Cognitive control promotes either honesty or dishonesty, depending on one's moral default

Sebastian P. Speer*, Ale Smidts, Maarten A.S. Boksem

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
4 Downloads (Pure)

Abstract

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 will power 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 those who are generally honest to cheat. 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 electroencephalograms in humans (males and females) in combination with an independent localizer (Stroop 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. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Dishonesty causes enormous economic losses. To target dishonesty with interventions, a rigorous understanding of the underlying cognitive mechanisms is required. A recent 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 tested the replicability of this finding using a different modality (EEG instead of fMRI) together with an independent 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8815-8825
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Volume41
Issue number42
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 20 Oct 2021

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