Neurobiology of Honesty II

Written by David del Rosario on Sunday December 18th, 2016

David del Rosario

Written by David del Rosario

9 months ago

Some questions to warm up with: Can you imagine a person who spends his days being dishonest with himself/herself, someone who every day went to a job that does not satisfy him/her, sharing space with a partner he/she does not love or just a person who tries to hide what he/she is, thinks or feels from others? Can you imagine what a planet full of dishonest people would look like? Surely its inhabitants would suffer paranormal traffic accidents, have insensitive teachers with the profile of a psycho, and people would risk their skins for no reason at all. Thank goodness this is science fiction (here you can find the first part of the article).


Paranormal traffic accidents

Scientist Anthony Greenwald quoted in an article published in the 1980s a series of “paranormal” experiences undergone by people who had suffered a traffic accident. The police took their statements about the mysterious and sudden appearance of a stop sign or a flying telephone pole that was approaching the driver at full speed, making it impossible to avoid the collision. None of them had been drinking or consumed any hallucinogenic substance, and in addition the second statement corresponds to a renowned teacher of literature. Evidently, the team who took witness statements did not require the help of Iker Jimenez to clarify the facts. Why do healthy people react in this way?

Although the answer may surprise us, this behavior is closely related to the characteristics of our memory. Under circumstances in which everything happens very quickly, or are of considerable intensity, as in a traffic accident, our memory slips up and invents a story that slaps reality in the face. To the surprise of many, the anterior cingulate cortex (our honesty detector which works as an anti-fire hormone sprinkler) does not interpret any dishonest acts, so our heart stays calm and there is no trace of cortisol or testosterone in the bloodstream. And why is this?

This happens because our body has an idea of ​​honesty which is very different from ours. Honesty does not have much to do with others, or with truth, but with oneself. We can be telling a police officer in every detail that the phone pole flew toward us (I’d love to have seen the officer’s face) while our honesty detector takes a nap. In other words, when our memory is consistent with the version we toss out to the world, the organism does not detect even the slightest dishonesty, even though what we say is “a lie.” Therefore, honesty for our organism does not seem to have much to do with the truth.


Insensitive teachers with the profile of a psychopath

In order to know a little more about what honesty means for the organism, let us travel back to our time as students with our brain´s time machine. We are in the university diner, under the still somewhat timid July sun, celebrating the end of examinations after receiving the last result that we needed to know. Usually, part of the group of classmates who have failed, act as if they were the victims of an injustice; aggrieved by an exam that flew from the mind of a psychopath, while those who have passed keep their mouths shut. This experience, which was repeated year after year during my time as a student, curiously coincides with the results obtained by Robert Arkin and his team of researchers from Ohio University who point out that, faced with a fail, we tend to see the teacher as insensitive, rather than assume our error. Is this honest or not?

For us, everything can be questionable. With much less we set up television programs or we initiate endless debates, but luckily honesty is not a mental or intellectual battle. Regardless of our opinion, it is our honesty detector which takes decisions, and it is very clear about what a dishonest act is and what is not (I imagine an anterior cingulate cortex reflecting hours and hours about whether something is honest while the body is in serious trouble). The student who “slags off” the teacher begins to perceive dishonest physiological symptoms in his organism. The festival of cortisol and testosterone begins by increasing blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, and experiencing a loss of empathy with the world.

This and other research reveal a very human mechanism that is quite a joke: we attribute our success to our good work and we see failures as the result of injustice or “bad luck“. But, there is more to it (here comes a point that I love). When it comes to others, then we tend to think that their achievements are due to “good luck” and that their failure is related to lack of effort or directly due to their incompetence. Unconsciously for the most part, this behavior activates our honesty detector like a steam hammer.


Risking our neck

I would never have imagined it: dishonesty can endanger our physical integrity. We humans are able to risk our necks to improve others’ opinion of us, even though we know that this “improvement” will be nothing more than a temporary illusion. If our goal is to conquer a girl or a boy, we are capable of driving at high speed, suffering from eating disorders, fighting for no apparent reason, starting smoking, drinking heavily or consuming drugs. Researcher Mark Leavy provides us with scientific evidence of this. How much dishonesty do we seem addicted to?


The Limits of Dishonesty

Let’s make up our backpack, add a sleeping bag and tent just in case, to go on a new expedition. Walking along the limits of dishonesty, we find the work of Dan Ariely. Together with a number of collaborators, they designed an experiment at MIT, which consisted of giving each participant a sheet of paper with 20 mathematical exercises that all of them could solve within a five – minute time limit. Dan and his team knew that, on average, each person would have time to solve only four problems. The study conditions were completed informing individuals that a dollar would be paid for each problem solved and that it was not necessary to hand in the solutions as proof. That is, you could solve no problem at all and spend time picking your nose, go up to that nice guy Dan and tell him that you had finished all the problems and receive twenty dollars. In the words of the researcher “we saw a lot of people doing a little cheating“. The participants said they solved seven problems on average.

Dan’s experiments correspond to my studies and observations in the Lizarrán (a Spanish restaurant in which each tapa comes with a toothpick, and they charge you based on the toothpicks you present). On average, each of my friends consumed five or six tapas. However, 90% of them took only four toothpicks to the till. No one took one or two: we all did a little cheating, but not much.

These studies, among others, indicate that there is a limit to our honesty detector. This threshold is a red line that we do not cross lightly. This means that we borrow hotel soap, or a small towel; we evade taxes when we take the car to the repair shop, but most people do not take money from the hotel till (even a small amount) or steal a car. What aspects are able to displace the red line that marks the limits of honesty?

The same research group designed a new study that provides a few clues about this. When they asked the participants to remember the Ten Commandments before they solved the problems, they suddenly all turned out to be saints and solved fewer problems on average. Lubricating the intricacies of the experiment, something caught my attention: there was no difference between believers and atheists, or between people who remembered all Ten Commandments or not a single one (the author confesses that no one was able to remember all ten). Nevertheless, the red line that marks the limits of honesty was conditioned all the same. Obviously, this is not exclusive to religion, but with any hypothetical oath to the constitution, for example, the limit that separates us from a dishonest act can become narrower. The moral might be summarized thus: the threshold of honesty depends on our thoughts and is easily manipulated by third parties.

I know we have already spoken about this, but I just can´t resist it. What do we think when the ones who do “a little cheating” are others? Things change a lot. Unconsciously, we justify evading taxes at the car repair shop (it is to be as expected as finding a poster of a nude woman), or we accept to include something questionable in our curriculum, but if a politician or a public servant evades taxes or falsifies some document he/she is corrupt and deserves to go to jail. The standard of honesty is different if we apply it to ourselves or to others.


Neurophysiology of honesty

We have talked a lot about the dishonest act, about neural and physiological aspects … But what happens when we are honest? Joint studies between the universities of Harvard and California over four years are categorical and enlightening: honesty reduces stress, slows cell aging, improves health, and makes us live longer. These effects are due to a hormone that inhabits honest organisms, oxytocin, responsible for promoting health, decreasing levels of cortisol and restoring blood pressure to its natural course.


Fear of honesty

Many people share the strange belief that if we show ourselves to others as we are, using honesty, something will go wrong. This idea is the father of cortisol and testosterone, and does not correspond to reality.

In US hospitals we find a good example of this. About two million people are facing serious health problems, and about 100,000 die of medical errors according to a report from the Institute of Medicine in the USA (1999). Usually this happens between endless working days, where professionals prescribe a medication erroneously (without taking into account allergies or contraindications between drugs) and make wrong diagnoses. According to Dr. Luis Rojas Marcos, who headed the New York health system from 1995 to 2002, when health professionals step down from the pedestal and honestly reveal what happened to patients, the people affected not only thank and accept their apologies but also take less legal action for their negligence. In short: we do not have solid arguments to fear honesty, just some or other unsubstantiated beliefs about it, and in effect there are many reasons to be honest.


Humanity tends towards honesty

To be honest we do not have to make an effort. When things get tough, or at least that is the conclusion of a good handful of scientific studies, human beings tend to be honest even in situations where we have something to lose. Despite the participants’ own economy or social reputation being at risk, many people opt for honesty as a way to deal with complicated situations in life. Our genetic programming prevails. The headline could be: humanity tends to be dishonest in “unimportant” things and to be honest in “important” ones.


The power of honesty

No belief, habit or neural network is stronger than honesty. There are no excuses. Being honest makes our organisms healthy, not by magic but by the art of science. With each experiment, with each line, we realize that our organism has an idea of ​​honesty which is very different from our own and reaching this point is priceless.

This text does not intend that anybody should get a new idea about honesty, rather that we understand how honesty sees our organism, learn its obsessions and how it works, so that we can live a life in harmony with it. For our organism, honesty does not have as much to do with telling the truth to others, rather it is a gesture of empathy with ourselves.



  • Greenwald, A.G., The totalitarian ego. American Psychology, 1980. 35: p. 603-618.
  • Rojas, L., Eres tu memoria: conócete a ti mismo. (You are your memory: know yourelf) 2012, Barcelona: Espasa.
  • Arkin, R.M. and G.M. Maruyama, Attribution, affect, and college exam performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 1979. 71: p. 85-93.
  • Rojas, L., La autoestima. Nuestra fuerza secreta. (Self esteem. Our secret strength) 2007, Madrid: Espasa.
  • Leary, M.R., et al., Self-presentation in everyday interactions: Effects of target familiarity and gender composition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1994. 67(4): p. 664-673.
  • Ariely, D., Our buggy moral code. 2009, TED 2009.
  • Ten Brinke, L., J.J. Lee, and D.R. Carney, The physiology of (dis)honesty: does it impact health? Current Opinion in Psychology, 2015. 6: p. 177-182.
  • Light, K.C., K.M. Grewen, and J.A. Amico, More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biol Psychol, 2005. 69: p. 5–21.
  • Zhu, L., et al., Damage to dorsolateral prefrontal cortex affects tradeoffs between honesty and self-interest. Nature Neuroscience 2014. 17: p. 1319–1321.



Add your comment


Get the app right now!