Why Are We Honest? It Actually Feels Better

You might think that your ability to be cripplingly honest is because you are a good human being, a superior version of your dishonest peers.

But in fact, you’re actually giving yourself a lot of credit for an action that we inherently do for selfish reasons, according to scientists.

It is a question that has perplexed philosophers for generations, but a new study has revealed that the majority of people are honest simply because our brains find it more satisfying than being deceptive. 

The research from University College London found that the brain responds less to money gained from immoral actions than money earned decently.

Not only that but we are more likely to harm ourselves, than others, for gain.

Published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Dr Molly Crockett said: “When we make decisions, a network of brain regions calculates how valuable our options are. Ill-gotten gains evoke weaker responses in this network, which may explain why most people would rather not profit from harming others.”

The experiments involved 28 couples of volunteer participants being asked to give each other electric shocks, in exchange for money.

They could either inflict the pain on themselves or another volunteer, but it was all done anonymously.

“Our findings suggest the brain internalizes the moral judgments of others, simulating how much others might blame us for potential wrongdoing, even when we know our actions are anonymous,” said Dr Crockett. 

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The researchers noticed that as the participants were making their decisions, a region of the brain known as the striatum, was activated, the part that makes us want to do the right thing.

MRI imaging found that the brain networks were far more active when the participants gained money while inflicting pain on themselves, than on another, suggesting they found it instinctively more valuable.

Professor Ray Dolan said: “What we have shown here is how values that guide our decisions respond flexibly to moral consequences. An important goal for future research is understanding when and how this circuitry is disturbed in contexts such as antisocial behaviour.” 

So next time you’re being honest, remember you’ve got your brain to thank.

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