Human beings cheat. Sometimes a lot.
Though we put systems and rules in place to prevent such deception, even peer pressure, laws, and moral codes often fail to stop us.
Leave it to scientists, then, to develop a novel, surprising technique for curbing one of our worst impulses. A new study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that non-invasive brain stimulation can actually make us more honest.
That’s right. Strap electrodes to a person’s scalp while they’re making a decision that could involve cheating, and in many cases, the stimulation of certain brain cells leads them down a more virtuous path.
You could imagine a dystopian sci-fi future in which this technology becomes our worst nightmare. However, these scientists just wanted to understand how the brain weighs the value of honesty against personal self-interest.
Using a die-rolling experiment, the researchers told the 145 university students who participated in the study that each roll had a 50-50 chance of winning them nine Swiss francs. The subjects could potentially walk away with 90 francs.
On average, people told the scientists that they rolled that winning combination more than two-thirds of the time — a statistical improbability. About eight percent of the participants cheated whenever possible.
But when the researchers stimulated a region of the brain associated with increased activity when people choose to be honest, the participants were less likely to cheat. The average percentage of successful dice rolls dropped to 58 percent. While still improbable, it revealed that people didn’t lie as much.
The number of persistent cheaters, however, didn’t budge from eight percent, indicating that the stimulation didn’t affect everyone equally.
"This finding suggests that the stimulation mainly reduced cheating in participants who actually experienced a moral conflict, but did not influence the decision making process in those who were committed to maximizing their earnings," Christian Ruff, a co-author of the study and a professor of neuroeconomics and decision neuroscience at the University of Zurich, said in a press release.
The researchers took into account and eliminated other potential factors that could sway people’s decisions, including gender, age, mood, cognitive skills, and "Machiavellism," a personality measure that gauges a person’s tendency to display opportunism, status seeking, and amorality.
Another experiment with 156 students made it possible for participants to earn money not for themselves but for another anonymous person. In this scenario, people still cheated a lot.
Interestingly, though, brain stimulation didn’t reduce dishonesty this time around, suggesting the process triggered by the electrical current helps to resolve only trade-offs between a person’s own self-interest and telling the truth.
The study’s authors wrote that their findings may have implications for punishing legal transgressions given that it sheds light on the "biological limits" of taking responsibility for wrongdoing. The discovery of a neural process that influences honesty, they add, may also help develop measures to promote truthfulness.
It’s hard to imagine what those might be, but let’s hope they won’t involve strapping electrodes to people’s scalps against their will.