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Mar. 12 2009 - 6:53 pm | 50 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

The Neuroscience of Pathological Lying

Hero and the HeelWas the biggest difference between George “I Cannot Tell a Lie” Washington and Bernie “From Now on It Will Be Known as a Madoff Scheme” Madoff a difference in the ratios of white to gray matter in their brains?

Okay. Probably not. As I discussed in my post on The Future of Interrogation yesterday, deception’s a tricky thing to pin down in the brain.

But a person’s just got to wonder, looking over Madoff’s allocution today, whether this guy’s playing with a full deck of cards. As in: Mustn’t there be some difference in the brain of a psycho liar like Bernie Madoff, compared to the rest of us?

Well, there’s been at least some preliminary research on this question — if none yet has been conducted on Bernie himself (if he wants to volunteer to hop in an MRI, I’d volunteer to help find a scientific team [and some goons to hold him down and beat him with a frozen cod afterward]).

In 2005, the British Journal of Psychiatry published a study which found an increased amount of white matter, and a decreased amount of gray matter, in the brains of subjects they categorized as “pathological liars.”

Why is this potentially important? Because white matter (made up of the connections between cells) is instrumental in increased cognitive processing capacity. And it takes a lot of processing to lie. Just ask Bernie Madoff:

The essence of my scheme…

…my fraud began…

In fact, I never made the investments…

To conceal my fraud, I misrepresented…

I knowingly gave false testimony under oath…

To further cover-up the fact that I had not executed trades…

I knowingly caused false trading confirmations and client account statements that reflected the bogus transactions and positions to be created and sent to clients…

Another way that I concealed my fraud…

That was not true and I knew it when I completed and filed the form…

In more recent years, I used yet another method to conceal my fraud…

(We get it Bernie! You did a lot of lying!)

But, of course, it’s not just the paperwork and the oath-breaking and the bogus financial transactions that make lying take up a lot of cognitive bandwidth. There are internal processes, such as suppressing the truth; tracking your lies for consistency; justifying the lie to yourself, etc.

What the scientists theorized in the 2005 paper is that the increased white matter essentially provides pathological liars with the cognitive tools for their pathological lying. It’s an extremely preliminary hypothesis to explain their finding, but it does track with certain facts: such as that children gain the capacity to lie well around the age of 10, when they’re gaining a lot of white matter; and that autistic children are less capable of lying and also have less white matter than normal children.

As always, it’s worth noting the complications and limitations to this study. (In other words: Don’t get ready to start ordering brain scans for your potential employees, spouses, friends, etc.)

First off, as Sean Spence points out in a commentary printed along with the study, it’s not possible to separate out cause from effect here; the increased white matter could predispose someone to pathological lying, or it could be the result of pathological lying. Secondly, there’s the question of just how good these pathological liars could be if they signed up for a study and were flagged as such by researchers (these are not exactly master criminals).

And, lastly, there’s the socioeconomic status of the subjects, 108 volunteers pulled from temporary employment agencies in Los Angeles. As Spence puts it, “We might contrast them with those successful social predators who lie and cheat and yet retain enormous influence in the world.”

Sounds like maybe we will have to strap Bernie in a scanner, after all.

Creative Commons License photo credit: philectric


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  1. collapse expand

    This general topic is very interesting for a lot of reasons. One thing I wish was that the public had just a slightly better understanding of science, particularly biology, so that these discussions would happen more in the mainstream media.

  2. collapse expand

    Thanks for the comment, Mark. As I mentioned in my intro post, my hope for this blog is to help push these sorts of topics at least a little closer to the mainstream. There’s a lot of good popular science blogging going on these days, which I draw from extensively. But it’s probably got to get one or two steps more user friendly to reach the mass audience.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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