Lying is bad. That’s a lesson many were taught growing up: It’s mean. It breeds distrust. It makes the world an unknowable mess.
Everyone does it nonetheless, of course. But even when people lie with the best intentions, isn’t there something about it that still feels a little wrong?
According to two recent studies, in fact, yes—but not for any moral reasons. A team of researchers from universities in China and Canada monitored the brain activity of people lying and telling the truth, and found that telling the truth is just a lot easier on the brain.
"Making a false statement contradicting the true state of affairs ... requires more executive control and thus greater neural responses in the cortical regions associated with this function."
The researchers, led by Xiao Pan Ding at Zhejiang Normal University in China, asked participants to play deception-based games while hooked up to devices that measured the neurological effects of two different kinds of lying. One study looked at “first-order deception,” in which a person being lied to doesn't expect to be lied to, and the other study looked at “second-order deception,” in which a person being lied to is well-aware of the liar’s intent to deceive—as in poker, for example.
The brain-reading devices, which are part of a new neuroimaging method called near-infrared spectroscopy, revealed that in both cases participants got more satisfaction out of gaining advantages in the games by telling the truth as opposed to gaining advantages by lying.
Telling the truth, in other words, felt better, even when it was used as part of a grander strategy to mislead.
For anyone who has played a few good rounds of Mafia, these findings may not be too surprising. Lying, after all, is hard. The flip side of the researchers’ results showed that the neurological effort required to fabricate even tiny lies exceeds that of simply saying what is true. As they put it, “Making a false statement contradicting the true state of affairs ... requires more executive control and thus greater neural responses in the cortical regions associated with this function.”
The studies, which were published in the neuroscience journals Neuropsychologia and NeuroImage, are among the first to make a strong case neurologically that lying actually feels worse than telling it straight. While they can't promise you'll be a better person if you stop lying, they do suggest you might be a little happier.