back to article The truth is, honest people need willpower to cheat, while cheaters need it to be honest

In a world mired in misinformation and populated by politicians who don't seem to care if they are caught lying, researchers have shed light on the brain activity underlying deception. It all depends on what kind of person is doing the cheating. New research from the Rotterdam School of Management claims to show that the …

  1. Christopher Reeve's Horse Silver badge

    If it were possible to trust certain politicians even less...

    then this kind of analysis shows it can always be worse than you think.

    I'm sure everyone can think of a few example politicians who frequently 'strain plausibility'. I honestly believe that some of them have so little cognitive control that they don't have any realistic chance of stating truths or facts.

    1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Re: If it were possible to trust certain politicians even less...

      Look on the positive side - now we have a test to find these liars and make sure they never get anywhere near positions of power. I don't know what we do with them, though - maybe - - - - > *

      * From orbit, of course.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Lying vs projection

    "so the researchers knew when the subjects were lying"

    Lying or mistaken, add the reward and they're skipping double checking, and claiming tiny imperfections in prints as differences. Are those fibres on the paper causing that defect or is it a difference?

    You cited Trump, but he doesn't lie so much as projects truths onto others.

    So, "Democrats will use Corona Virus to undermine the election" is really him telling you he's going to use coronavirus to undermine the election. I call them his boner statements, because he gets off telling you what evil plan they've discussed, and Melania gets bothered that night. His kids seem to handle the bare faced lies with drugs, all dilated pupils and squinting in the light, as they spew their lies. Does the coke affect the brain as they lie?


    Trump intends to send armed officers to 'guard' polling stations, after Chad Wolf said he wasn't legally allowed to:

    So you understand from Trump's projection, what is going to happen. Trump will give the order. Republicans will close polling stations in Democrat areas, people will protest, they will be shot, Trump will pardon the killers.

    Go ask Trump, "if the polling stations are crowded will you order the voting station closed". Go ask Desantis the same question. Or any of the Republicans that worked so hard to spread the virus. Ask them. You don't need to put a cap on them and measure their brain activity, Trump will flat out tell you the plan, the Governors will point to proxies for the same decisions, e.g. "if the State health secretary says so" i.e. citing authority of a person under them, who doesn't actually have that authority. You might recall Pompeo did this, citing Bill Barr's non-existent right to delay an election.

    Don't be afraid to ask now while you still can.

    1. I like fruits

      Re: Lying vs projection

      > Trump will give the order. Republicans will close polling stations in Democrat areas, people will protest, they will be shot, Trump will pardon the killers.

      I would not be so sure about the pardon. A murder trial may take more than a couple months and nobody in their right mind will put their life on Trump getting elected this year and actually on Trump himself especially once he does not care on being reelected anymore (in either case whether he is elected or not). Even rabid Trump loyalists smartened up lately planning for the life after Trump. Plus, the killers will be not rich people and their life will be destroyed even in the case of the pardon.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @couple of months

        "and nobody in their right mind will put their life on Trump getting elected this year and actually on Trump himself especially once he does not care on being reelected anymore (in either case whether he is elected or not). Even rabid Trump loyalists smartened up lately planning for the life after Trump"

        Dictator's are on a treadmill, they cannot lose power because they'd be prosecuted for their crimes. So them and their group need to always keep power no matter what. I think your "does not care" comment, fails to understand the nature of a dictatorship.

        There's always a Desantis or a Kemp or a Barr or Dejoy to enable a dictator.

        There's always a Murdoch, a Fox News, or a One America/Sputnik to propagandize.

        But Trump is locked into this strategy, and Bill Barr is partly locked in, but not the Republican Governors. Their gain is abstract at best. Why should they do this for Trump?

        Chad Wolf is distancing himself, he realizes, the job isn't worth the risk of long term prison. Why break the law for this man on promise of a pardon he might never be able to deliver! Why not just *not* break the law, then you don't need the pardon and aren't dependent on the whim of Trump!

        The trick is to predict those deaths, preemptively label those deaths with "Desantis killed this man", or "Kemp chose to kill this man". Use emotive words like "murder". Give those people pause for thought, pop that little Fox New lie bubble they live in. They can continue down this path, and confirm their planning and the premeditated nature of those murders. Or they can change direction.

        Without enablers, this game fails.

        They can just run the election, in proper and timely fashion, and face no consequences and no risks.

        They can do the lockdown and end the virus in a rapid fashion and this disease ends.

        Their choice.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "There are immense economic costs caused by dishonest behaviour, such as tax evasion, music piracy or business scandals, "

    This moron classifies *piracy* to the same class as tax evasion? WTF?

    Piracy *increases* sales (actual research data, not RIAA/MPAA bullshit) and therefore is not a loss at all. While tax evasion losses for tax payers are in billions yearly.

    1. tiggity Silver badge

      Beat me to it - a bad example

      Also lots of honest people will be against tax evasion, but less so about music "piracy" - given the frequently obscene prices charged for music then, unless you have lots of free cash, try before you buy makes sense - be it "piracy", listening on youtube or whatever

      1. Andy Non Silver badge

        Going back a few years, It was "piracy" that introduced me to some bands that led to me buying their music CDs. Same with the original DOS based Doom games, went on to buy the later versions.

        1. JCitizen Bronze badge

          Funny thing about piracy; I had more than one friend tell me that when they went to a legitimate store and bought movies or music from them, the DRM or Digital Rights Management failed, and they weren't allowed to play the premium content on their machines!!!

          Now that would make me VERY angry, even though I stopped buying either movies or music years ago, and I don't "steal" either one either. However, they solved the "problem" by using illegal copies of each disc or USB thumb drive file along with the legal content they had bought. That way they were covered if anyone wanted to make an argument. So I don't feel sorry for the MPAA, because they have only damaged the industry with their idiot DRM policies, and they only have themselves to blame for a decrease in sales.

    2. codejunky Silver badge

      Moral flexibility

      Moral flexibility explains why one form of cheating is ok but another is not. In absolute terms they are both cheating, in relative terms they are both different, in reality they are part of the balance.

      Tax evasion can be seen as a bad thing (for good reason) yet because people can do so it incentives governments not to rob all of us blind (because those who can move it will and the gov loses). Compare that with the well established morality of music piracy.

    3. heyrick Silver badge


      There's also a big difference between tax evasion, and a music industry that would like to sell you multiple copies of the same thing. Who is really dishonest there? It's shades of grey.

      Besides, ripping songs off YouTube (that somebody else uploaded) has helped introduce me to groups I've not heard before, some of who can count me amongst their CD sales.

    4. Hollerithevo Silver badge

      Piracy is called that for a reason

      Maybe piracy increases sales, maybe we are all shocked at the evil music industry, but piracy is taking something for free, i.e. stealing. Justify it all you want, but once you get comfy with the justification, have you trained your brain to be in cheater mode from now on?

      1. Remy Redert

        Re: Piracy is called that for a reason

        Theft is taking with the intention of depriving the owner of the thing stolen. Software or music piracy does not remove the thing copied from the owner's possession. More to the point, a lot of forms of software piracy or music piracy in the US don't (and shouldn't) count as piracy elsewhere, such as ripping CDs to MP3 (for personal use) or downloading videos/songs from YouTube (again, for personal use).

        1. Louis Schreurs Bronze badge

          Re: Piracy is called that for a reason

          Giving a definition of theft. U R. All definitions are subject to change. All definitions are subject to subjective evaluation. Your statments are subject to subjective evaluation. Also in theft there has no intention to be present. And you should realise that you are reasoning from your U$ perspective. Keep in mind that the U$A is regarded as thinking they have the moral right to project their flawed laws onto the world. Youtube has a U$ kind of view on stealing, theft, piracy, copyright. They use a lot of laywery to keep them not responsible for the bad things their uploaders do. Keep in mind that the U$A is built on the premiss that if you don't get caught, there was no crime. Go live with that.

          For me the U$A is still in the barbaric phase of civilisation. Though not by carrying wooden clubs but more like an ever evolving Wild West show with the right to have a gun.

          1. cornetman Silver badge

            Re: Piracy is called that for a reason

            > All definitions are subject to change.

            Except in this case, the crime of theft is well defined in law.

            IANAL, but IIRC (and I may well be incorrect here), in the UK theft is the crime of permanently depriving someone of the the use of their property.

            Definitions do matter and if we were all being honest we would admit that there is a very great difference between duplication of media in the home and the permanent removal of someone else's property from their possession.

            1. Louis Schreurs Bronze badge

              Re: Piracy is called that for a reason

              There will come a time that the law gets changed or gotten rid of. Definitions will not stand with time.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Theft is taking with the intention of depriving the owner of the thing stolen

          I think this "intention of depriving" is bollocks, when I steal a material object, my intention is not to DEPRIVE the owner of this object, my intention is to HAVE this object, whether the owner lets me or not. His "deprivation" is the result of my action, but it was not the intent behind the theft. In a sense, piracy is like stealing, because in both cases, the thief / pirate takes something - whether the owner likes it or not. And, if I remember correctly, ownership rights extend to derivatives of the original object (or idea, hence patents), and the fact that it costs next to nothing to produce the "offspring" is irrelevant.

          So, I would argue, that theft is taking with intention to have something without owner's consent. Now, whether "taking" is different to "copying"... ;)

          1. cornetman Silver badge

            Re: Theft is taking with the intention of depriving the owner of the thing stolen

            That's complete rubbish. The problem that the law seeks to address is the loss of the use of the item. If one could pick things up out of thin air and there was no loss, then their would be no need for the law.

            You are conflating action and consequence. The law mostly tries to deal with consequence. Action of itself, in isolation, the law should have no opinion about, which is why in a free society there is the strong moral sense that what is done in the privacy our own homes or with other consenting adults is completely our own affair.

            Copyright comes up against that instinct, as does anything related to blasphemy, unusual sexual practices and the like. As a society, we are (generally) moving to towards the realisation of that reality and is (I believe) why copyright is increasingly seeming to be anachronistic, regardless of whatever we could agree about the utility of copyright.

            1. 96percentchimp

              Re: Theft is taking with the intention of depriving the owner of the thing stolen

              Copyright may be anachronistic to you, but it's an essential part of their income security to millions of artists, writers, designers, musicians and other creatives around the world.

              And TBH I don't remember music ever being terribly expensive back in the days of physical media when you could always buy a bunch of CDs for £10 or £20 in HMV etc. These days the physical cost of music is virtually zero with ad-supported versions of Spotify et al. Streaming video services are hardly extortionate vs the glory days of pay-TV in the 2000s. AAA games are about the only mass media format that can maintain a premium pricetag in 2020.

              And of course there are caveats: algorithms favour the biggest artists, musicians are paid peanuts for the streams, etc - but on behalf of creatives everywhere, I call bullshit on your argument.

          2. heyrick Silver badge

            Re: Theft is taking with the intention of depriving the owner of the thing stolen

            Your intention may well not have been to deprive the owner of his or her property, but the thing is that the law attempts to provide remedies for harm. Your taking something did not directly cause harm, the subsequent absence of their belongings did. Since the law will look at it from their point of view (deprived of thingamabob), that's how it's going to be approached.

            1. TomG

              Re: Theft is taking with the intention of depriving the owner of the thing stolen

              The musician composes songs to sell to the public for compensation. This is the musicians income. By copying without paying you are depriving the musician of income thereby causing the musician harm.

              1. hayzoos

                Re: Theft is taking with the intention of depriving the owner of the thing stolen

                @TomG have an upvote. Simple to the point and you immediately got downvoted.

                I shall put your words another way hopefully to drive the point home. Through copying, a musician is essentially working without pay. Why bother making music then. If what an individual does well is make music, then why not pay them to do so by buying a copy of their work?

                Like most humans, I like to live. I do something which pays me. I use that pay to buy food to help me live. If I need to buy food, and I need pay to buy it, then I will not do something which does not pay.

                I get the harshness against the excessivley greedy RIAA, MPAA, and their ilk. Depriving the creatives of a living is not the way to fight that greed.

              2. aks Bronze badge

                Re: Theft is taking with the intention of depriving the owner of the thing stolen

                It is rarely the musician or other creative person who benefits, but the organisation behind the product.

                Few composers or performers retain the copyright to their work.

  4. Fr. Ted Crilly


    You reach down and you flip the tortoise over on its back, Leon.

    Leon : Do you make up these questions, Mr. Holden? Or do they write 'em down for you?

    Holden : The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping.

    Leon : What do you mean, I'm not helping?

    Holden : I mean: you're not helping! Why is that, Leon?

    Holden : They're just questions, Leon. In answer to your query, they're written down for me. It's a test, designed to provoke an emotional response... Shall we continue?

  5. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "moral default"

    Does this mean that they have developed an MRI-defined method of determining if someone is basically honest, or basically a cheater ?

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: "moral default"

      re: MRI-based lie detector

      Perhaps. Perhaps...

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: "moral default"

        Take it to its illogical conclusion. Get a bunch of people into the MRI, show them some photos of primary school children flashing the camera.

        Right... You you and you, prison, now.

  6. gfgkemp1

    and the Ig Nobel Prize goes to.....

    1. Hollerithevo Silver badge

      On the contrary

      It is useful to try to see if there are different 'brains'. I have argued against piracy and cheating and the people I have talked to never seen to get my point of view, but perhaps they have 'cheater' brains (or that I am a bad explainer). They have been frustrated when it would have been easy for me to steal or lie and I didn't. If we know there are two types of brain, and thus two world-views, we can, say, run a project differently.

      (BTW, I am no saint, but I know I have been wired, by good parents, to tend to the 'non-cheater' type.)

    2. dvhamme

      Absolutely not! Investigating relations between biological differences and behavioral differences is hugely relevant, and this study may not be the best executed and the authors got carried away a bit with the morality of it all, but it is not a futile study.

  7. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Can we make it compulsory to use it to screen candidates for public office?

    1. Louis Schreurs Bronze badge

      all in pro to the proposal, but when the test is known, the cheaters will be cheating and there will be no trustworthy results.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Obligatory link: Studies of brain activity aren't as useful as scientists thought

    "Hundreds of published studies over the last decade have claimed it's possible to predict an individual's patterns of thoughts and feelings by scanning their brain in an MRI machine as they perform some mental tasks.

    But a new analysis by some of the researchers who have done the most work in this area finds that those measurements are highly suspect when it comes to drawing conclusions about any individual person's brain."

  9. Draco

    I don't think they were measuring "honesty"

    The paper's title is "Cognitive control increases honesty in cheaters but cheating in those who are honest" - which is a long-about-way of saying "it takes more effort to act out-of-character than to act-in-character".

    As others have mentioned: it does not control for those who are mistaken in believing they have spotted 3 differences - it considers them to be lying.

    Given the parameters of the test:

    1) the subjects are assured that each pair of images has exactly 3 differences

    2) the faster the 3 differences are spotted, the more reward they receive

    3) the subjects are not required, in any way, to identify the 3 differences

    This is an opportunity optimization problem and measures the willingness of a subject to maximize an opportunity for which there is no negative consequence - aside from the "violation" of "moral" standards. Had the subjects been told that for every incorrectly identified difference a kitten would be drowned, I think the results would have been different.

    As the authors write in the paper: Imagine a friend sends you a link to a website where you can illegally stream recently released movies for free. Would you decide to stream the movie which you otherwise would have paid for? If so, how many movies would you stream? On a daily basis we are faced with the conflict between the temptation to violate moral standards to serve our self-interest and to uphold these moral standards. (Without trying to open a can of worms - oops! too late!)

    In those 4 sentences they conflate "illegal" with "violate moral standards" - I am certain that any casual student of history should be able to come up with examples where "legal and moral" or "illegal and immoral" are not synonymous. Would an ancestor - 500 years ago - sitting outside a music hall, listening to the music they had not paid for, consider themselves to be acting immorally?

    1. tiggity Silver badge

      Re: I don't think they were measuring "honesty"

      "Imagine a friend sends you a link to a website where you can illegally stream recently released movies for free. Would you decide to stream the movie which you otherwise would have paid for? "

      A fine example of flawed assumptions. I watch movies on free to air TV or on an online subscription streaming service (only use 1 service, dislike fragmentation of the market (that encourages piracy), not going to subscribe to multiple services to cover all films I might want to see as too expensive, so just make do with 1 service ), years since I went to cinema / purchased blu-ray or DVD.

      If something was not available via those would typically not see it, so the whole "which you otherwise would have paid for? " thing is a fallacy as it would be a straight question of would you like to see if you like this movie by watching it illegally?

      1. TomG

        Re: I don't think they were measuring "honesty"

        Actually, the "free to air TV" movies are not free. On a commercial broadcast it is paid for by the advertisers. On non-commercial broadcasts it is paid for by the providing entity.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: I don't think they were measuring "honesty"

          "free" at the point of use/consumption.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Would an ancestor - 500 years ago

      500 years ago they would have got a solid kick to their side, or a pot full of piss over their head, to teach them, how is that relevant?

    3. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: I don't think they were measuring "honesty"

      "Would you decide to stream the movie which you otherwise would have paid for?"

      Fail (see icon).

      Not everybody who downloads a pirate movie is going to want to buy it, either on some sort of spinny disc or a seat in a cinema. This idea that there's a direct correlation between one pirated film equaling one lost sale is the sort of sorry rubbish that the likes of the MPAA come up with. I think you'll probably find that for quite a number of people, reality is a choice between "watch this movie because it's there" and "don't bother/not important".

  10. Martin Summers

    "There are immense economic costs caused by dishonest behaviour, such as tax evasion, music piracy or business scandals, so finding effective ways to reduce dishonest behaviour are of great relevance to policy makers."

    So how will this realistically manifest itself? 'Oh its just a routine brain scan sir to see if you're telling us the truth' in any financial transactions or interaction with the law? This would be the very edge of my comfort levels. Perversely for those that find it hard to make themselves believed, then this kind of test could actually be a relief. I highly doubt it could be accurate enough to never be gamed or to give high levels of assurance. It would end up like current lie detector tests that cannot be relied on. If they can assure no less than 100% (peer reviewed and lots of testing) on accuracy then I might be open to police using the tech on potential criminals. Never going to happen though.

    1. batfink Silver badge

      It gets even more complicated. What if you had some kind of mental aberration that made you genuinely believe that you deserved <reward> by any means possible, or held a genuine belief in something false? Sticking such a person into a scanner wouldn't show up that they're being dishonest.

      Of course, none of us would be able to easily think of examples of such people.

      1. Hollerithevo Silver badge

        Going further...

        How does it detect a sociopath?

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: Going further...

          How does it detect a sociopath?

          From the sound of gunshots. Or the presence of the operator inside the MRI scanner, along with a bag of assorted nails. But this is also an example of Roko's Basilisk, where knowledge of an outcome increases it's probability. Or the cheater may just claim to be extremely claustrophobic and refuse to stick their head in the scanner.

  11. Nunyabiznes Silver badge


    In other news: Locks - keeping honest people honest for the last 5000 years.

  12. Mike 137 Silver badge

    "people who are usually honest and those who are less so"

    What a sloppy subjective criterion, based on just over 100 trials of a single artificial task that had no emotional significance to the 40 subjects and offered an incentive of just ten Euros. In the real world, people typically cheat in proportion to the potential gain, and very few would cheat for ten Euros but many probably would for a million (or to save their jobs or reputations). But the key reality is that nobody is "usually honest" and very few are "usually dishonest" - for each individual it varies according to circumstances. So even disregarding the tiny sample size, the "usually" is highly suspect.

    However the biggest problem here, as with the majority of psychological research down the decades, has been the assumption that the experimental sample is representative of the human species (falling for the fallacious law of small numbers).

    Quite apart from which, MRI scans are well known to be very prone to misinterpretation.

  13. Robert Grant Silver badge

    Yay, finally some more highly subjective categorising of types of people! I only have the four temperaments, the star signs, Meyers-Briggs, and their immutable attributes to decide how I think they're like. This will fit in nicely.

  14. HildyJ Silver badge

    Captain Obvious

    Does anyone not think that cheaters have to try in order to be honest and vice versa?

    This sounds like a candidate for the Ignobel Awards. Another example of grant money gone wrong.

  15. Aussie Doc Bronze badge

    Yeah, sure.

    Those damn musical pirates causing all them problems, aaarrr!

  16. Dinsdale247

    Only 2000 years later

    science if finally catching up to those pesky Christians. For more information please refer to the old testament, the new testament, anything written by St. Paul or Thomas Aquanus.


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