by Mane Kara-Yakoubian
 January 29, 2023

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Does cognitive control enable honest or dishonest acts? A recent paper published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences argues that honesty and dishonesty are dependent on individual differences in the moral default, and that cognitive control serves to override this default.

The “Will” hypothesis posits that willpower is necessary to curb the human inclination for acts of dishonesty. The motivation for reward must be inhibited to allow for honest conduct. Consider that greedy – as opposed to non-greedy – people are more likely to engage in moral transgressions (e.g., cheating).

Neuroimaging research reveals that activity in the cognitive control network is associated with overriding transgressive impulses, and interrupting this cognitive capacity enables dishonesty. On the other hand, the “Grace” hypothesis proposes moral sentiments such as honesty are innate and that people are motivated to maintain a moral self-image.

Empirical studies show that honesty, cooperativeness, and prosociality come more easily under time constraint. Further, neuroimaging studies reveal that deception requires more cognitive effort than honesty, as evidenced by the stronger activation of the cognitive control network. Together, these findings suggest that overriding the graceful moral default requires cognitive control.

In this work, Sebastian P.H. Speer and colleagues reconcile these seemingly opposing hypotheses. They highlight literature pointing toward individual differences in unethical behaviors and attitudes toward (dis)honesty. These findings extend to neuroimaging studies which show differences in the neural patterns of cheaters and honest individuals. Certain patterns of brain connectivity and activation predispose individuals to be more honest or dishonest in character, which the authors have termed the “moral default.”

What does that mean for the “Will” and “Grace” hypotheses? The researchers argue that individuals who are predisposed to cheat – as in, their moral default is one that leans toward dishonesty – require cognitive control to override this default in order to stay honest (i.e., Will hypothesis). Conversely, those with a moral default of honesty need cognitive control to occasionally indulge in cheating (i.e., Grace hypothesis).

Cognitive control becomes a tool then in striking a balance between maintaining a moral self-image and securing rewards by cheating. The authors write, “Indeed, it has been suggested that this conflict is often settled with a compromise in which people behave dishonestly enough to profit from the opportunity to cheat but honestly enough to maintain a positive self-image.”

What are remaining questions? The researchers wonder to what extent one’s moral default can be explained by nature versus nurture? Is the moral default stable across the lifespan? Would changes in the brain be reflected as changes in the moral default? In what ways do different mental states (e.g., anxiety, fatigue) affect cognitive control, and thus, (dis)honesty? These are potential avenues for researchers to pursue in the future.

The review, “Cognitive control and dishonesty”, was authored by Sebastian P.H. Speer, Ale Smidts, and Maarten A.S. Boksem.