Health Report:

Honesty, Dishonesty & Brain Function


"A critical weekly review of important new research findings for health-conscious readers..."

By, Robert A. Wascher, MD, FACS

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Last Updated:  08/02/2009

The information in this column is intended for informational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice or recommendations by the author.  Please consult with your physician before making any lifestyle or medication changes, or if you have any other concerns regarding your health.


The related moral issues of honesty and dishonesty have been debated for thousands of years by philosophers and theologians, with an abundance of resulting theories about how people ultimately decide to confront moral quandaries in their lives.  While virtually all of us will resort to at least modest acts of dishonesty from time-to-time, some of us, clearly, are more prone than others to engaging in deceptive and dishonest behaviors on a more frequent basis.


While some people, doubtless, engage in repeated acts of immoral, dishonest, or criminal behavior due to underlying mental illness or personality disorders, most of us routinely decline opportunities to behave dishonestly in our daily lives.  However, some among us, including those without recognizable mental health problems, are somewhat more “morally flexible.”  While the factors that help to determine the moral choices that we make as individuals are decidedly complex and nuanced, neuroscientists and behavioral experts are using new functional imaging tools to try and better understand which areas of the brain are activated when we engage in thought processes related to moral decision-making.


Functional MRI, a relatively new and powerful imaging technique, combines exquisitely detailed images of the brain with information regarding increased blood flow to specific areas of the brain.  This melding of anatomic and metabolic information about the brain allows scientists to identify discrete areas of the brain that are activated while patients or research subjects are participating in specific behavioral tasks or thought processes. 


A new clinical research study from Harvard University, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides a fascinating new look at how the human brain approaches moral dilemmas during both “honest” and “dishonest” behaviors.  In this study, volunteers were confronted with opportunities for modest financial gain, which could be maximized through dishonest behavior.


In this study, participants were asked to predict the outcome of random, repeated coin flips simulated on a computer.  These research subjects were then compensated according to the number of their correct predictions (i.e., “heads” or “tails”), based upon self-reporting of the accuracy of their predictions.  A “control group” of participants underwent functional MRI scans too, but they were required to provide all of their predictions (i.e., their guesses) of the outcome of the simulated coin flips in advance, thus removing any incentive to behave dishonestly.  The remaining research volunteers were allowed to self-report their predictions after they had completed the coin flip exercise, which offered them an obvious opportunity for cheating.  It should also be noted that the maximum available compensation offered was only $75. 


Functional MRI scans of the brain were performed on all of these research volunteers as they completed these tasks.  Not surprisingly, more than a few of these research volunteers reported predictions that far exceeded the statistical possibility of guessing which side of the simulated coin would appear with each random coin flip, indicating widespread dishonesty among these participants.


When the results of the functional MRI scans were compared among the different groups within this study, some very interesting results were obtained.  When compared to the control group of volunteers, the brain function of the participants who refrained from trying to deceive the investigators showed no evidence of activation of the higher cognitive centers of the brain that are known to play a role in judgment and moral decision-making.  On the other hand, the brain function of the volunteers who behaved dishonestly revealed a completely different pattern of activity in the brain’s “judgment” centers, in the prefrontal cortex, when compared to the control group of volunteers.  Among the research participants who displayed evidence of dishonesty, the prefrontal cortex’s judgment and control centers were activated when this group engaged in deception related to their coin flip predictions.  Moreover, the degree of increased metabolic activity in these decision-making areas of the brain was proportional to the number of times that each participant engaged in deceptive behavior.  A particularly fascinating result of this clinical study was that even when the “dishonest group” of volunteers momentarily refrained from engaging in acts of dishonesty, these same judgment and moral authority centers in the prefrontal cortex of the brain were still activated.


While the findings of this study cannot answer any of the philosophical, moral, and spiritual questions regarding why some people choose dishonesty over honesty, the results of this intriguing study provide important insights into how the moral decision-making and judgment centers of the brain may behave differently in people who routinely choose to behave dishonestly (and, particularly when some form of gain is potentially available) when compared to those who regularly resist such temptations.


The authors of this study point out two of the prevailing theories in cognitive psychology regarding how humans approach temptation, and regarding our readiness to either refrain from or engage in dishonest behaviors in hopes of gaining something valuable in return.  According to the so-called “Grace Hypothesis,” honest behavior results because honest people do not perceive any temptation to behave dishonestly.  A competing theory, the “Will Hypothesis,” states that honest behavior results from the active, intentional resistance of perceived temptation to behave dishonestly.  Thus, the findings of this clinical study would appear to better support the “Grace Hypothesis” for the more honest volunteers, in that the judgment and moral decision-making centers in the brains of the volunteers who behaved honestly were not activated when these participants were offered an opportunity to increase their compensation by being dishonest.  On the other hand, these same “executive function” centers in the prefrontal cortex of the participants who were dishonest lit up whether these people were behaving honestly or dishonestly, and could therefore suggest that the “Will Hypothesis” was more applicable to people who are intrinsically more predisposed to behave dishonestly when they perceive some potential gain (however small) from doing so.


While this study does not resolve the ages-old debate regarding what keeps “honest people honest” and “dishonest people dishonest,” it does offer a fascinating window into the divergent brain function of people who appear to occupy either category.  It remains to be discovered, however, why people who are prone to behaving dishonestly do so in the first place, when the prevailing norm is virtually every culture and society throughout the world strongly favors honesty over dishonesty.


Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity


Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, a professor of surgery, a widely published author, and the Physician-in-Chief for Surgical Oncology at the Kaiser Permanente healthcare system in Orange County, California



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Copyright 2009.  

Robert A. Wascher, MD, FACS.  

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