What more work needs to be done to be honest or dishonest? – 30.11.2020 – Suzana Herculano-Houzel

For the philosophers on duty, this is: What is human nature? Are we selfish and dishonest by nature, always ready to take advantage of cheating, and honest only at the expense of cognitive efforts? Or are we naturally good and honest people who have to make cognitive efforts to ignore the calling to be “Caxias” and occasionally take advantage of a situation?

According to a Dutch study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in the United States, both hypotheses are correct: there are quite a number of individuals in the human species that span a spectrum that extends from the extremely honest people, without doing so, the other extreme forces those who struggle to miss opportunities to take advantage.

Interested in studying how the conflict between the temptation of an external reward obtained at the expense of cheating and satisfaction with self-image manifests itself in the brain, the researchers developed a task that allowed the volunteers to self-evolve choose to be dishonest within the scanner “without the researchers knowing”. Apparently, from outside the scanner, the researchers knew exactly when the fraud occurred.

Result: As expected, the more the brain’s reward system anticipates profits, the more common the cheating. At the same time, the more active a second system of structures in the cerebral cortex that enables self-referential thinking, even if cheating is easy, the more honest the volunteer is.

To be honest in situations where it is possible to cheat in order to gain advantage, two systems in the brain must compete with each other. Cheating is driven by greed, which depends on the activity of the reward system in the face of temptation. Honesty is a matter of self-reference.

Where does cognitive control, that prefrontal effort of self-control that makes behavior flexible, come in history? What comes with greater prefrontal activity is not being honest or dishonest, but contradicting the trend itself. Honest people focus on maintaining their self-love and self-image and need to use cognitive control to cheat. Scammers are very sensitive to the opportunity to take advantage and need to use cognitive control to stay in line.

The icing on the cake is that the individual pattern of brain activity predicts with more than 70% accuracy how honestly or dishonest each person will be revealed. Ah, how nice it would be to have the results of these neuroimaging tests on the politicians’ file before each election …

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