Summary: Study reveals cognitive control can drive cheaters to be honest, and honest people to cheat.
The ability of cognitive control allows humans to override the brain’s impulses, like focusing on one person in the crowd and ignoring distractions. It also plays a role in making moral decisions.
But does cognitive control override a moral impulse to be honest, or to be dishonest? It depends on a person’s moral default, according to new research published in Journal of Neuroscience.
Speer et al. used EEG to find the activity pattern of cognitive control and compare it to the brain activity of participants during a cheating task.
Participants played spot-the-difference and won a reward when they reported finding three differences. But only some pairs of images actually contained three differences, encouraging the participants to cheat.
The moral default of the participants varied: some people chose to cheat a few times, while others only told the truth a few times. As participants decided whether or not to cheat, the activity of theta brainwaves strengthened — an activity pattern representative of cognitive control.
Stronger theta activity meant participants were more likely to go against their moral default: cheaters were more likely to be honest, and honest people were more likely to cheat.
About this neuroscience research news
Author: Calli McMurray
Contact: Calli McMurray – SfN
Image: The image is credited to Speer et al., JNeurosci 2021
Orignal Research: Closed access.
“Cognitive control promotes either honesty or dishonesty, depending on one’s moral default” by Sebastian P.H. Speer, Ale Smidts and Maarten A.S. Boksem. Journal of Neuroscience
Cognitive control promotes either honesty or dishonesty, depending on one’s moral default
Cognitive control is crucially involved in making (dis)honest decisions. However, the precise nature of this role has been hotly debated. Is honesty an intuitive response or is willpower needed to override an intuitive inclination to cheat?
A reconciliation of these conflicting views proposes that cognitive control enables dishonest participants to be honest, whereas it allows cheating for those who are generally honest. Thus, cognitive control does not promote (dis)honesty per se; it depends on one’s moral default.
In the present study, we tested this proposal using EEG in humans (males & females) in combination with an external localizer task to mitigate the problem of reverse inference.
Our analysis revealed that the neural signature evoked by cognitive control demands in the Stroop task can be used to estimate (dis)honest choices in an independent cheating task, providing converging evidence that cognitive control can indeed help honest participants to cheat, whereas it facilitates honesty for cheaters.
Dishonesty causes enormous economic losses. To target dishonesty with interventions, a rigorous understanding of the underlying cognitive processes is required. Recently, a study found that cognitive control enables honest participants to cheat, whereas it helps cheaters to be honest.
However, it is evident that a single study does not suffice as support for a novel hypothesis. Therefore, we test the replicability of this finding using a different modality together with a localizer task to avoid reverse inference.
We find that the same neural signature evoked by cognitive control demands in the localizer task can be used to estimate (dis)honesty in an independent cheating task, establishing converging evidence that the effect of cognitive control indeed depends on a person’s moral default.