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The Slippery Slope

by Phyllis Pollack

November 2016

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis  Pollack

At one point or another in our lives, most of us have told “little white lies” if only to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. In telling that “little white lie”, we tell ourselves it is harmless and it will lead to nothing, and definitely, will NOT lead us to tell “bigger white lies”.

However, as explained in a recent New York Times article (Why Big Liars Often Start Out as Small Ones  by Erica Goode, October 24, 2016 Science section), those “little white lies” may well desensitize our brains so that as time progresses, we have no compunction in telling bigger and even bigger lies.

This conclusion is based on a study by Dr. Tali Sharot, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

To reach this conclusion, Dr. Sharot and her fellow researchers devised a situation that offered the participants a chance to lie if they were so inclined. To study this, Dr. Sharot used a functional MRI scanner to monitor each participant’s brain activity in the amygdala which is associated with our emotions:

Participants in the study were asked to advise a partner in another room about how many pennies were in a jar. When the subjects believed that lying about the amount of money was to their benefit, they were more inclined to dishonesty and their lies escalated over time. As lying increased, the response in the amygdala decreased. And the size of the decline from one trial to another predicted how much bigger a subject’s next lie would be.

These findings suggested that the negative emotional signals initially associated with lying decrease as the brain becomes desensitized, Dr. Sharot said. (Id.)

Indeed, the brain scans showed that with the first lie, there was much activity in the amygdala but as the lies continued and progressed, this brain activity (i.e., our emotional response) lessened. (See –Lying Feels bad at first but our brains soon adapt to deceiving by Jessica Hamelin Daily News, October 24, 2016)

Dr. Sharot likened it to a person smelling a particular odor. At first, it may seem quite strong but as time goes by, we become desensitized to it so that after a while we do not even notice it anymore. (New York Times, supra.) Or, we view a gruesome image; initially, we are shocked but the more we view it, the shock wears off and we “get used” to it.

What has this to do with resolving disputes: honesty is the best policy. If we do not know the answer or cannot recall, say so; do not make up a “little white lie” or a “story” as this study shows, it may lead to making up even “bigger lies” and even “bigger stories” and in the end, our credibility (when we need it the most) will be lost.  Then, when we do tell the truth, no one will believe us because of all those “little white lies” that preceded our honesty!

…. Just something to think about.

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.


Additional articles by Phyllis Pollack
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