Daily Archives: January 16, 2010

The Brain of a Scam Artist

Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practice to deceive.
Walter Scott

Scott’s famous quote seems to be prophetic on many counts. The whole tangled web thing reminds us of the tangle of neurons that make up our brain and practice, or at least foreknowledge, seems to be common among scammers and other liars. A recent study from the University of Zürich in Switzerland seems to underline this.

Are scam artist different from honest people? Do their brains function differently? Is there any signature left behind that would forewarn us that the scammer was less than truthful?

The Zurich study was conducted by Thomas Baumgartner and his colleagues and employed Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)  to evaluate brain activity during deception. The research was folded into a game in which an investor was given real money and told to choose a trustee to invest the money with. They were told that giving the money to the trustee would increase their money but they courted the risk that the trustee was not obligated to share these winnings. The investor had to extract a promise from the trustee that he would indeed share the wealth. The other caveat here was that the trustee was not bound by his promise.

Virtually all of the trustees did indeed promise to share their winnings with the investor. Many of them followed through on their promises while others did not. Functional MRIs obtained during the promising episode revealed interesting results. In those who intended to break the promise certain areas of the brain showed increased activity. These were part of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala system, both of which are involved with our emotions. This seems to reflect at least some degree of emotional conflict within those that lied. Those who followed through and kept their promise showed no increased activity in these areas.

Functional MRI showing increased activity in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala

The entire field of brain scanning to determine whether someone is telling the truth or lying is a rapidly growing field. Since the standard polygraph, or lie detector, is fraught with problems and for this reason is not admissible in court, there has always been a search for a better method of determining if someone is lying or not. The area of brain scanning, whether a functional MRI, CT scanning, or functional PET scanning, has been the subject of research and controversy. It will be interesting to see as the years go by if any of these prove to be useful and reliable.


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