keep one’s untruths in good repair and disentangled. The sheer energy the liar has to
devote to shoring them up is energy the honest man can dispose of freely.
After the first lies, moreover, others can come more easily. Psychological barriers wear down;
lies seem more necessary, less reprehensible; the ability to make moral distinctions can coarsen;
the liar’s perception of his chances of being caught may warp. These changes can affect his
behavior in subtle ways; even if he is not found out he will then be less trusted than those of
unquestioned honesty. And it is inevitable that more frequent lies do increase the chance that
some will be discovered. At that time, even if the liar has no personal sense of loss of integrity9
from his deceitful practices, he will surely regret the damage to his credibility which their
discovery brings about. Paradoxically, once his word is no longer trusted, he will be left with
greatly decreased power—even though a lie often does bring at least a short-term gain in power
over those deceived.
Even if the liar cares little about the risks to others from his deception, therefore, all these risks to
himself argue in favor of at least weighing any decision to lie quite seriously. Yet such risks
rarely enter his calculations. Bias skews all judgment, but never more so than in the search for
good reasons to deceive. Not only does it combine with ignorance and uncertainty so that liars are
apt to overestimate their own good will, high motives, and chances to escape detection; it leads
also to overconfidence in their own imperviousness to the personal entanglements, worries, and
loss of integrity which might so easily beset them.
The liar’s self-bestowed free-rider status, then, can be as corrupting as all other unchecked
exercises of power. There are, in fact, very few “free rides” to be had through lying. I hope to
examine […] those exceptional circumstances where harm to self and others from lying is
less likely, and procedures which can isolate and contain them. But the chance of harm to
liars can rarely be ruled out altogether.
Bias causes liars often to ignore the second type of harm as well. For even if they make the effort
to estimate the consequences to individuals-themselves and others of their lies, they often fail to
consider the many ways in which deception can spread and give rise to practices very damaging
to human communities. These practices clearly do not affect only isolated individuals. The
veneer of social trust is often thin. As lies spread-by imitation, or in retaliation, or to forestall
suspected deception-trust is damaged. Yet trust is a social good to be protected just as much as
the air we breathe or the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers;
and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse. […]
It is the fear of the harm lies bring that explains statements such as the following from Revelations
(22.15), which might otherwise seem strangely out of proportion:
These others must stay outside [the Heavenly City]: dogs, medicine-men, and fornicators,
and murderers, and idolaters, and everyone of false life and false speech.
It is the deep-seated concern of the multitude which speaks here; there could be few contrasts
9 The word “integrity” comes from the same roots which have formed “intact” and “untouched.” It is used especially
often in relation to truthfulness and fair dealing and reflects, I believe, the view that by lying one hurts oneself. The
notion of the self-destructive aspects of doing wrong is part of many traditions. [Author’s note.]
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 9 of 14
greater than that between this statement and the self-confident, individualistic view by
Men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will
always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.
The discrepancy of perspectives explains the ambiguity toward lying which most of us
experience. While we know the risks of lying, and would prefer a world where others abstained
from it, we know also that there are times when it would be helpful, perhaps even necessary, if
we ourselves could deceive with impunity. By itself, each perspective is incomplete. Each can
bias moral judgments and render them shallow. Even the perspective of the deceived can lead to
unfounded, discriminatory suspicions about persons thought to be untrustworthy.
We need to learn to shift back and forth between the two perspectives, and even to focus on both
at once, as in straining to see both aspects of an optical illusion. In ethics, such a double focus
leads to applying the Golden Rule10: to strain to experience one’s acts not only as subject and
agent but as recipient, sometimes victim. And while it is not always easy to put oneself in the
place of someone affected by a fate one will never share, there is no such difficulty with lying.
We all know what it is to lie, to be told lies, to be correctly or falsely suspected of having lied. In
principle, we can all readily share both perspectives. What is important is to make that effort as
we consider the lies we would like to be able to tell. It is at such times of choice and judgment
that the Golden Rule is hardest to follow. The Muslim mystic Al-Ghazali recommended the shift
in perspectives in the following words:
If you want to know the foulness of lying for yourself, consider the lying of someone else
and how you shun it and despise the man who lies and regard his communication as foul.
Do the same with regard to all your own vices, for you do not realize the foulness of your
vices from your own case, but from someone else’s.
The parallel between deception and violence as seen from these two perspectives is, once again,
striking. For both violence and deception are means not only to unjust coercion, but also to selfdefense and survival. They have been feared and circumscribed by law and custom, when seen
from the perspective of those affected by lies and by assaults. In religion and in ethics alike, they
have been proscribed, and advice has been given on how to cope with the oppression in their
But they have also been celebrated through the ages when seen from the perspective of the agent,
the liar, the forceful man. The hero uses deceit to survive and to conquer. When looked at from
this point of view, both violence and deceit are portrayed with bravado and exultation. Nietzsche
and Machiavelli are their advocates, epic poetry their home. […]
The perspective of the deceived, then, reveals several reasons why lies are undesirable. Those
who share it have cause to fear the effects of undiscovered lies on the choices of liars and dupes.
They are all too aware of the impact of discovered and suspected lies on trust and social
10 The most familiar version of the Golden Rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Source:
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 10 of 14
And they consider not only the individual lie but the practice of which it forms a part, and the longterm results which it can have.
For these reasons, I believe that we must at the very least accept as an initial premise Aristotle’s
view that lying is “mean and culpable” and that truthful statements are preferable to lies in the
absence of special considerations. This premise gives an initial negative weight to lies. It holds
that they are not neutral from the point of view of our choices; that lying requires explanation,
whereas truth ordinarily does not. It provides a counterbalance to the crude evaluation by liars of
their own motives and of the consequences of their lies. And it places the burden of proof
squarely on those who assume the liar’s perspective.
This presumption against lying can also be stated so as to stress the positive worth of truthfulness
or veracity. I would like […] to refer to the “principle of veracity” as an expression of this initial
imbalance in our weighing of truthfulness and lying.
It is not necessarily a principle that overrides all others, nor even the one most frequently appealed
to. Nor is it, obviously, sufficient by itself—witness the brutal but honest regime or the tormentor
who prides himself on his frankness. Rather, trust in some degree of veracity functions as a foundation
of relations among human beings; when this trust shatters or wears away, institutions collapse.11
Such a principle need not indicate that all lies should be ruled out by the initial negative weight given to
them, nor does it even suggest what kinds of lies should be prohibited. But it does make at least one
immediate limitation on lying: in any situation where a lie is a possible choice, one must first seek
truthful alternatives. If lies and truthful statements appear to achieve the same result or appear to be as
desirable to the person contemplating lying the lies should be ruled out. And only where a lie is a last
resort can one even begin to consider whether or not it is morally justified. Mild as this initial
stipulation sounds, it would, if taken seriously, eliminate a great many lies told out of carelessness or
habit or unexamined good intentions.
When we try to move beyond this agreement on such an initial premise, the first fork in the road is
presented by those who believe that all lies should be categorically ruled out. Such a position not only
assigns a negative weight to lies; it sees this weight as so overwhelming that no circumstances can
outweigh it. If we choose to follow that path, the quest for circumstances when lying is justified is
11 The function of the principle of veracity as a foundation is evident when we think of trust. I can have different
kinds of trust: that you will treat me fairly, that you will have my interests at heart, that you will do me no harm. But
if I do not trust your word, can I have genuine trust in the first three? If there is no confidence in the truthfulness of
others, is there any way to assess their fairness, their intentions to help or to harm? How, then, can they be trusted?
Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives. [Author’s note.]
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The Brain Adapts to Dishonesty
By Neil Garrett, Stephanie C Lazzaro, Dan Ariely & Tali Sharot12
Dishonesty is an integral part of our social world, influencing domains ranging from finance and
politics to personal relationships. Anecdotally, digressions from a moral code are often described as a
series of small breaches that grow over time. Here we provide empirical evidence for a gradual
escalation of self- serving dishonesty and reveal a neural mechanism supporting it. Behaviorally, we
show that the extent to which participants engage in self-serving dishonesty increases with repetition.
Using functional MRI (fMRI)13, we show that [activity] in the amygdala is sensitive to the history of
dishonest behavior, consistent with adaptation. Critically, the extent of reduced amygdala sensitivity to
dishonesty on a present decision relative to the previous one predicts the magnitude of escalation of
self-serving dishonesty on the next decision. The findings uncover a biological mechanism that
supports a ‘slippery slope’: what begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger
Many dishonest acts are speculatively traced back to a sequence of smaller transgressions that
gradually escalated. From financial fraud to plagiarism, online scams and scientific misconduct,
deceivers retrospectively describe how minor dishonest decisions snowballed into significant ones over
time. Despite the dramatic impact of these acts on economics, policy and education, we do not have a
clear understanding of how and why small transgressions may gradually lead to larger ones. Here, we
set out to empirically demonstrate dishonesty escalation in a controlled laboratory setting and examine
the underlying mechanism.
People often perceive selfserving dishonesty as morally
wrong and report uneasiness when
engaging in such behavior.
Consistent with these reports,
physiological and neurological
measures of emotional arousal are
observed when people deceive.
Blocking such signals
pharmacologically results in
significant increases in
dishonesty. For example, in one
study students who had taken and
responded to a mild
sympatholytic14 agent were twice
as likely to cheat on an exam as
those who took a placebo.
12 Neil Garrett, Stephanie C. Lazzaro, and Tali Sharot are at the Affective Brain Lab, University College London and
Dan Ariely is at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University.
13 Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measures the small changes in blood flow that occur with brain
activity. (Source: radiologyinfo.org)
14 Sympatholytic drug: a drug that suppresses the body’s involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations.
1Diagram of the Brain (https://www.brainline.org/)
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 12 of 14
Thus, in the absence of an affective15 signal that can help curb dishonesty, people may engage in more
frequent and severe acts.
A large body of research demonstrates that the response to an emotion-evoking stimulus weakens with
repeated exposure. For example, both affective ratings of negative images and amygdala activation in
response to those images have been shown to decrease with each subsequent presentation of the
images. It is thus possible that the affective signal that accompanies self-serving dishonesty also
diminishes with repetition. If indeed signals that may help curb dishonesty are diminished over time,
dishonest acts could increase. Thus, what begins as small deviations from a moral code could escalate
to large deviations with potentially harmful consequences.
To test for dishonesty escalation and its underlying neurological mechanism, we combined brain imaging
with a behavioral task in which individuals were given repeated opportunities to act dishonestly. […]
Unsurprisingly, this [imaging] predominantly, but not exclusively, identified the amygdala. The
amygdala responds to various emotion-eliciting situations, with stronger activity related to more potent
experiences, and research in nonhuman animals also demonstrates that the amygdala is critical for
emotion. Our goal was to examine whether dishonesty escalates over time, whether response to
dishonesty in the [amygdala] decreases over time and whether the extent of decrease […] predicts the
extent of escalation […].
Testing realistic deception in a brain-imaging scanner is notoriously difficult, as participants need to
repeatedly, deliberately and voluntarily act dishonestly in a social context without being required to
admit to their dishonesty. Our model enabled participants to do just that, while also allowing us to
quantify deception on a trial-by-trial basis. […] Participants advised a second participant, played by a
confederate16, about the amount of money in a glass jar filled with pennies. We changed the incentive
structure over the course of two experiments such that dishonesty about the amount of money in the jar
would either benefit the participant at the expense of their partner […], benefit the partner at the expense
of the participant […], benefit the participant only without affecting the partner […] or benefit the
partner only without affecting the participant […]. Importantly, the participants believed that their
partner was not aware of this incentive structure but thought that they were working together at all times
to provide the most accurate estimate, which would benefit them both equally. A baseline condition
enabled us to infer the amount of dishonesty on each trial without the participant being instructed to act
dishonestly or required to admit to dishonesty. […]
Self-serving dishonesty escalates
We observed clear evidence of escalation in self-serving dishonesty, such that the magnitude of
dishonesty got larger and larger over the course of a [testing] block. […]
Dishonesty without escalation occurs when it benefits a partner without affecting self
In the Self-harming–Other-serving condition, participants on average did not act dishonestly,
presumably because dishonesty in this condition would hurt their pay. It is thus feasible that escalation
was not evident in this condition simply because dishonesty was nonexistent. To examine this
possibility and tease apart the contributions of self-interest and other-interest in escalating dishonesty,
15 Affective: having to do with the emotions. Don’t confuse this word with effective.
16 Confederate: This person is a secret accomplice who is pretending to be a participant in the study but is actually an
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 13 of 14
we conducted a follow-up study […] in which we presented two new conditions in addition to the
baseline condition [when neither the participant nor the partner benefit from the participant’s
dishonesty]. In the condition of interest, dishonesty only benefitted the self without affecting the other
participant (Self-serving); in the comparison condition dishonesty would only benefit the partner
without benefiting or hurting the self (Other-serving). Each of these two conditions were run twice in
two separate blocks, thus creating four counterbalanced blocks in total: in one block over-estimating the
amount of money in the jar would benefit the participant only; in another it would benefit the partner
only; in a third block underestimating the amount of money would benefit the participant only; and in a
fourth itwould benefit the partner only. We added the underestimation blocks in this follow-up study so
that the results could be generalized beyond one specific set of instructions.
While initial levels of dishonesty did not differ between conditions […], escalation of dishonesty did.
[…] We did not see an escalation of dishonesty when dishonesty benefitted only the partner. […]. Our
behavioral findings revealed that self-serving dishonesty escalated over the course of the block. Next,
we turned to our fMRI data to ask whether the amygdala’s response to dishonesty diminishes over time
and whether the extent of this reduction predicted, on a trial-by-trial basis, subsequent escalation of
Amygdala response to dishonesty is reduced over time […]
As the behavioral results demonstrated that dishonesty is driven both by considerations for self and
other but its escalation is driven only by whether dishonesty benefits or hurts the self, we focused our
fMRI analysis on the two cases in which the benefit of dishonesty was confined to either the self or the
other (i.e., the Self-serving–Other-harming condition and the Self-harming–Other-serving condition).
[…] The fact that activity in the [amygdala] did not simply decrease over time, as well as the fact that
our effects remained significant after controlling for time, suggests that the findings are unlikely to be
explained by a reduction of attention or engagement over time. Together, these results showed BOLD
responses consistent with adaptation to self-serving dishonesty in regions that have been previously
associated with emotion. […]
Dishonesty significantly impacts our personal lives and public institutions. Here we provide empirical
evidence that dishonesty gradually increases with repetition when all else is held constant. This
experimental result is consistent with anecdotal observations of small digressions gradually
snowballing into larger ones. Our results also offer a mechanistic account of how dishonesty escalates,
showing that it is supported by reduced activity in brain regions previously associated with emotion,
predominantly the amygdala. Across individuals, the extent of BOLD signal reduction per one unit of
dishonesty on a present decision relative to the previous predicted escalation of dishonesty on the next
decision. This result ties diminished amygdala sensitivity to dishonesty escalation, with the former
preceding the latter. […]
With deference to the caution necessary when making reverse inference, we speculate that the blunted
response to repeated acts of dishonesty may reflect a reduction in the emotional response to these
decisions or to their affective assessment and saliency. While the amygdala can also signal positive
emotion, this interpretation is less likely […]. The current interpretation is in accord with a previous
suggestion that the amygdala signals the rate of averseness to immoral acts.
Our results also suggest that dishonesty escalation is contingent on the motivation for the dishonest act.
June 2020 WPE Portfolio Page 14 of 14
Specifically, while the magnitude of dishonesty was driven by considerations of benefit both to the self
and to the other, the escalation of dishonesty, as well as the amygdala’s response to it over time, was best
accounted for by whether dishonesty was self-serving. When participants were dishonest for the benefit
of someone else, dishonesty at a constant rate was observed. This is consistent with the suggestion that
the motivation for acting dishonestly contributes to its affective assessment, such that when a person
engages in dishonesty purely for the benefit of another it may be perceived as morally acceptable. Thus,
the simple act of repeated dishonesty is not enough for esca